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Chasing the eclipse: From New Delhi to Gaya

“This is your first time isn’t it?” No, this respectable German gentleman was not getting up close and personal with me about my private life. Instead, amateur astronomer Christien Woutler and I were discussing the subject which was on everyone’s mind: the eclipse of the century. As we sat in New Delhi’s Terminal 1-D at 3 in the morning, Woutler attempted to give this “eclipse virgin” the benefit of his years of experience. “You never forget your first time. This will be my ninth eclipse?” So what made him go chasing eclipses around the world? Why did he feel so drawn to them? “There is something wonderful each time in seeing all of Nature’s laws overturned,” he replied with a mischievous smile.

Woutler was part of a growing band of “eclipse chasers” who had happily forked out Rs 80,000, to be part of the historic flight to India which would attempt to view the eclipse from 41,000 feet in the air. Organized by Cox and Kings and social welfare organization SPACE (Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators), the Jetlite flight S2-2279 would fly 74 passengers from New Delhi to Gaya, and there passengers would be witness to a dark dawn. This would only last a little over three minutes (in India) but for this sight, eclipse chasers were literally willing to spend the moon. Why did they so? Debashish Bose, eclipse chaser who has at times abandoned family and traversed continents to view eclipses struggled to put his feelings into words. “I can’t explain it. I am an atheist but every time I see an eclipse, something happens to me. For those few minutes I believe in God.”

But Bose’s spiritual yearnings would have to wait. The cacophony of television reporters entering Terminal 1-D ensured that whatever spiritual peace anyone had was soon lost. Thrusting mikes into weary faces, the reporters attempted to capture the moment before it had even begun. “Aap ko kya mehsus ho raha hain?” (What are you feeling right now?) one asked a passenger. “Neend,” was the short and curt reply. Undettered, reporters trained cameras on others more willing. Only so as not to waste time they gave passengers the right lines to say. The result was a series of takes and retakes that would have made Aamir Khan proud.

But all this was a side issue. The sense that we were one of the privileged few from India who would be seeing the eclipse from the sky made it all worthwhile. What was also touching to see was the fact that people from all walks of life (in India) had paid little heed to the cost factor, inconvenient hour and (for some) superstition spouted by well meaning neighbours and friends; to be a part of this historic journey. And it was not as I first believed the traditional wealthy and privileged people who were making this flight. Former NASA scientist Ramachandra Srinivas, to “eclipse chaser” Debashish Bose to retired policeman Ved Prakash, who confessed that he had had spent from his pension to get himself and his wife Asha, to see the eclipse. Talking to Prakash, I could not help but ask him why. “Arrey, my son is in China. He thought he would get a better view there,” Prakash laughed. Coming back to my question he added, “My wife is a school principal. I am hoping through our trip, when her school and others hear of what we have done, some of them will abandon their superstitions and marvel at the natural beauty of the eclipse.”

Inside too, aircraft norms were flouted and for once no one minded. Tripods were uncurled, cameras unleashed, and black solar filters were stuck to the airplane’s windows to ensure the direct rays of the sun would not harm the eyes. In keeping with the spirit of the evening; a magic show too was held onboard. But sadly for him, the magician’s tricks vanished, as the clock’s hands sped towards six o’clock. Forgetting the common norms of the airplane, everyone raced to various seats, adjusted chairs, craned necks, and generously shouted to others when they thought they had found the perfect view. The moment had finally arrived.

Seen through the black curtain of the filter it was nothing short of magical. Yes, the word is a cliché but really words fail here. Like a panther the moon advanced, and seconds later the dark dawn was a reality. For three minutes the sun’s rays were blocked and then came the icing on the cake. People stopped chattering, television reporters stooped their mumbled curses (at one another) and camerapersons watched awestruck, as the sun and the moon combined to form, of all things, a diamond ring! Moments later, as it vanished, women looked at their hands and the men looked slightly sheepish. The time had come to get back to earth.

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