Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXII No. 24, April 1-15, 2023
Growing up in Chennai, I rarely looked heavenward. Consequently, as an adult, I could not identify any celestial object in the night sky except for the moon. I never gave the matter much thought.
Earlier this year, a research article in the journal Science reported that light pollution has been skyrocketing planet-wide in the last decade. Excessive artificial lighting disrupts entire ecosystems and impacts human health. Light pollution also obscures a stargazer’s view of the night skies. Suddenly, my indifference vanished.
What did I do? I googled furiously. Apparently, the iconic Milky Way, home to our solar system, can no longer be seen by one thirds of humanity. Before light pollution, this accessible, breathtaking view had inspired artists, songwriters, and story tellers for millennia.
As a boy, Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie, the author of Midnight’s Children and a dozen other novels, recalls looking up at the night sky to see “the thick stripe of the galaxy there.” In a delightful essay for the New York Times, he wrote, how in his childhood, he had heard a tale from the Mahabharata about God Indra churning the Milky Way with Mount Mandara, to force “the giant ocean of milk in the sky” to yield the nectar of immortality. “Maybe if I opened my mouth, a drop might fall in and then I would be immortal, too,” he wrote.
For city-dwellers to see the Milky Way in the 21st century, in many cases, it could take nothing less than a city-wide power cut. It is getting harder for urbanities to see anything with the unaided eye except for the brightest celestial objects, researchers report. Was there anything left to see over Chennai, except the moon, I wondered. I optimistically downloaded an app called The Sky Guide. Just as Google Maps give us the names of the streets in any locality, complete with landmarks, free apps map out the sky for stargazers.
One evening, as I entered the compound of my building, I looked up towards the grey-orange sky. Almost immediately, my eyes fell upon a blue-white star – scintillating madly, like that cartoonish “diamond in the sky” from the nursery rhyme. The smartphone app said I was looking at “Sirius,” the brightest star in the night sky.
Call it beginner’s luck if you will, but Sirius was the perfect foil for what I would see next – an unwinking brownish-red dot. This was the planet Mars, “chevvai” in Tamil. In the next decade, NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars. The journey will take the astronauts approximately six months, but that evening Mars seemed to be parked right over our compound. I could not believe my luck. The urge to grab passersby – or the sleepy watchman – and show them our neighboring planet was strong.
Over the course of a week, I could identify some stars in the sky. I was delighted when I saw this row of three medium, bluish-white stars, which formed the belt of Orion. Named for a hunter from Greek mythology, Orion was one of the most conspicuous constellations in the night sky. The red supergiant star Betelgeuse (betel juice, if you will, because we know that the juice of betel leaf is red in color) marks the hunter’s right shoulder; the blue supergiant Rigel marks the hunter’s left foot.
Tracing out constellations in the sky is not hard – it is all about connecting some of the most conspicuous dots of light. Away from the city centers, in the absence of severe light pollution, there will be many more dots for you to connect. From where I stood, I could, at best, see a dozen stars.
One moonless night, I ventured up to the mottai-madi early, to welcome the onset of darkness. The sun was still an orange-red ball. Flocks of rose-ringed parakeets, whizzed towards their nightly roosts, squawking loudly. Lone flying foxes were setting out silently for the “day”– they would be out till dawn. I waited for the nightly sky show to start.
In the distance, I saw a building, which looked like an abandoned parking garage. A theatre, owned by T.R. Rajakumari, a star of her times, had once stood in that spot. As a child, I watched the film Chandralekha, in which Rajakumari had played a dancer. This was on television, one Sunday evening. If you ever saw that 1948 classic, chances are, you still remember that spectacular drum dance. You may also recall Ranjan, who played the swashbuckling villain, and that interminable sword fight after the drum dance.
As I reminisced, the celestial stars came out on that clear Chennai night. The old familiars from the Orion constellation were all there. Then, I saw this distinct pair of stars. My trusty app told me that the yellow star was Castor, the slightly brighter one was Pollux. They were the main stars in the constellation of Gemini (the word means twins in Latin).
Most of us know these twins, from the logo of Gemini Studios – two little boys with bugles who used to play a signature tune on screen. Suddenly, I recalled that Chandralekha, the hit movie, was produced by Gemini Studios of Madras. Seeing the Gemini constellation in the skies above, with the forgotten Rajakumari Theater in the background, was such a quintessential Madras moment for me.
When I came down from the terrace, I was ready to google again. What was the equivalent of Orion in Indian mythology? In the movie Ponniyin Selvan-I, there was a comet going around even in broad daylight – surely, there must be a comet for us to see in the night skies soon. Where is that star Arundhati they keep asking the bride and groom about during the marriage ritual? Which constellation will take center stage next month?
The few stars left to see over Chennai, clearly, do have the ability to spark curiosity and simple delight. The limited views could make us journey to dark sites, suburban or rural, to catch a glimpse of the famed Milky Way. Most importantly, the few stars could even inspire some of us to be become activists against rampant light pollution.