Star gazing

Useless chronology

I was ten years old when my eldest sister got married. The wedding events went on for five days. My father insisted that I should not miss an event, enjoy every bit of it. He encouraged me to ask questions because I always had many. It was a different matter that I could hardly find him free to give answers to my questions, definitely not during my sister’s wedding. He was everywhere, yet no where. Always running around.

Work-life balance, my father’s way

Even on normal days, my father used to work over-time as it was difficult to take care of the family of seven including five children. He used to work in shifts (8To14 and 14To22 as he used to refer the shifts with his colleagues, denoting hours), and a day off on any week day by rotation. So, we always had his time, when he has it for us. That was how he used to balance family with work. I had no complaints, though.

Hot summers in coastal South India

Being a Government Servant, my father used to get transferred every now and then and we used to move around places say, every three or four years. It so happened that I spent all my childhood in humid coastal towns of South India.

Fan Vs Air Conditioner

We used to have at least one ceiling fan and one table fan at home as far as I can remember. Even cinema theaters used to have only fans in those days. Later on came some ‘Air-conditioned’ theaters. As the time passed, those without Air conditioner were only the exceptions.

My first Air Conditioner was bought when both my children were going to high school. Looking at the chronology, one would possibly think how difficult our times were back then. No, that does not mean my family was poor. Just telling that AC was not considered a necessity until then.

Excitement for Summer?

Perhaps our life-styles allowed us to balance the hostility of nature. So, what we thinks are necessities these days were not so in the recent past. So, it is no wonder summer nights were special for middle class families of our times. There used to be lot of excitement in arranging beds on the terrace, fighting with siblings for favorite places or for special equipment like mosquito nets. There used to be a lot of prep. Also some teamwork, like, ‘I roll up and bring your bed and you get the water and hand fans for all’. Forgot to mention, every home used to have those hand fans made of palm leaves (of Palmayra Palm or locally known as Toddy Palm tree). Hand fans were part of poor man’s hand-baggage throughout the year. For others, it is a necessity in summer. So, grand mothers knew how to make the hand fans more lasting and less harmful for children (see pic below).

Hand fan made of palm leaf

Time for star gazing

It used to take a while until the nights get pleasant enough to fall into sleep, even on open terraces. So, there used to be a long window of time between going to bed and getting into sleep. Mind you, there were no TV sets to watch and nothing else to do after setting up the beds on the terrace. So, more family time at our disposal. My father used to tell me about Milky Way and show me other far away clusters like ‘pillalakodi‘ (I guess that was,Pleiades as it was called in Telugu). He used to tell me that if one learns to identify Saptarshi Mandal (more popularly known as the Great Bear / Big Dipper / Ursa Major Constellation) in the sky and then try to identify the Dhruv (Polaris), it would be easy to track other stars and the Planets based on the relative positions. Being able to sight and identify important stars was just like reading a conventional clock’s dial for my father’s generation. I am not sure if I completely understood what he was trying to tell me, back then.

Saptarishi Mandal (Ursa Major) (highlighted in red box)

That was how I was introduced to Arundhati Nakshatra Darshan. My father used to tell me how ancient Indians used the sky to navigate both on land and on the seas. Simply by observing the sky ancient Indians built the most advanced calendar in the world and how the knowledge of building calendars remained only with some families in India. A lot of what my father tried to teach me then used to go above my head.

Over, time, I tend to reject the cultural Moon and Sun based calendar as no longer useful for our times. I will talk about the Indian Luni-Solar calendar in another post some other time.

My dad, the best

Every child will have a phase in life when he or she watches his / her father’s in great awe for his knowledge. Only the length of this phase will be different for different people. I, for one, held this feeling for a longer time, at least until I stopped studying math as a subject, as I was no match for his math skills. I used to wonder how such an intelligent person had to struggle in life to make both ends meet. But one thing that stuck me was the interest in star gazing.

Teacher with no name

For creating curiosity about the skies and stars, I am also indebted to one of my elementary school teachers whose name I cannot recall. I vaguely remember how he used narrate the tales of ancient Indians and their skills with navigation using sky.

My first Telescope

I did not just stop there. I even attempted to make a telescope. I probably wanted to become an astronomer. But when I was testing it on the moon, my sister re-directed my telescope to the actual moon in the sky, which I missed by about 20-30 degrees. I felt offended and never attempted to fine-tune my telescope making skills.

Celestial Events

As I grew older, I gained interest in more celestial events like eclipses. Incidentally, one of the reasons I was excited for moving to a big city 35 years ago was the fact that the city has a Planetarium. That was the first thing I visited in the city when I moved in. Though the place I worked in the city for the first seven years was in walking distance from the City’s famous Planetarium, I visited only a few times since moving into the city. Somehow I lost touch with the stars as less and less sky is visible in this concrete jungle. I started understanding the effect of ‘light pollution’, and why star gazers do not like cities.

Alien Skies

When I first visited Australia, I was excited that there is so much more sky visible because most homes do not even have an additional floor except a few square miles in big cities. Though there was more sky, the sky looked alien to me as I cannot recognize any star when seen from the southern hemisphere. I realized my familiarity with the sky has a limitation.

Nature meant sky

With small, congested tenements in densely populated locales, nature meant sky to many. Star gazing offered solace to loners, peace to agitated minds. The rich and the poor are equally deprived of their share of sky. May be, the rich are more deprived with more inwardly focus on self-contained compartments, err apartments. Last winter, a special camp for children was organized where children were camped in make-shift tents in the park between two blocks of our apartment, for a ‘near-trekking’ experience. Instead, I guess, a star-gazing program would have been more fun and educational experience.

If you find this post interesting, you might want to continue reading through my other post ‘From the known to the Unknown‘.