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Updated: January 26, 2010 21:27 IST

The light of reason

C.K. Meena
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While the curious and the rational flocked to open grounds to observe solar eclipse, the traditional and the play-it-safe huddled indoors with curtains drawn.
While the curious and the rational flocked to open grounds to observe solar eclipse, the traditional and the play-it-safe huddled indoors with curtains drawn.

Cloaking myth in a shroud of so-called rationale does not change facts

When I was a child my parents told me that looking directly at a welding flame would damage my eyes. Somehow, those words, spoken casually and just once, left a permanent impression on my brain. Whenever I passed by a garage where a mechanic wearing goggles wielded the welder's torch I would quickly avert my eyes. I thought that if I caught even a glimpse of the incandescent light I would lose my vision. This irrational fear runs so deep that even now, at 52 plus, I only have to hear the harsh burr of a welding torch to instinctively look the other way.

I suppose you've guessed that I'm drawing a comparison to people's fear of the “evil rays” of the sun during a solar eclipse. On a normal day you would not be able to look straight at the midday sun, wide-eyed, for more than a few seconds. During an eclipse the sun burns just as bright although you don't sense it, and if you stared at it for a long time your eyes would obviously be injured. That's how you would see it in the light of reason. But reason is a puny fighter and no match for the towering presence of myth.

Thus you have people who refrain from eating, bathing or going outdoors for the entire duration of the grahana. Trying to couch their behaviour in scientific-sounding terms they will speak of the sun's “harmful radiation”. As a clincher they will declare that modern science cannot explain everything, but that scientists of the future might prove ancient wisdom right. One is lost for words in the face of such arguments. In a room with ten people, if five say they see a blue cat, can the other five convincingly prove to them that it isn't there?

It is not difficult to visualise prehistoric man being enthralled by the infinite power of the sun. To make a god of our life-giving star was the easiest thing. Now imagine a total eclipse, millennia ago, when a monstrous dragon swallowed the great ball of fire in the sky and man stood cowering and dumbstruck in the dark. Some hid in terror, some stared up for hours in desperate hope, and when the sun came out again, lo, there were those who had lost their vision. Think they'd take a chance the next time around?

The age-old dread was in evidence on the day of the recent annular solar eclipse. While the curious and the rational flocked to open grounds to observe this once-in-a-millennium phenomenon, the traditional and the play-it-safe huddled indoors with curtains drawn. Entire apartment complexes were cloaked in silence, with radios and TVs switched off, and children out of sight and hearing. Was sound, too, forbidden? If you were driving somewhere at half-past eleven you would have got to your destination in record time. In your office you might have noticed how the canteen was near-empty at lunchtime but filled up after 3.30 p.m.

And where was I? I was waiting for the eclipse to begin so I could step out. Very few shops were open in my neighbourhood and the fish stall was one of them. A couple of middle-aged Bengali men were the fishmonger's only customers besides me. A bar was open and a few customers could be discerned in the dim interior behind a dirty curtain. The gigantic chain store near my house was as hollow as a depleted piggy bank in which a shopper or two rattled about. “No one will come today,” the lift operator told a shop assistant. “Maybe after four,” said the assistant. The operator shook his head dolefully and repeated, “No, nobody.”

I embarked on a complicated fish curry which was still simmering on the stove at the zenith of the eclipse and therefore did not find its way into my lunch. I couldn't help getting up from the dining table now and again to watch the peculiar light outside, a light reminiscent of the hour before sunset but sans the slanting rays. Squirrels chirped shrilly. Workers on the open rooftop of a neighbouring apartment block under construction hammered away noisily. Eclipse or no eclipse, they had to earn their daily rice.

I thought about what my domestic employee had narrated that morning. She had rushed through work at top speed because her husband had instructed her to get back home before 11 a.m. “He wanted me to throw away all the food in the house,” she said in a tone of acute exasperation. “Mad he is.” When he had explained that the sun's bad rays would damage the bananas in their house and render them unfit for consumption, she had retorted, “The bunch from which these bananas came is still hanging in the shop. You think the shopkeeper will throw it? Tomorrow you will go to the shop and buy that same fruit. What then? Is it not bad for you?”

Unbeatable logic. “Radiation” should have contaminated every piece of raw and cooked material on the planet. We should have stopped eating until new crops were grown and harvested. No, colouring belief with science does not work. Best say you're following a cultural practice and wish to offer a quiet obeisance to the magnificence of the sun.

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