Way back in the late 80s and early 90s, when I used to live in Baroda, Gujarat, we would spend the nights in summers sleeping on the terrace, under the open skies. Mattresses would be rolled out after sunset and allowed to cool up by the time we would hit bed. Carrying a small copper vessel and a steel glass for water, we would all lie down on the cooled mattresses staring up. The sweet smell of mogra growing in the backyard and arching over the terrace parapet was distinct. We would pluck a few flowers and keep them besides the pillow for sweeter and stronger fragrance.
There was fun in sleeping on the terrace and we would look forward to it each night. It wasn’t just about the cool breeze or the smells of mogra, It was about all of us getting together at one place. Not just us, also the neighbors. Everyone was up on their terraces. Not just our neighbors next door, but even those living miles away in another locality. In fact, I would look up and think that there were neighbors living millions of miles away as well. In another locality of another star, another galaxy, somewhere in the dark sky interspersed with dots of bright and dim lights, red and blue.
I would look up at the stars, the bright, the faint, and all of the ones in between, including the dark spaces, trying to find a fainter star out there. A friend of mine once told me that number of stars in the sky was ‘countless’ and that that was the only countless number in the world. I hadn’t heard about infinity yet and that was the first time I had heard the word ‘countless’. I asked him what countless meant, I was confused – countless should have been something to do with count, and should have been less! Turned out it wasn’t. Countless was something that couldn’t be counted. I would stare up at the sky and start my journey outwards. Away from the terrace, onto the star at the zenith. Hopping across the constellations, of which I knew just one – the Saptarishi, or the Big Dipper. I would go out and out, trying to realize how big those stars would be and how far. And how small was I below them, and hence, how insignificant!
Back then, we would see thousands of stars at a glance, more as our eyes adapted to the darkness. The white band of the Milky Way was almost always visible in the summer skies. Unfortunately, all I could identify then, was the Big Dipper. I still remember, the 7 stars, and the smaller stars near the brighter ones along the tail. Occasionally, we would spot a satellite moving across the sky, or a meteor shower. Almost daily, an aircraft tens of thousands of feet above the ground. There was no light pollution.
Today, I know a little more about galaxies, stars, planets, constellations and nebulae and I want to look up to the skies and spot them. We even got a 5 inch reflector telescope to pursue a new hobby. Guess what we were greeted with? Bright orange skies, polluted with light, even in the middle of the night. The only stars visible these days are the bright ones in Orion and it’s belt, the Big Dipper, Sirius, Polaris and a handful of others. Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and Mars are of course party to the moon! It takes great patience to wait for a night without the moon, and hoping that the bright lights in the neighborhood are dimmer, the winds are calmer and that the stars I want to see are up there. Even then, it takes post-processing the DSLR photos in Lightroom to bring out the dim stars and see just the faint center of the Andromeda.
What a pity. I miss those days of millions of stars, of sleeping on the terrace, of gazing up and wondering who we are and why. After all, in a universe 100 billion light years wide, and 14 billion years old, who are we who don’t even measure 2 meters tall and live no more than 100 years in a life. I miss those days when distractions were fewer and time not so precious.