Monday, July 20, 2009

Tranquility Base, Bombay

20th July 2009
When we were kids, ‘Apollo’ meant the Gateway of India. The harbor around the Gateway (we still board boats to Elephanta and Alibag from here) was known to all as Palwa Bunder, of which the word Apollo was an angrezi corruption.
Palwa, as any fule kno, is Hindi for Mystus Vittatus, a fish found in the waters off Bombay. Ergo, Apollo Bunder. Not much later, I knew Apollo to be the Greek God of the Sun, son of Zeus, whose (pater et fils) shenanigans I read about and observed in my copy of Homer’s Illiad- the comic book version by Classics Illustrated.

All that changed after Apollo 11. Forty years ago today, 20th July 2009, when I was five, the Apollo Mission put man on the moon. If ever there has been a BC and AD moment in the history of the human race, this is it. Nothing before nor since has equaled this achievement, and I am happy to say I was part of it.

Some memories help you root yourself in the past. Some are unreliable, but compelling. For me the most compelling of all the memories I have of early, very early childhood, is one where I hear people (probably at home) insisting that man can/will never step on the moon. In the fog of this memory, the 20th of July 1969 takes centre stage.

Of course, at my age, at the time, I had never heard of the American or Soviet space program. Sometime after, and I was still as little at the time, I remember sitting in the garden outside my uncle Dawood’s farm house in Shirol, near Kasara, gazing up to a completely lightless sky, except for the incredibleness of the Milky Way, and watching a star mark its arrow-straight course overhead. A moving star! My uncle had a name for it: ‘Spootnik’. What was that? A satellite, he said. That didn’t make things any clearer, but still I loved the show.

Of course, after July, the news was all around. Men had landed on the moon. We even knew their names, vivid and evocative- Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. Images of spacesuit shod, glass visor (reflecting the blackness of space) wearing astronauts were all around us. In newspapers- the Times of India, the Sunday Standard, the Poona Herald, in the Illustrated Weekly of India, on the walls of restaurants, on Volga ice cream wrappers and on the covers of firecracker boxes during Diwali. Apollo 11, astronaut, Armstrong, Aldrin, America all became Indian words.

My role in the success of the moon landings came soon after. On the 24th of October, 1969. On that day, five years and ten months old, I found myself in Bombay, stationed at the turning outside Crawford Market, under Lockwood Kipling’s marble murals, where the D N Road swings to Carnac Bunder. I was one among a huge crowd, lining both sides of the road. My uncle Musta-ali, whose finger I had held on to for the short walk from Bhandari Street to our current location, hoisted me up on the railing at the first roar from the mob.

The cavalcade arrived soon after, dark cars, as I remember, and in one of them two red faces in suits, their arms out, waving. Armstrong, Aldrin. As they swept past us, I looked at them, and waved and waved and waved.
The Cavalcade that took the Apollo 11 astronauts though Bombay on October 24, 1969
Photo Source:
Thank you Sam Miller
That night the both of us went to the Azaad Maidaan. It was a festive place. All of Bombay had turned up. A replica of the Eagle had been made, perhaps in plaster, perhaps by makes of Ganesh idols, I don’t know. From the Landed Eagle, an Astronaut was descending on to the Azaad Maidaan’s turf- just one small step away.
On one side of their tableau, exactly like during the Ganapati season, a film was being screened on a stretched white cloth. It was a documentary on the Moon Landing. I watched amazed as the astronauts somersaulted in the weightlessness of their capsule, where down was up, where they attempted to suck blobs of water out of the air. I can’t vouch for these last memories, I may have seen these in the film of the event called ‘Footprints on the Moon’ that was shown in cinema theatres not long after. I do remember the documentary being shown, though.
Indian First Day Cover commemorating the visit of the Apollo 11 astronauts to Bombay
Photo Source:
The vividness of that day has stayed with me. It is one of my earliest, sharpest and most enduring memories that I cherish to this day. We in our forties are getting on in years now. We predate television, we predate computers, we bloody predate man landing on the moon! Today, as I use the internet to follow a minute-by-minute recreation of the Moon Landing on , I am filled with nostalgia. Watching Buzz Aldrin in an interview relayed live on the BBC, I think: ‘I saw you, man, you waved to me.’  I Google for the precise date, when, in their whirlwind tour, the astronauts came to Bombay for their tryst with me.

I was five. I was there.


jinu kurien said...

Nice one sir !!!

Mustansir Dalvi said...

Gracias, Senor.

Preeti said...

Can't stop smiling sir :)simply superb :)

as any fule kno said...

Thank You, Preeti!

Harish said...

Great piece, that, on the moonlanders landing in Bombay and your tryst with history!

Deepa Krishnan said...

Abso-lute-ly fab piece of writing!

as any fule kno said...

Thanks so much Deepa! A Lo-ve-ly comment!

as any fule kno said...

Thanks Harish, most appreciated!

Salil said...

Awesome. You took me back to that time. I was eight. And when Armstrong waved back at me and smiled, it was bliss.

as any fule kno said...

'The Blissfulness was terrific!' as a certain gent called Hurree Jamset Ram Singh would say, Salil! Thanks, much.

suprea25 said...

Could almost live the moment, wonderful.