You never see the stars any more. Time was – not so very long ago – when looking up at the night sky meant glimpsing the past, the future, the furthest outreaches of the human imagination. That was before halogen street lights, before the exhalations of the urban beast in whose slumbering belly we exist had wrapped us in a fug of fumes, when it was possible to believe that air was an absence of anything rather than a soup of particulate matters.
The magic of the mountains is not the view down from the top, but the view up to the heavens. In the high Himalayas, on clear dark nights, the irises dilate letting in the whole glittering chiffon swathe of Milky Way and it’s possible to believe in eternity, struck by the shimmer of ancient light that has travelled countless million billion miles to sparkle for a second in your present. But it takes time and energy to get out of the city up to those places where the skies are clear: so we opted for second-best, and headed for Teen Murti and the Nehru Planetarium.
Opened in 1982 it feels much older somehow: imbued with a Nehruvian earnestness and grandiosity of vision which has sadly fallen into disrepair. The charm of the place owes more to Doordarshan than NatGeo, with its slightly mildewed curved walls lined with fuzzy Xeroxes of planets and dry, factual text on yellowing sheets. The models of the surfaces of other planets have been blessed with unintentional authenticity in the form of several decades (its looks like) of moondust; and in one, the extraterrestrial with the wiggly feelers looked suspiciously like a very earthly cockroach.
My five year old son and I wandered over to an enormous metal wrecking ball in one corner. This turns out to be not a model, but the actual Module of the Soyuz T10 space mission in which Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma (who appears to be still slowly disintegrating inside) returned to Earth after the Indian-Soviet space mission in 1984. You can still see the scorchmarks on atmospheric re-entry.
Finally, it was showtime. A sudden flurry of activity as we joined the queue to enter the hub: a circular room, with consecutive rows of upholstered chairs that tip you backwards with a tremendously satisfying squeak – much to the delight of the troop of school children who streamed in behind us. In the centre stood a bulbous metal mechanism straight out of a cartoon villain’s secret headquarters. But rather than zapping a supersonic X-ray laser across the earth to disappear New York, what it does is project a map of the night sky up on to the inside of the dome above our heads. Once all the cell phones had been switched off, the children settled, and the symphony of chair squeaks hushed, we were suddenly transported as the ceiling above us suddenly filled with stars. The show was a bit long, the commentary a bit worthy, the visuals (after a while) a bit, well, a bit crap frankly. But none of that could outweigh the magic of that initial involuntary gasp, city kids face-to-face with the crystal starlight on a muggy monsoon morning in Delhi.
City Limits Magazine, 27 August 2007
Teen Murti House
New Delhi 110011