An ode to the starry night

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Crescent moon and Venus. The little green blur in the corner are the frond-like leaves of a coconut tree caught in the frame.

The night sky was part of the secret life of my dreams furnished with plump stars and the clearest, obsidian dark. But in the skies of my waking nights, its million suns had been banished to areas beyond city limits. The night sky in a smaller town where people go to bed early is a startling, breathtaking sight. Your face flushes with silent poetry as you gawp wordlessly at the muted distant fires from cousin suns so far from Earth.

In the city all we get is an orangey haze from light pollution and a few bright stars if we’re lucky. There are so many stories up there, like the mesmerising Tycho crater on the full moon. One night, I witnessed the wonder in my nephew’s eyes when I pointed out one particularly red one — Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion — and told him how this star was about to go supernova one day, anytime now. Probably, it already has and the light from that ginormous explosion hasn’t got to us yet, here on Earth. Too much? Some drama to spice up science for a little boy.

I remember how I had been night-sky illiterate as a child. Sure, I was a little science geek, watched Horizon and Cosmos, but when I looked up into the night there was nothing to see but that unremitting orange glow from modern civilisation and the moon. It was only as an adult that I started to follow the pereodic meteor showers, seasonal constellations and became obsessed with learning about them. I will never ever forget the first time I saw Saturn through a cheap little telescope and was flabbergasted by its amazing rings tilted at a jaunty, rakish angle. Having only seen beautiful glossy images of the planet in books and TV, this blurry clearly identifiable ringed-blob through telescope lens was something else altogether. I guess people who love to travel will understand what I felt. It is like clapping eyes on the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids for the first time, although sadly, I haven’t seen either.

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The neighbour’s light display on the night of the Gemininds.

The downtown night sky is that tiny slice of sky you catch between encroaching rooftops. In my Indian city, Pune, the sky suffers the added ignominy of a grid of a thousand ugly broadband, TV cables slung carelessly between buildings. In years past, I spent too many summers and winters being intimate with a couple of constellations as they were the only ones I could reach from my lonely balcony. My friends were Orion overhead, its constant companions Canis Major and Minor. In the post-monsoon heat of autumn, there would come a string of pearls hanging up over, in the form of gorgeous Scorpius. The ruby in its string is the red-giant star Antares. On my southern horizon lay Centaurus and the Southern Cross.

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A last weak camera capture of Orion just before another overhead cable went up to bifurcate this view. That orange glow around the stars is from urban light pollution.

Before I knew their names, when I lived nearabouts the 13th parallel on the Earth’s surface, I had a clear view of the southern horizon where Centaurus with the Southern Cross in its belly would brighten as twilight darkened to evening then night. I made up a name for it as I had no clue what it was then — the Z constellation, because some stars in the lower half of the constellation came close to looking like, but not quite, a giant Z in the sky.

This lower half had two arresting stars skimming my horizon. They turned out to be Alpha and Beta Centauri, one of the stars in the alpha system being just about four light years from us. The stinging tail of Scorpius was surely the letter x, and its neighbour Sagittarius a teapot. Much later, I was fascinated by the little factoid that the centre of our home galaxy and its super massive blackhole lay somewhere inside this heavenly teapot. Whenever I think of this I am reminded of the tale of a genie in a lamp. Is it possible to ache for the stars? I do. I like to follow them as I cross latitudes and watch them begin to shift ever so slightly northwards or southwards.

Nowadays, I am familiar with another patch of sky as I have moved away from that old sky near the 13th parallel. My constant friend Orion still greets me in winter hanging just above an overly-thick, only-in-India, building-to-building broadband cable, but now I am able to see who his other companions are: Gemini, Taurus, clustering little Pleiades, Auriga and Perseus. Every year I await the mid-december Geminid meteor shower, and every year almost on cue my neighbour will put on a display of lights to wipe out the sky and its falling meteorites. The year’s best meteor shower the Perseids in August are always hidden behind a thick blanket of monsoon clouds.

When I watched Cosmos rebooted this year with astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson on the National Geographic Channel, what I couldn’t take my eyes off of was the night sky behind him as he stood near a legendary rock formation in a North American scrubland. These were the stars from my dreams. Stargazing in the city is altogether a frustrating affair, but occasionally you will receive the boon of a translucent night and you might look up to find a strange, evanescent cloud flowing across the firmament through one side of Cygnus the swan. It took me a while to realise this was a ghostly spectre of home — our milky way galaxy — which had broken through the pallid orange glow of my city and reached across to me on my lonesome vantage.

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