‘Come on, Kaku, we’ll be late!’ said my six-year-old niece, Rupsa, to me, her paternal Uncle.
‘Don’t worry, Rupsa ma, we won’t be late,’ said I, addressing her in the traditional Bengali way of calling a young girl ma, mother. In reply, she pouted her lips. I was about to add ‘we can’t be late’ as an afterthought, but refrained.
Our destination was not a far one; it was our roof. It was 13th of December, and the annual Geminids meteor shower was peaking that night. What was special about the shower that year was that it was occurring on a New Moon night, and by coincidence, one on which a Total Solar Eclipse had occurred. Skygazers in the regions of the world where both the events could be seen were in a frenzy, and it was clear that the Internet would be flooded the next day with collaged pictures of the two celestial phenomena. We, however, had to satisfy ourselves with the meteor shower only, which in itself is generally considered the biggest one in a given year, and hence was bound not to disappoint, given the new moon and the wonderful weather.
What I could not understand, though, was Rupsa’s sudden interest in matters of the sky. Specifically, matters of the night sky. Whenever we had gone to our ancestral home, where we usually spent the winter, I had tried to show her the stars, even showed her some constellations, but she was barely interested. ‘It’s just a big screen where lights are shined in spots,’ she would say. When I asked her about the Sun and the Moon, she would say, ‘The Moon is one big flashlight, and the Sun is a bigger one!’ She would laugh then, as if amused by this conclusion which she genuinely believed. The clouds were big tufts of cotton, the rain was someone opening a tap and sprinkling water, while the aeroplanes were but puppet toys in the hands of an invisible puppeteer. And meteors, or ‘shooting stars’, were simply stray ‘tooni bulbs’ (fairy lights). Having been an avid stargazer and astronomy enthusiast throughout my life, I often wondered how she reached this alternate conclusion about the night sky. In the end, I blamed the fluorescent stars and Moon stuck on her blue bedroom ceiling, which were the substitutes in the polluted cities where stars no longer shine their light. Such is the imagination of children in the ‘AI age’, where everything is supposedly a machine.
It is interesting to note that she had shown no interest in knowing about the solar eclipse, which was all over the Internet, but was thinking specifically about the meteor shower. ‘Do stars fall from there?’, Rupsa had asked me that morning. She had still not got accustomed to the notion of a limitless sky, and had been referring to it as ‘there’. I thought that it would kindle her imagination, and thus nodded, but she simply nodded back and went away. Later, she expressed interest in seeing the meteor shower that night, and I gladly asked her to accompany me.
Thus it was, that at midnight, she was calling me, to ascend the stairs and settle in for a night on the roof. She was already dressed in warm clothing, and was probably irritated to see me not ready yet. How would she know that the real show could only be seen after 1 am at the least! I quickly put on a sweater, covered my ears with a muffler, and went with her to the roof.
Seating arrangements had already been made: two reclining chairs were placed right in the middle of the roof, and a was a rug as well, in case our necks ached and we needed to lie down to make it easier to watch. After all, it was an all-night show which ended only as dawn arrived to drive away the dark. I sat down, but Rupsa stood. She stood and stared, and stared and stared, at the vast skies overhead. I looked up and smiled, knowing that it would be a particularly brilliant show that night.
‘When will it start?’ she asked.
‘Come and sit down,’ I said, smiling. ‘It has started already.’
She looked as though she didn’t quite believe me. After all, if the show had started, it must be possible to see it. Nevertheless, she sat down. I showed her the constellation of Gemini, from where the meteors appear to originate, and told her to keep an eye there, though, I said, the meteors could be seen anywhere in the sky. She heard my words, but I doubt if she was listening; she seemed lost in her own thoughts.
Soon after, we could see ‘shooting stars’ streak across the skies. On average, a bright, prominent meteor could be seen every 5 to 10 minutes, which is very high, considering the pollution which has enveloped the earth. Earlier, they say, there were prominent meteors every minute during the Geminids. How the world has changed, I often think.
Every time a meteor streaked by which Rupsa noticed, she got very excited, stood up, and kept staring in that direction for some time after it had passed. Then, she glanced around the roof. After that, as her excitement died down, she would sit down again, and would start thinking deeply about something. She would be so deep in her thoughts that she would, at times, miss a prominent meteor in the same direction where she was looking and not even know about it till I told her. At such a time, she would get excited even further, and would stare at every direction, as if making sure she missed nothing in those next few moments. She seemed somewhat troubled, due to which my concern was growing.
‘What’s wrong, Rupsa ma?’ I once asked, unable to bear it any longer. She turned some time after I had asked her, looked at me, gave a smile, and turned back to the sky. I glanced at my wristwatch: 2.30 am I interpreted Rupsa’s behaviour as being caused out of exhaustion due to waking far beyond her bed time, and suggested that we lie down.
‘No, Kaku!’ she cried at the suggestion, startling me. ‘I will fall asleep and miss it!’
‘Okay then, let’s sit and watch the show,’ I said, beaming.
The celestial display was one of the best I had ever seen. The different meteors, with their different chemical compositions, lit up the sky in colours at times, when a particular element was in a large quantity in a certain meteor. Most of them were white, but some were blue, reddish, and even purplish. It was a treat to watch the celestial show.
As the minutes went past, Rupsa’s head bobbed up and down a few times. Clearly, she was sleepy, and was struggling to stay awake. I was astonished at this behaviour from a five-year-old. I suggested that she drink some water, and splash a bit on her eyes. She was missing more meteors, until finally, she started strolling about the roof, head turned upward. Alarmed at the thought that she might not notice the ends of the roof, I strolled with her. She seemed to be searching for something, searching furiously. Her eyes, which she rubbed periodically to keep sleep away, were darting to and fro at times. As the darkest hour of the night, the hour just before dawn, approached, I sensed her impatience growing. Still, she did not say anything when I asked her.
Then, as dawn was approaching and the first few rays of sunlight started to shine from the eastern end, a brilliant meteor lit up the sky. It was one of the most beautiful ones I had ever seen. Streaking across the sky, it was a magnificent blue coloured meteor, and it seemed to be heading straight in our direction. Seeing it, Rupsa’s excitement knew no bounds. She ran forward towards the meteor. I followed hurriedly, scared that she might fall. After the meteor, was gone, she stared at that part of the sky for over a minute.
‘What’s the mat–’ before I could complete my question, she turned, and ran around the roof, as if searching for something again. It seemed to me that she could not hear my voice. Apparently unsuccessful in finding what she was searching, she turned and ran down into the house. I followed as fast as I could. She went from room to room, looking everywhere. It was still early, and everyone was sleeping. I kept asking, ‘What’s the matter, Rupsa?’, but got no reply. Finally, she turned and ran back up to the roof. My athleticism had long left me, and I staggered up the stairs as fast as I could, panting.
On reaching the roof, I found Rupsa sitting on the rug, crying.
‘What happened, ma?’ I asked.
Sobbing, she replied, ‘I did not tell you because you are not… that thing…’ She paused, thinking about the word, then said, ‘Soopastisious. You would not have believed me.’ I realised she was trying to say superstitious. It is true that I am not at all superstitious, but what had that to do with her crying?
‘Dimma!’ she cried suddenly, and sobbed harder. It was what she called her maternal grandmother, who had passed away a little more than a month ago. I remembered that she had been distressed at her passing away. Naturally, she was too young to understand the concept of death.
‘Did she wish upon a shooting star and think it will come true….?’ I was wondering what superstition she was referring to when she spoke again, in the midst of her sobs.
‘Ma had said…. Dimma star…. I thought…. She had gone to… to that screen… and would…. come back tonight… with the shooting stars,’ she managed to say before she broke down completely and sobbed uncontrollably.