Here’s to Lisa who fought for a starry night

Our cities have lost their skies. And it is all because we couldn’t care less. Do we have to go far out into the Atacama Desert in South America like Professor Brian Cox in Wonders of the Solar System to see what a night sky is supposed to look like? For me here in the big Indian city, the night sky is a tangle of glowing red and green neon signboards, black lines of cable strung between buildings and permanent city haze left behind by vehicular traffic. It is a common sight in the city to see spotlights lasering apart the night sky. The city’s gaggle of event organisers uses them every other night as if to scare off make-believe World War II bomber planes. This need to pollute the night sky just for some tame mall opening or political speech shows how the starry sky has been downgraded in the imagination of the modern urbanite.

the night sky above a modern Indian city

In India, the talk is all about development and small towns are itching to be big cities. No longer is there any interest in our home galaxy _ the Milky Way _ as it sweeps dreamily through autumn constellations. One night in my big city, I managed to spot the ghost of the Milky Way as the haze lifted somewhat that night and the moon and clouds stayed away. But such a sighting is rare. In the small town where my parents live, the bright starry strip of our galaxy is more visible and I am grateful for it. I can close my eyes and imagine what it was like for the ancients as they looked up into the night and were so inspired as to give birth to everything from astronomy to navigation. If you’ve noticed I have left out astrology. I am writing a blog where I can hopefully digress, be myself and don’t have to be polite to the average denizen who takes advice from these bottom feeders, one of whom decided by the way that I had to water a Pipal tree every Saturday for 15 years because the planet Saturn was driving my horoscope bonkers. If you’re still reading this and wondering…I do have a little Pipal bonsai, and I am not really sure that I am watering it on Saturdays. So I lead a cursed and exciting life. I call them bottom-feeders because these aren’t the mild-mannered gents who write astrology columns for newspapers. These are people who feed off misery by pretending to predict all manner of things that can possibly go wrong in your future. And offer solutions which involve convoluted and multiple trips to Hindu temples to perform expensive ceremonies that scare away evil portents. This was the only bad thing that came out of those beautiful starry nights. I better bite my tongue here just in case future alien species more lethal than quack astrologers start sprouting without warning from those same starry skies.

In one memorable episode of The Simpsons, Lisa succeeds in darkening the night sky of Springfield because she wants to watch a meteor shower. But that day as on all other days on ‘The Simpsons’, it is Bart who steals the show, as Lisa’s agenda is just too ‘nerdy’_ that horrible American word invention. It is casually done _ terming people ‘geeky’ and ‘nerdy’, but labelling them so is also reducing them, lessening their worth, almost as if America’s decided that knowledge is uncool. So I am wondering now if BBC producers chose Professor Brian Cox as presenter of Wonders of the Solar System for his boyish good looks to glam up science and ward off hisses of ‘geek’ from a whole potato-chomping, couch addicted generation or Friends of TV’s Ross who loved to mock his dinosaur spiel.

the night of the Geminid meteor shower washed out, not by the moon but by a neighbour's terrace light

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