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Chasing the solar eclipse
On August 21, 2017, the sight of total solar eclipse was watched and greeted with excitement by people inhabiting a band going round the globe. We in India were not so lucky to fall in that band.

Astronomers, astrophysicists and particularly NASA had been for months, educating the public about its significance. I too had downloaded NASA's app for watching the live streaming transmission from Vancouver, Los Angeles, Kansas and New York.

True to style, the American enterprise sprang up – suddenly a whole assortment of dark glasses (even special ones for dogs!), T-shirts and mementos flooded the pavements, as tourists started arriving at the lucky spots. Also true to style, Trump watched from the balcony of White House, without protective dark glasses. He was promptly trolled on social media.

Both solar and lunar eclipses, or for that matter any other heavenly spectacle are awe inspiring sights. We puny humans on planet Earth marvel at the phenomenon of eclipses, taking place millions of miles away. When we watch the solar eclipse, we are seeing something so distant, that light takes about 8 minutes to reach us. But distance does not fade its grip on human psyche, as far as astronomical happenings are concerned.

'Beware of the Ides of March', a soothsayer had warned Julius Caesar. His wife also besieged him not to venture out on that fateful Ides of March, on the day of his assassination. She had seen a comet in the sky and cautioned:  

"When beggars die there are no comets seen."

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes. The devout in my family are no different. It is supposed to be harmful to venture out during eclipses. And I grant them their apprehensions, for the phenomenon makes you wonder, just who is behind this grand spectacle? The first time I saw a total solar eclipse, I too was dumbstruck. This is what had I experienced:

It was a perfect sunny day. Slowly the shadow of the upstart moon started inching on to Suryadevata and suddenly moon had swallowed the Sun. Day turned into night, instantly. All hell broke loose. The dogs started barking and yelping. The birds flew out of their nests and were totally disoriented and collided with each other, and some even fell on the ground. The air was full of chirping of birds and cackling of hens. Obviously, everyone's bio-rhythm was disrupted, by this sudden darkness. Is my bio-rhythm also disrupted, was the thought which crossed my mind! It was a scene straight out of science fiction or a Hitchcock movie!

But my thoughts turned heavenwards and lo, the total eclipse was upon us. Around the darkened Sun, I was rewarded with the rare sight of a corona of light forming dazzling 'diamond ring' (see inset).

Heavenly episodes have a certain signifiance for the scientists, but the devout see it differently.

In 1925-26, writer-philosopher and an admirer of  Indian philosophy, Aldous Huxley visited Benares, to have a  ghat-side view of the solar eclipse. His essay, 'Ecliipse in Benaras' was in our school text book. The last para of this essay, written about 90 years ago is noteworthy, whether one agrees with or not ! 

In 'Eclipse in Benares', he wrote:

'It was said that the eclipse of the sun will be visible from Benares. But it needed more than smoked glass to see it; the eye of faith was also indispensable. That, alas, we did not possess. Partial to the point of being non-existent the eclipse remained, for us at least, unseen. For it was not to look at the moon's silhouette that we had rowed out that morning on the Ganges; it was to look at the Hindus looking at it. The spectacle was vastly more extraordinary.

There were, at the lowest estimate, a million of them on the bathing ghats that morning. A million. All the previous night and day they had been streaming into the town. We had met them on every road, trudging with bare feet through the dust, an endless and silent procession. In bundles balanced on their heads they carried provisions and cooking utensils. …….. And now the day and the hour had come. The serpent was about to swallow the sun. (It was about to swallow him in Sumatra, at any rate. At Benares it would do no more than nibble imperceptibly at the edge of the disc. The serpent, one should say, was going to try to swallow the sun). A million of men and women had come together at Benares to assist the Light of Heaven against his enemy.

The sacred stream is filthy enough under the sky. ……

Time passed. The serpent went on nibbling imperceptibly at the sun. The Hindus counted their beads and prayed, made ritual gestures, ducked under the sacred slime, drank and were moved on by the police to make room for another installment of the patient million. We rowed up and down, taking snapshots. West is west.To save the sun (which might, one feels very safely be left to look after itself) a million of Hindus will assemble on the banks of the Ganges. How many, I wonder would assemble to save India? An immense energy, which if it could be turned into political channels, might liberate and transform the country, is wasted in the name of imbecile superstitions. Religion is a luxury, which India in its present condition, cannot possibly afford. India will never be free until the Hindus and Moslems are as rabidly enthusiastic about their religion, as we are about the Church of England.'

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