Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Total Solar Eclipse 22 July 2009

A total solar eclipse was visible in parts of central and northern India on 22nd July 2009. I went to the Harish Chandra Research Institute (HRI), Allahabad to see one for the first time in my life (and perhaps the last!) Even though Allahabad was not on the path of totality, HRI was, though members of the institute has arranged transport to go to the St. John's Academy, Karchhana on the outskirts of Allahabad where totality was to last longer, for about a minute and a half.

The bus to take us there was fixed for 4 AM to catch the start of the eclipse around day break. Needless to say, this being Allahabad, UP, the bus didn't show up. (Apparently it showed up an hour late, the driver had fallen asleep). Fortunately members of the institute took a spirited decision to commandeer the two institute buses and take them to the site. We reached well in time and were greeted by an enormous crowd of students, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, of all ages and all in their uniforms, who had been hoicked out of their beds at 4AM to prepare for the viewing and welcome us -- the 'distinguished guests' who tottered in still rubbing sleep from their eyes.

After a short lecture to explain the phenomena to the kids, we watched the sun go slowly behind, first the clouds, and then the moon. Fortunately the clouds dispersed soon enough and we had a beautiful viewing of the eclipse, the totality and the diamond ring. (No Bailey Beads though). Everyone, irrespective of their age - from 5 to 50 squealed in delight when darkness settled upon us at 6.30 in the morning. As a bonus, both Venus and Jupiter were clearly visible in the morning sky.

A memorable experience and a sight that few people get to see. And all for the purely accidental coincidence of the moon and the sun having almost the same angular diameter.

Some of the pictures I took are on my photos page. Note that there are two pages of photos. (Canon Rebel XT Digital SLR, Canon zoom at 450 mm (300mm 35m equivalent), mylar filter except at totality).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Children of the Space Age

Delhi in the 60s was the only city in India which had television broadcasts and that too for two hours everyday. And we were one of those fortunate families to own a TV. Consequently I recall vividly, grainy black and white pictures of Neil Armstrong and 'Buzz' Aldrin bouncing along on the moon surface with the Eagle in the background, 40 years to this day. It was a moment of great excitement. America was a distant and unknown land at which we looked with awe, at its advanced science and technology, that had managed the unbelievable feat of putting a man on the moon and bringing him safely back.

I can no longer recall when I first decided to do science. However, there is no question in my mind that it was the romance and excitement of the space age, the wonders that science and technology were capable of, that were largely responsible for my decision to make a career in science.

Yuri Gagarin was one of my boyhood heroes. (It didn't hurt that photos of him circulated by the Russian Cultural Centre made him look like a Greek God). Unfamiliar Russian names like Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, the dog Laika were household names in our family. (With animal rights activists far into the future, nobody thought of asking the obvious question - what happened to Laika?) Even my grandfather, a man born towards the closing years of the 19th century, would read me stories about the space faring nations - mainly the USSR, and then gradually the US. Thus, by the time Armstrong walked on the moon, 40 years ago (and fluffed his lines though we didn't know it then), we considered ourselves veterans of the space age. Armstrong and Aldrin's feat merely appeared to be the glorious culmination of an age of technological marvels. Most of us dreamed of being part of this romance of science and of technology, some went into engineering, I took the road to a scientific career.

We, of our generation, are truly children of the space age.

See the full sequence of clips at the New York Times

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What defines Chennai? What defines India?

Deep questions ... but a simple story ... In a recent stroll through Nishat Bagh in Srinagar, we came across a family with a small child wearing traditional pahadi clothes. While asking her grandfather if I could take her picture, we got to talking -- he told me they were visiting from Kargil and how he had had to abandon his house and village and flee when the Pakistanis started shelling his village ten years ago. पाकिस्तान कभी अमन नहीं चाहती was his conclusion. It was just in the last 3 years that he had started rebuilding his house and his life there.

He asked me where we were from. Finding out that we were from Chennai, his face lit up and he looked like he would hug me there and then. "You are from Dhoni's city! He is my favourite cricketer, and Chennai Super Kings is my favourite team". I tried to gently remind him that Dhoni was not quite from Chennai, but he waved it aside as an irrelevant detail. For him Chennai was Dhoni and Dhoni was Chennai.

What a strange country we live...and strange are the things that unite us -- cricket? Bollywood? food? perhaps all of these and some more...and I will have something to say about the last in a future post.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Trip to the Valley

Despite much well-intentioned advice, we took a vacation recently in Kashmir. We reached Srinagar on a somewhat warm Sunday afternoon. Srinagar, on first impression, shows few signs of having borne the brunt of the militancy ridden years. The roads are wide, and pot-hole free, with well-proportioned sidewalks (Chennai Corporation, are you listening?) the traffic, like in the rest of India is noisy and bumper to bumper with those pesky SUVs, and tourism is booming again, and particularly now in the Amarnath Yatra season.

Most locals claimed that militancy was now non-existent and most of the violence one reads about are internecine wars between different political groups, trying to create trouble for their opponents (with the separatists trying to muddy the waters even further). There is much truth in these statements as we were to find out. "Kashmir is peaceful" declared Majid-Bhai our houseboat caretaker, and indeed, taking a stroll or shikara ride on Dal Lake, watching other shikaras glide peacefully by, (the peace only shattered by noisy pot-bellied Indian tourists talking loudly to each other or on their mobiles), tourists practicing water skiing, the mountains in the distance, the floating vegetable gardens, India's brutal "war on terror" seems to be happening on a different planet. And yet violence lurks just under the surface, as we discovered. The locals are very friendly as I recall from my visit a quarter century ago, with no hostility, at least visibly, towards India or Indians. People are happy that tourism is picking up and they are able to make a decent living. Srinagar is clearly in much better shape that almost any U.P. town that I have passed through, none of which have known the kind of violence Srinagar has.

The next day we took a long drive to Sonemarg, along mountain roads bordering the river Sindh. The highways are maintained by the army and Border Roads Organisation which meant that they were in excellent condition. One sees frequent outposts of CRPF men carrying automatic rifles but there are no invasive and frequent checks as was the case in the past during the worst years of militancy. We took a pony ride all the way up to the Thajiwas glacier, at the snow line where large numbers of Indian families were trying ineffectually to sled down the snowy slopes.

And so to Gulmarg next day, and up the cable car which takes you up, first to the lower stopping point at Kongdoor at 2699 m and thence (which we did not take) to 3099 m, claimed to be the highest point in the world by cable car.

And then it happened. Next day we had taken the National Highway from Srinagar to Pahalgam, (passing through the beautiful "Green Tunnel") where we intended to stay for a day.

On reaching Pahalgam, we discovered that Srinagar had been 'convulsed' by riots. Our TV channels, never one to let an opportunity go, talked about riots in Srinagar, Kashmir in flames, each account getting more lurid than the next. It was an oft-repeated story. A young boy had been found murdered with severe wounds all over his body. The locals blamed the police for the murder, the police claimed it was a case of kidnapping and murder by persons unknown. The locality had come out in force, there was stone-throwing, burning of a police vehicle but no lethal weapons were used. The J&K police force, which draws its cadre from the ranks of the local populace, has earned the dubious distinction of being as hated and reviled as the 'external' CRPF and the army. There are frequent accusations against them of custodial deaths, torture and rape, as much as against the CRPF.

Pahalgam is a beautiful hill station through which the River Lidder passes. It's a place where one can go for long walks or treks through wooded forests or drive up to the Chandanwadi glacier, or river rafting on the Lidder. Our stay was a trifle spoilt by the worry of having to return to Srinagar in the middle of all these problems. However our driver assured us that this was a daily occurrence in Srinagar and there was nothing to worry. And indeed, so it turned out! We made it back without incident and saw no signs of trouble either outside or even within the city. And in fact we spent the rest of the day wandering through the Mughal gardens along with numerous other tourists from all over, milling around the tourist spots. The only sign of trouble was that all shops were closed. It's only after we returned that we saw this headline which told us that something was amiss.

So this is how it goes, as explained to us by our driver. All the demonstrations and stone throwing happens in the Lal Chowk, Civil Lines and downtown areas. The typical tourist hotspots in and around Dal Lake and Mughal Gardens are usually trouble free and normal, except for downed shutters. Thus, while tourism does take a bit of a hit and there is loss of business when shops are closed, life goes on. The separatists and opposition political parties have figured that disrupting the lucrative tourist business does not win them any plaudits from the local people and have therefore perhaps hit upon this solution! Moreover the days of truly violent demonstrations with separatists coming out on the streets waving machine guns and shouting Azadi seem to be over. The problem now appears to be a purely local one between the different bit players in the valley, with perhaps covert but no overt involvement of external forces. There is a general feeling of hope in the valley, at least from what we could gather from talking to the local people (unless they were all having us on, which I doubt).

A word about Azadi and this is my own two paise worth. India's serious bungling of the Kashmir issue coupled with human rights violations by paramilitary and military forces particularly in the hinterland has (or had) made Azadi a romantic concept for many Kashmiris who felt rightly that they had no future in India. However, looking at it purely pragmatically, shorn of all jingoism and political considerations, I am not quite sure how it would work economically. As an independent entity, Kashmir, a land-locked country which is not self-sufficient, would be surrounded by two hostile neighbours, neither of whom would be particularly well-disposed towards giving it favoured nation status. Tourism, its mainstay would take a severe hit. All the Indians who are now flocking to it in droves again, would hesitate if it involved passports and visas and all that, even if there were simple procedures (how many people visit Bhutan?). Thus, economically Kashmir would suffer if it were independent, since the Central source of funds (of which there is a lot, leading to much heartburn and resentment in Jammu) would dry up and it's not clear that Pakistan would be able to, or even want to make up the deficit. All in all, Azadi does not quite appear to be a viable proposition. Joining Pakistan? Well, perhaps, but then the Taliban are not too far off....

Update: Some more pictures are available at my photo gallery on my home page.