Great feat, bad politics

Jul 23 2019


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

THERE were two sides to Armstrong’s walk on the moon 50 years ago. It demonstrated a great technological possibility for mankind. But the quest was rooted in troubling politics that continues to threaten the survival of our planet as a source of life. Fortunately, Armstrong’s feat did not disturb nor deter our unending romance with the moon in the realm of mythology and poetry. Makhdoom Mohiyuddin, in fact, penned a moving tribute to Yuri Gagarin flight in space in April 1961, some eight years ahead of Armstrong’s moonwalk: “Mubarak tujhe o zamin ke musaafir/ zamin-o-zaman ki haden torh kar/ aasmaanon pe jaana”. (Greetings O traveller from the earth for breaking the boundaries of space and time, to plough a new path through the celestial world.)

And how would one continue to be wooed by the romance with the moon as Faiz wrote: “Gul hui jaati hai afsurda sulagti hui shaam/ Dhul ke niklegi abhi chashma-i-mahtaab se raat.” (The evening glows and falters to a close, and now the night will come, bathed in a fountain of moonlight.) Or in popular culture in much of South Asia, who would see the beloved in the image of the celestial body, or be lured to the tavern at the hint of moonlight.

Majaaz and Shelley took a different look at the celestial body without losing the romance. “Art thou pale for weariness/ Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth/ Wandering companionless/ Among the stars that have a different birth…” wonders the early 19th-century English poet. While Majaaz over a century later would liken the pallor of the rising moon to a young widow’s stolen youth, the yellow pages of a bania’s accounts ledger, the mullah’s overused headgear.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang the majestic Raag Darbaari, the words fussing over a child that asked to play with the moon. Nursery rhymes and ancient civilisations, old and extant religions, have all grappled with the moon as their subject and as an object in different ways.

Happily, Armstrong did not tinker with our romance with the moon that his journey could potentially challenge.

Majrooh Sultanpuri, a celebrated leftist poet and a popular songwriter for movies, exceeded his brief to praise the moon, which was not unusual for comrades seeking inspiration from Soviet propaganda. “Ahle dil ugaaenge khet mein mah o anjum/ Ab gohar subuk hoga ek jau ke daane se.” (The comrades will harvest the moon and the constellations in their fields/ And the sun would pale in their dazzling presence.) Lucknow buddies Majaaz and Munish Saxena, the perpetual backbenchers at poetic symposiums, couldn’t help taunting their comrade poet. “And what do you suggest we should be eating in your beautiful dream, Majrooh Saahab?”

Happily, Armstrong did not tinker with our romance with the moon that his journey could potentially challenge. When I had a chance encounter with him in a hotel lobby in Rabat — after the 1981 Arab League summit had collapsed in Fez — the lanky but taciturn Armstrong exuded instant warmth. The handshake was welcoming but when an Arab journalist asked if he heard the azan on way to the moon, the answer was a bemused look. There was no such experience during his journey to the moon, or on the way back. My Arab colleague was checking a fake story in circulation around the time.

Even as there are great reasons to celebrate Armstrong’s technological and personal feat on the moon, there is the forbidding dark side to the narrative that cannot and should not be ignored. And this aspect of the rush to conquer space is sharply illustrated by Daniel Ellsberg in his recent book, The Doomsday Machine. Ellsberg was what he calls a nuclear war planner in the higher echelons of the US defence establishment. His first whistle-blowing achievement was the exposé during the Nixon era of the Vietnam War when he showed among other American secrets how successive presidents starting with Roosevelt had kept the truth from their people.

One such revelation was about the secret US military help to the French, against Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh establishment, which was being supported by China.

Armstrong thus appears to have walked on the moon not out of uncommon human curiosity or for any sense of adventure, but because the Soviets had developed the missile systems to take a huge leap past Washington’s nuclear arsenal. “While the United States rushed its programme to put something up in the fall of 1957, the Russians sent up their second, much larger satellite in November, this time with a dog, Laika, aboard.”

Something worse happened for the Americans. “The next month, a vast global audience watched on television as an American missile rose four feet in the air, then sank back and exploded on the pad. The nose cone, with a miniature satellite aboard, detached and fell into the surrounding bush, its little radio still beeping.”

The Apollo 11 anniversary came less than a week before India’s launch of a second unmanned vehicle to the moon. Only a very few countries have planted their flags on the moon, including India. How much fuss the Western world kicked up when the Russians were giving cryogenic engine technology to shore up India’s rocket regime in the mid-1990s. Has the self-developed and borrowed technology (both the Soviets and the Americans borrowed from German rocket technology) made any country a safer place? With all the formidable technological assets, the Soviet Union simply vanished one day.

Laika died in space, but its successor dogs — Belka and Strelka — returned to Earth and lived out a natural life. In a poetic irony of sorts, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev presented one of their puppies to President Kennedy’s family in the US. The lovely gesture couldn’t hide their nervous stand-off. In an e.e. cummings play, a young girl wakes in the morning. “What a beautiful day,” she says, and the sun falls down. The play ends.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2019