2014, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

An Abstract Ecstasy: Gazing Down from the Mars Orbit

Sankarshan Thakur

New Delhi, Sept 24: In some ways this is the unfolding of an abstract ecstasy. The closest representation we have of the rapture over getting looped into the orbit of Mars may be fictional — Star Trek, Kirk, Spock and Scotty and their Enterprise adventures in the nowhere. That’s where Mars remains located in lay consciousness, somewhere in Nowhere. There’s n/o Rakesh Sharma beaming down on crackly television screens from up there. There’s no opportunity to ask how India looks from space. There’s nobody rehearsed-ready with the cheesy ‘saare jahan se achchha’. Mars is far too distant to afford cognitive vision of the earth, some 660 million kilometres as the orbiter flies. It’s also far too arduous and enigmatic an odyssey to yet put a human through, Mars is where we have long suspected life to exist, even sinister sci-fi fantasy of a kindred, or rival, species.

Mars is not the near neighbourhood Cosmonaut Sharma popped over to for a dekko; it may be the planet next door to us, but we are talking a galactic next door which takes close to a year to approach at hypersonic velocity. Don’t be taken by the bionic tweets that trended all day on the @MarsOrbiter signature, transmitting pert “howdy…I’ll be around” texts to its American predecessor in orbit @MarsCuriosity. That’s just another fetching trick of science, a proxy handle synced with @MarsOrbiter but tweeting from terra firma. In the first six or so hours that it became operational @MarsOrbiter mimicked the speed of its eponymous owner, rocketing from zero to 55,000+ and counting. Last heard, it was breakfasting its battery panels on “Good ol’ sunlight”.

So what does it mean that a 15-kilo projectile embossed with the Tricolour is now describing elliptical rings around Mars, one of only four footprints in that part of the solar system? It’s a first because ISRO was able to plug it in on first attempt, but actually it’s a Fourth — the US, Russia and the European Union are already where we arrived a little past seven this morning, Earth Time. Mars has been exhaustively probed for close to four decades now; the Americans landed the first of their Viking explorers in 1976, and since then the red planet has lain needled like a patient under investigation for symptoms, its surface scrolled and scraped for signs life, water, minerals, gas, something hitherto unknown; its atmosphere bottled and tested for whatever it might offer as clues to the past and pointers to the future; its unexplored acreage mapped and photographed so profusely, Mars volumes are probably pushing Earth catalogues in libraries. So what does it mean to follow where many have gone before? What does it mean to be able to remote manipulate the most minute cogs in a cubiod flying hundreds of millions of miles away when there isn’t enough swiftness with marshalling crude pumps to salvage a drowned city? Srinagar could have done with a few. What does it mean to be able to receive images from far space the world has already seen when we haven’t even begun to map vast swathes on our home patch? The anti-Naxal offensive suffers for lack of the lay of the Abujhmad/Dandakaranya jungles. What may it mean to get a measure of Martian air when we let fester some of the most alarming pollution levels and have half the nation defecating 24/7 in the open? What does it tell us that ISRO scientists can avert the possibility of a far away collision with the tap of a button, but nothing seems to prevent slaughter at level crossings? What does it mean to extol scientific temper to the skies one day and encourage the intemperate irrationality of “love jehad” the other, one a salute to modernity, the other a medieval exhort? We rightfully celebrate cutting-edge sophistication of technology on one half of our television screens, while the other half plays out the raw brutality of a tiger slapping a man dead mid-afternoon in the capital’s zoo, a ghastly fracture between lofty achievement and disarranged fundamentals. Is arriving in the orbit of Mars a little too far to travel to be able to only say “Me Too”?

That said, it’s cynically churlish to knock what’s been achieved between the eminences of ISRO today. It’s to deny the evolved vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, grand architect of our modern temples, and to repudiate the excellence and industry of generations of scientists mentored by a standout gallery — Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U.R. Rao, K. Kasturi Rangan, G. Madhavan Nair and, now, K. Radhakrishnan. It is to be amnesiac on stellar accomplishment that men of science have brought to bear on an undertaking as complex and unwieldy as India , from critical food sufficiency and remarkable upgradation of health standards, to agency on nuclear science for energy and for strategic defence. It is to not comprehend how and why India came to represent global leadership on IT, or what revolutionary changes the information/telecom initiatives wrought on our society and economy post the mid 1980s. It is also, pertinently, to lack perspective on a political discourse that has become the vogue — “nothing happened in India for 60 long years”. The orbiter isn’t of post May 2014 vintage. And it is a successor instrument to those that began to be imagined and crafted several decades ago.

Not all that happens in the rarefied quietude of science laboratories is esoteric indulgence. The many satellites that India has propelled into space daily help forecast weather, track soil and agricultural patterns, organise traffic and foretell routes, facilitate telemedicine and teleeducation, work your ATMs, allow you the great and many splendoured gift of cell telephony. All of it is high achievement harnessed to winching aspiration closer to fulfilment.

The Mars orbiter may be at a remove from the utilitarian, probably India’s first pure science endeavour. Not many applications will flow from it, the experts say, but what it might achieve is to push the frontiers of human knowledge but dropping a probe into the great unknown. Was it not Bertolt Brecht who somewhere said that the only commandment science knows is to contribute to more science? That’s the endeavour the Indian orbiter has now joined with three others in the Mars orbit. Keep tuned to @MarsOrbiter and it will probably help peel some of the abstraction away and bring to us a more tactile sense of why there does exist reason to celebrate. At the moment, it’s on a breakfast break, feeding sunlight to its battery fins.

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2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Freedom To Boycott: The Horrendous Enactment Of 60 Percent In 1996, And The 26 Percent In 2014

As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan
As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Srinagar, May 1: At a little past ten in the morning, the wan morning sun began to pick out little groups of women in the village square across from the polling station. They waddled out the lanes in twos and threes and soon they turned into a buzzing congregation, like birds sniffing out the safety of their course. Then one gathered steps and vanished past the ajar iron gates where armed jawans stood. Then another, and another, and then the children of some of them began to tug them forth. The plunge was taken. The women had joined their men; two queues began to curl out the polling booth at Dardpora in Budgam.

Not long after, as the hubbub mounted around the polling hive, a group of youngsters walked up and stood across the jawans at the iron gates. They wore track-suits and gelled hair, their sneakers were slaked with mud; they may have come off a morning’s nets on the cricket field. One of them revealed a voters’ slip in his palm but none of them was going in. “Baayecaaat!” he shouted out and then the others shouted too: “Baaayecaat!!”

Women and elders hesitantly join the polling in Budgam
Women and elders hesitantly join the polling in Budgam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The young boycotters stood their vocal dare. The jawans stood opposite, eyeball-to-eyeball, but impassive. Those in Dardpora that wished to vote passed betwixt. Nothing happened. Continue reading “Freedom To Boycott: The Horrendous Enactment Of 60 Percent In 1996, And The 26 Percent In 2014”

Bombay, Mumbai, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Sachin Tendulkar: Where No Man Has Been Before

Mumbai, Nov 14: History is unbeaten on 38 and has taken an overnight break. The future resumes in a while. A little past nine in the morning, millions of hearts will leap back into mouths and begin to palpitate like prayer.

Sachin Tendulkar’s last stand on the cricket field has interrupted this long and cheerless season of cynicism, drowned out unseemly political blame and claim, smothered the clamour on many embattled barricades and brought a whole nation to exult in unison: “Saachin! Saachin!!”

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Despondency and dissonance can await restoration on prime time; at 33 minutes past three this afternoon, Sachin began to cause a happy disruption, however temporary, with a kilo and a half of willow at the Wankhede.

He brought it sheathed in India colours, and wielded it like a wand of undiminished magic. He made it seem an outrageous travesty he is hanging his cap on it after this one and taking it home forever, signing off at a chosen peak because he can see none else left to climb.

Every moment he has spent on the playing park in recent years, every single run he has scored, has become a new space no man has ever been before. No one has played as many Tests, no one has scored as many runs; maybe he is bored on this solo run, weary of pushing the boundaries so far his company has fallen out of sight.

He pushed a little further on today for cricket and country, and progressed farther afield, a little more solitary in that zone. Six missives to the ropes in his unfinished essay — four exquisite taunts to gaps on the off boundaries, a delectable paddle to fine leg, and the last, a signature posting of authority to long on. Fourteen singles, squeezed about and caressed, 51 other offerings patiently seen through, as if he were determined to make his last fling more than just a one-night stand. He was correct as a textbook throughout; only, the Windies, who have given a torrid description of themselves thus far, couldn’t read him.

Darren Sammy’s men stood Sachin a gracious guard of honour as he walked in, then immediately laid an elaborate snare — slip, close in, short point, forward short leg, a fine leg so short he could pick Sachin’s back-pocket, and wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin breathing down his bootlaces. Shane Shillingford, the lone Caribbean shark on tour, had the blood of openers Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay fresh on his fingers; he was finning in for another kill. Sachin dabbed and padded and then twirled one to square leg and called ‘run’, oblivious that Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t possibly have heard him at the other end. The roar lifting off the Wankhede was such, it was pushing the risen tides of the Arabian Sea on the close by shore. “Saachin! Saachin!!”

For the better part today, the Wankhede centrestage was actually the fringe — deep fine leg, or third man, or long off, where Sachin stood as the West Indians crumbled yet again around the pole of a promising start. For all the merry wreckage Pragyan Ojha, Ravichandran Ashwin & Co were causing mid-field, the arena’s attentions roved and settled where Sachin went. It was a crowd unwilling to concede cricket is an eleven-a-side game; it was there just for that one diminutive giant minding the fence in a floppy hat.

To behold Sachin unmindfully tapping grass and enacting that trademark pre-stance crouch in the face of such imploring adulation was to be in the vicinity of a transcendent presence. How may a man contain the reverberation of a million jangling nerves, let alone his own?  How may a man remain calm in the eddy of high-decibel arousal and expectation he has come to cause? Sachin looked so removed and disengaged under his helmet from the reverence rippling around, it almost seemed a rude thing to do.

But then, he may have been otherwise occupied. He may have been paying final obeisance to the craft that has made Sachin Tendulkar what he is — beyond adjective or ascription, Sachin Tendulkar himself. The Chief Editor of my newspaper is possessed of quirky inventiveness with metaphors. He discontinued describing the few things he reckoned world-class as world-class a while back; he began to call them Tendulkar-class.

The world saw Sachin salute the Wankhede turf before he took guard today; what he may have kept to himself was a bow to mother Rajini whose first match-day out at the stadium would be her son’s last. And to guru Ramakant Achrekar, who arrived on the viewing deck in a wheel-chair to watch his ward play one final time.

Sachin’s elders may have to make that effort one more time tomorrow. History is still in the scripting. And when Sachin enters the Wankhede bowl tomorrow, he might well render the future for his cricketing peers a little more unattainable. Breathe easy, this man has nothing more to prove than the undying expectations of his following.

1999, Kargil, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Kargil: Man Behind the Enemy Mask

A FRAGMENT FROM MY REPORTAGE ON THE KARGIL WAR OF 1999
This piece was first published in The Telegraph in July 1999

In Mushkoh Valley with Neelesh Misra of AP (left, in flak jacket).
In Mushkoh Valley with Neelesh Misra of AP (left, in flak jacket).

Mushkoh Valley, Drass, Kargil: Here is a little glimpse into the man we describe by that disliked anonymous noun called The Enemy: Captain Imtiaz Malik of the Pakistan Army’s 165th Mortar Regiment.

Captain Imtiaz perished in the fierce battle over Point 4875 on the night of July 7. But if he knew how to fight, he perhaps also knew how to love. In his breast pocket was found a letter from his wife Samina. It was a crumpled sheet of blue and spattered with the dead captain’s blood. The post mark on the envelope showed that Samina had mailed it in Islamabad on June 14, probably the last letter she sent to him.

There were also other missives from his wife Captain Imtiaz had kept on his person through to the end: two postcards, for instance, of the kind young lovers are wont to write to each other. It would seem too indecent an invasion of a dead man’s privacy or a young widow’s grief to reveal their contents. Suffice to say that Captain Imtiaz was a man well loved by his dear ones. And perhaps he loved his dear ones as much; else, he wouldn’t have bothered strapping his wife’s letters to his heart in battle. Continue reading “Kargil: Man Behind the Enemy Mask”

2011, Egypt, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

How I made a mistake and then realised breathing free itself was the revolution

These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011

Sankarshan Thakur, who reported on the Egyptian uprising, recounts an unforgettable lesson he learnt at Tahrir Square

Feb 13, Cairo: Revolutions don’t reserve the right to admission; everyone’s welcome, including those they rise against, the more the merrier. Revolutions, as opposed to coups d’etat, are driven not by the dark deceit of a few but by the daring embrace of the many. They aren’t hatched in the shadowy backrooms of power, they are audacious things that roam the streets and arrive to explode at power’s guarded precincts: a palace, a prisonhouse, a wall, a ship deck, or, as in Egypt the past fortnight, a townsquare. They can’t be a crafted plot, they are a propulsion force laser-guided by the unjust nature of things. Revolutions don’t demand rights to admission. They erupt, the rest follows.

Egyptian Troops take a briefing before deploying in Zamalek, Central Cairo
Egyptian Troops take a briefing before deploying in Zamalek, Central Cairo

On my fourth evening at Tahrir Square last week, I lapsed into an error of judgement induced by critical gaps in my understanding of how revolutions work. There isn’t a standard guide anywhere on revolutionary symptoms and practices, of course, that reporters tasked to the ringside can pack in their in-flight bags; there probably can’t be.

Revolutions are not science, they are, if anything, a work of art in progress. But art is probably more demanding of understanding and interpretation because formulas don’t fit. Between one revolution and another very little fits. Mikhail Gorbachev survived to become extant world statesman, Nicolai Ceaucescu ended up shot and strung on a pole.

On the other hand, between a failed revolution and a successful one, a lot can seem similar. Tiananmen and Tahrir both began with angered youth facing off against tanks in the capital’s heart. They probably rolled over that one man — and much more — who stood in the tank’s path in that iconic photograph from Tiananmen; at Tahrir, human bodies rolled into the treads of tanks to immobilise them.

Continue reading “How I made a mistake and then realised breathing free itself was the revolution”