“We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens…The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”
— Johannes Kepler, astronomer.
One of my best friends, Kashyap, is such a polar opposite of me that I forever wonder that how we ended up being friends. Closed-minded and cynical, he is quite uninterested in art, disregards anything involving creativity, ponders on the “usefulness” of imagination, never reads books, indifferent towards politics and skeptical of space-exploration (good reasons to have several quarrels with someone). Nevertheless, he was kind and considerate. That was enough.
Once, I went to visit him. We were chatting when his young brother, Sudhir, turned up. Now, imagine oil and water being in the same container. That would have been an apt analogy – Kasyap and Sudhir were another pair of opposites. Sudhi had read dozens of books (not unlike me, huh?); had a wide field of interest, ranging from F1 to Harry Potter – and, as I would later learn, astronomy.
Night came, Kashyap slept pretty soon. (I was staying there for the night.) Sudhir came to the room and soon struck up a conversation. It was then I found about him. Suddenly, it seemed like – you know, my young self had somehow materialized before me. He was some four years younger than me, entering his 9th std, but he was full of knowledge. No, not like those show-offs who think they know it all, but truly and genuinely curious. It was not long before we went to the high balcony, where the dramatic lights and the night cityscape of Coimbatore was laid in front of us in full detail; and started talking about black holes, red giants, and the ultimate destruction of all life as we know it. Two bright stars shone in front of us, above the Eastern horizon.
“The bright, red one over there is the star Arcturus. It’s a huge red giant, and our sun will become like it one day in several hundred million years, probably swallowing the Earth. Now, that is global warming!” I said. “The one to the right is Spica: it is actually a two – star system, but they are so far away that you can see them only as one.”
He looked at me incredulously, with bright, shining eyes. “You know the names of all the stars?“
“Umm…yeah, all the bright ones at least. I was learning this stuff in my 10th std. instead of studying the things at school.”
That brought us to the topic of education. We both shared the view that the education system was bad, as it only teaches memorising and does not foster curiosity.
Soon, he started talking about Ronaldo and F1 racing. One problem: I did not know about F1 or football. So, he offered to show me some of collection of pictures of the players and racers. Somehow, F1 racing had escaped my interest zone. But, unlike Kasyap, I was curious about everything. That was all that mattered.
“I had never met any one like you – you know so much,” I said.
“Oh, shut up. Are you kidding? Do I know the names of all stars?”
I was into astronomy since I was a kid. But it was a book that really fired me up. I still remember the moment as though it happened yesterday – three years ago, when I entered a bookstore and randomly drew up the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Things have never been the same ever since. It was not long after that I bought a good telescope, and saw wonders in the night sky that I could scarcely have imagined before that. I told him about that.
“Can I borrow Cosmos for a while?”
If this incident had been a scene in a movie, this would have been a good time for a flashback. About the time I bought the book, I was a total loner – perhaps understandably so. I rarely felt understood by my parents or friends, who disregarded my interests. I resolved that I would keep the stuff close to my heart to myself. I would never talk about space or science to anyone, never lend Cosmos to the interested. Can I borrow Cosmos for a while? The innocent question lingered in my mind…
“Yes, of course you can,” I said without hesitation. “Passing the torch” is an expression frequently used that could come in many forms. In this case, though, it was “passing the book.”
Suddenly, everything seemed to have come together – space, sports, Harry Potter – it all seemed as though the vast variety of human thought, expression and deeds was there perfectly in front of us, suddenly so easy to touch, feel and to know. The night sky seemed to have descended, the light-years contracted – until it was available for two young human beings to explore and to be immersed in. Not even the greatest mysteries of the Cosmos could defeat us – for eventually, long after we have turned to dust, our curiosity shall be victorious.
A few weeks after I met Sudhir, I had almost forgotten him as I had to face my life’s most toughest moments, the darkest hours in my 17 year old life. I sat upon the rooftop parapet of my house and watched the sun set, alone. The sky changed colours gracefully, elegantly. Minutes became hours and night descended upon the deadly calm. Towards the gloomy Eastern horizon, a cloud shifted and dissipated. Two bright stars appeared. Arcturus and Spica. Despite the tragedy and chaos that surrounded me then, my tears faded into meaningless obscurity and insignificance, as I looked upon the stars and remembered people like Sudhir. People who are strong, not afraid to be curious, who are bound to discover – the few of those who dream of the stars.