Saturday, February 13, 2016

Watching the stars

Watching the stars

Under the brightness of an outdoor garden tube light, I was sitting alone in the backyard of my uncle’s farmhouse. The light from the electric tube was able to penetrate somewhere about fifty feet from where I was sitting. Beyond that it was engulfed by complete darkness. This was a bit unsettling, considering the fact that the house was amidst a rusty village, on the foothills of the southern tip of Western Ghats. The glaring white patch of land on which I was sitting was unique in its texture. I caressed it with my fingers to get a feel of the surface. It was a smooth turf with a mild brown shade to it and some noticeable millimeter sized bumps formed from the tiny bits of hay embedded in them. There was also some husk strewn around, probably vestiges from the recent harvest season. When I casually thumped my fist on the ground, I noticed that it was spongy on the top and hard underneath. It just occurred to me that this was an ideal pitch for cricket and I decided to test my theory the next morning.

As I was adjusting my eyes to balance the glare and follow the movement of a train of ants moving towards the direction of the light, there was a flicker and the only light went off. It was pitch dark and I was sitting alone, with all likeliness that an inquisitive nocturnal from the Ghats could pay me a visit. To my relief, I heard the voice of my newly made friend Rangan, a localite who was enquiring if I was doing fine. He came by and sat next to me and informed, ’We have these power cuts all the time’, shaking his head, ‘No electricity, no rain, no river, no canal. How are we supposed to grow anything at all other than our hair? And without water, no coconuts for oil either and even our hair will stop growing.’

His rant showed a familiar sign of frustration and desperation that was gripping the once proud owners of the sky facing land in the whole of the Toopture taluk. However, his quip on his hair growth was so funny that I struggled to control my laughter just like a backbencher. The darkness also helped me conceal it. He went on to add, ’Last four years our land has been looking at the sky earnestly with a parched throat. Alas, it’s only been a big yawn.’ I know that the act of yawning is contagious but not the word itself, since I yawned immediately.

The small dose of laughter helped me ease my nerves. Rangan’s seemingly difficult problems fell into deaf ears. I was in no mood to listen to the grievances of one of the richest land owners in the taluk. His irrigation problems seemed as distant and unrelatable as that of the digestion problems of a cow, especially to a city dweller like me. However, wanting to be polite, I was trying to patiently listen with well-timed ‘Ohs’ and ‘Hmms’.

I slowly lied down folding my hands behind, to form a comfortable pillow for my head and crossed my legs with the left leg on top of the right leg. What I witnessed now was something I had never seen before in my thirty years of existence. The absence of the city lights to pollute the sky and cloud the vision, presented to me a surreal scene of the majestic sky with the innumerable stars floating, twinkling, and gravitating. It felt super natural to see ethereal beauty of the distant masses that I wanted to control my blinking without realizing that it were the stars twinkling. There was a triplet of bright stars to my right just below the zenith and another set of seven stars resembling a hybrid of a horse and a goat. A few more seconds of close observation convinced me that the septet was rather an elephant without its tusk.

Rangan broke my trance as he spoke further, ‘It’s a burden to be born rich. We carry more burden than a donkey. Imagine! I own one-fifty acres of coconut trees and another fifty acres of arcanut. One acre of coconut yields about ten thousand rupees on a year of average rainfall. Arcanut yields about thirty thousand rupees an acre. A year of drought means you hardly make any profit’. After a brief pause, he said, ’since the time I took control of the land from my father, there have been ten years of drought exactly. And…. this means I have lost about fifty lakh rupees of money. Now you see my burden’.

His voice was slowly increasing in its pitch and I had a queasy feeling that any further he ruminates on his irrigation problems, he would end up making an elephant out of a horse. I interfered by pulling the emergency handle to stop him from derailing his train of thought. ‘How about the laborers? They are landless and are therefore probably richer than you by the fifty lakhs. How did they get affected by the drought?’

Luckily, Rangan did not catch my sarcasm but answered in a rather brooding, sincere tone. ‘Yes correct. Those guys live their life. No land to worry about. Rationed rice and pulses at almost no cost. Free television, mixi, and grinder. Assured salary 120 days a year for laying roads that dissolve in monsoon right in time for the next year of road work. And planting saplings for feeding the cattle.’ Rangan went on with his rant about the privileged life of the labor class. His focus was now completely away from his earlier calculations on his gains and losses.

My attention slowly drifted back to the stars. My eyes were wading through the innumerable stars, in various clusters, some of them seemingly alone but only a focused look would reveal more stars around it. I was trying to get hold of the elephant resembling septet cluster that I lost track of earlier, while listening to Rangan. The cluster was evading me. At that instant, I noticed another star. I had read that the planets and stars move around in orbits, but their movement is not apparent to the naked eye. This star seemed to be moving quickly. I was thinking, ’Maybe I am witnessing a meteorite moving towards the earth to wipe out the dominant humans. Wow!’.

Rangan gently touched my shoulders and brought me out of my trance once again. ‘Have you dozed off?’ he questioned. I quickly came back to my senses and answered, ‘No. Ehh.. I was thinking about the challenges you are facing in life. They are indeed disheartening.’ Rangan nodded in agreement, bending and giving me a little pat on my shoulder acknowledging gratefully that there was another soul that understood his plight.

I was getting ready for another round of his problems when his wife called out for him. Rangan shouted back as she walked over to where we were sitting, with the aid of a kerosene lamp. They were discussing about their early morning plans to return to their village. He got up and faced me with a broad smile and held my shoulders with his arms firmly. He invited me to visit his house, before I went back to the city. As I watched him walk back taking sturdy steps in the dim kerosene light, instructing his wife about the preparations needed for the travel, I was surprised by the transformation in his body language – from a brooding person to a confident authoritative man.

I slowly shifted to my original position, comfortably lying on my back. I was looking at the sky when suddenly, the bright garden tube light came back on and blinded me for an instant. It took me over a minute to adjust my eye sight to the sudden brightness. It took me another minute or two to realize that the garden light, along with the other distant street lights have caused enough light pollution that the sky did not look magical anymore.