by Kavya Murthy
6.22 pm was the lunar eclipse, they said -- so a few friends and I went to Lalbagh Rock. People were eating kadlekai, puffed rice, cucumber (and the pineapple was over by the time I reached). I was glowing in the light of the fading sunset that framed the Kempegowda watchtower and joined the masses of people who had gathered to see the lunar eclipse.
I’d gotten late setting out but was surprised to see absolutely empty streets. The auto driver told me he had had no business all day because of the grahana; people were busy avoiding the moon, staying indoors, having baths and cleansing themselves.
It had been an unexpected day so far. I had woken up at 5.40 am and danced my way through the morning’s sunrise with a friend. I was quite chuffed to have had a good look at the sky right in the morning. There is something tingly and satisfying about the quality of the Bangalore sky in January solstice mornings and evenings.
On the Lalbagh rock, we were surrounded by lots of thathas in mufflers and ajjis in sweater blouses, and fortunately, all the hipsters had gone elsewhere. By 6.30 pm we were all a bit restive: we were standing and looking at the sky in an alarmed state of uncertainty. Would this blue moon plus super moon plus lunar eclipse that would not happen for another 150 years actually happen? The chitter chatter had a note of anxiety -- the sun has set, the sky is pink, where is this elusive moon that I am ready to write poetry to and photograph with my DSLR and look at with my Decathlon binoculars? Nowhere. What if India’s astrophysicists have it wrong? In Bangalore, even the moon cannot get anywhere on time.
Courtesy: Paromita Dhar
A cheer went up all of a sudden as we milled about. Panicking that we’d missed something, we looked around frantically: all we were clapping at was a happy white-haired lady who had scampered up the frangipani tree to get a good front row lunar eclipse seat.
Amateur astrophysicist volunteers wandered around encouraging us to feast as we waited, trying to insert good scientific temper into the crowd. Bangalore seldom has days of public gathering on the best rock of the city after sundown, and there was a note of relish in just being here, knowing quite well that on Double Road just a 750-metre distance from us was probably the most hateful sort of lunacy that has nothing to do with the moon. Everybody was on alert. If one person walked pointedly to another spot on the rock, two-three hushed whispers later two-three people would follow to see what it was.
We walked 20 metres left for some corn, and then we saw her: a red, dusty moon, framed picture-perfectly against the horizon of dried frangipanis with the first notes of the hours’ azaan as accompaniment. Our jolly little crowd of expectants were reassured that the moon would show up for sure, and excited speculations were whispered through the crowd.
Nothing compares to witnessing an event of this scientific and superstitious proportion in a large crowd. You cannot contain this experience in the privacy of your own profundity or silence; it is inflected by all manner of human blathering, your own included. When the dusty moon marks its moment and finally comes into full sight just over that eucalyptus tree that had been blocking your view, you know you have permission to sit down and enjoy the show. The crowd of human chit chat settles down. Suddenly we witness the pervasive phenomena of everybody holding up their smartphones to take photographs of the eclipse, as though this is a ritual.
Suddenly, someone amidst us produces a pair of binoculars. The eclipse has not reached its peak, but when we all get a chance to look at the faraway orb in its copper-lit grandeur, there is a hush. This prelude to the eclipse, really seeing what that body of reflected light is, produces a keener appreciation and curiosity for what is to follow.
The moment isn’t here yet and there is more space for timepass. We have discussed eclipses now a hundred times: penumbras, umbras, blue moons and supermoons, reiterating that helpful pamphlet the astrophysicists handed out, reassuring ourselves that the moon will be even more worth looking at in a few minutes longer. We are laughing at each other and eavesdropping on other conversations. People have started using flash photography, desperate to send a WhatsApp photo to their favourite WhatsApp groups, and we have taken it upon ourselves to go scold them and tell them to maintain the sanctity of the moment. A chaiwallah arrives, and with perfect working-class indifference and busy doing his job, refuses to look at the moon and scoffs at our continued fixation for it.
When the binocular comes back into my hand like a kindly joint, the shadow of us on the moon is more visible and pronounced, and a small ring of light is framing the moon in full 3D effect. We pass the binoculars around with awe. Nobody has told us that lunar eclipses can be this beautiful. Somehow, none of us had a predetermined image of a lunar eclipse like we do of the solar eclipse, and one of us exclaims, “Nobody said how beautiful this would be, ya, wowwww….”
Our responses are a garble and like good 21st century children of technology, we say lots of rubbish: 1) “From the binoculars, it looks like a magazine front cover image ya!” 2) “Wow, that moon is totally like lit up by studio lights, it looks fake!!” 3) “Man, it looks like a space movie!” The moon is compared with a Ping-Pong ball (most obviously), crystal glass ball (duh), Arun (or Vadilal) vanilla ice-cream that used to come in a white ball (“now I feel like eating it”), and even just a bulb. This has a quality of unreality, not quite fitting into poetry or film, needing to be reduced to comprehensible parameters. But I like to believe that as shadow and brightness, sun and moon, light and dark began their play, we were moved into obeisant silence within ourselves, even if only for a brief moment.
A photographer crew for an unknown TV channel was busy rushing through the crowd with heavy LED lights, and a man drove up the hill on his scooter with his headlights flashing. The sacred is a crowded and cacophonic affair.
The binoculars pass around and we huddle and cuddle together with goose bumps in our collective camaraderie with our clichéd exclamations. We're going crazy as we realise we're watching the waxing moon in fast forward. Each frame by frame by frame produces the apposite “oooh” and “aaaah” and “OMG” (Lolz).
Around us, people are attempting all manner of gymnastics, trying to take a selfie of themselves against the lunar eclipse with a smartphone. One boy is apparently merely shadow acting the act of taking a selfie (after his brother grabbed his phone away). A woman with a confident iPhone thinks her camera is that good and announces, “So shall we try take a selfie yaa?” We giggle and cackle like teenagers who think we're too cool for these things. Clumps of people pose in the way that people do with postcard sunset spots that come recommended on TripAdvisor: cradling the moon in your palm and so on. It's hilarious, but real. This is not the moment for contempt or a sociological study of humanity.
Soon, after the frame by frame by frame has reached its limit, all we have is the super moon (what’s a mere super moon after that lunar eclipse, eh?) When it is time to leave, the Lalbagh guards come whistling at us on cue. The hillock has emptied, and the expansive sky above us feels more expansive. “Wait sir! two three minutes more!” we beg. We want to drink in our fill, and the guard somehow respects it after asking us, “Nodboda medem, enu aagodilva?” Assuring him that his eyes are safe and letting him mutter about the devaan-devathes and so on, we stare. Once it’s over, we howl like a pack of wolves as is our duty (and I’m not lying, you can ask my friends), and we clap at the moon in standing ovation. Good show!
What a once in a lifetime experience it is, to have been surrounded by the delightful mundanity of human beings and witness the most democratic moment of the sublime. It's enough to go to bed with a smile (but after a drink of course).
Views expressed are the author's own.