By Maya Malhotra
Please run, don’t walk to the next total solar eclipse. Across mainland US, enter the 8th of April, Anno Domini 2024 in your smartphone calendars, book rooms early, and pray to the celestials that it doesn’t rain or that you expire beforehand. (After that, since you’ll experience nothing as fabulous again, it’s quite OK.).
I almost missed the path of totality on February 16, 1980 but for the persuasion of my dear friend and host, Vasantha Surya. She urged me to postpone my departure from Hyderabad for Madras (now named Chennai) a couple of days before that auspicious date. Her husband and she were planning an excursion with a group of likeminded friends to a distant spot near the path of totality to sleep the night in anticipation and listen to a pre-eclipse tutorial given by a scientist friend. They had reserved a spacious old dak bungalow beside the Nagarjunasagar (Nagarjuna Lake). I agreed to stay on and join them, though I was unconvinced that a 100% eclipse was far more than 6% more awesome than the 94% I would see over Madras. The following day they planned to drive deep into the Nalgonda District and into the heart of totality.
For weeks before the event, the newspapers had been full of ancient and modern eclipse accounts, true and dire warnings against looking at the sun with the naked eye, and homely how-to tips for making homemade eclipse watching devices. Those lacking the smarts to make pin-holes in cardboard boxes could mix a slurry of cowdung and water to watch the sun’s reflection in a tin bucket. This was India in 1980. It was overwhelmingly rural.
However, these well-intentioned warnings combined with ancient dreads and predictions of planetary pollution and served terrorize most of India’s citizens. (To the rustic and illiterate who lived beyond broadcast zones, the impending phenomenon signified little).
On the day of the eclipse, hardly a human in the country emerged outdoors without urgent cause; the national airline planes flew empty; traffic ceased; shopkeepers downed their shutters; the pious abstained from food and sex, engaging instead in healthful meditation and sacred song to ward off negative outcomes. Demon Rahu was to swallow and then to disgorge the Sun. Earth was to become polluted. Prescriptive baths, Gangetic dips, sprinkles of Ganges water were in order. At my daughter’s boarding school, the children were shepherded into their dorm rooms, thick curtains were drawn, and all were forbidden to go near the windows. Few high school science teachers, skilled at drawing blackboard diagrams of the phenomenon, were foolhardy enough to take their students on field trips.
The firmament’s power to bestow a profusion of blessings and curses has haunted us since man and religion began. Visitations of manna, locusts, fatal lightning, voices that converted sinners into salt and well hurled thunderbolts have come down from the highest of sources. Eclipses have exercised their influence upon battles won and battles lost, on providential escapes, history altering assassinations, and the birth of malformed humans and furnished mathematically gifted priests and soothsayers a heaven sent chance to forecast the moment of appearance and thus to manipulate the gullible.
However we were a sensible band of rationalists who motored one hundred and fifty bumpy kilometers into the hinterland. My hosts ‘aged parents stayed home, the one to pray and perform misfortune averting rituals; the other, a rational and scientifically inclined citizen, to be denied the treat of totality–to his great disappointment. The old lady feared for his well-being; his son and daughter-in-law feared that he might suffer an angina attack in the wilderness. Our excursion leader was a Dr. Pushpa Mithra Bhargava, an eminent biologist from the Hyderabad Centre of Cellular and Molecular Biology. Albeit a firm rationalist and proud atheist, he told us that he had advised a pregnant Master Degree student that “Mothers-in-law know best. Listen to yours.” The young woman, keen to see the totality, had asked him to provide rational, scientific arguments to assure her terrified mother-in-law that this phenomenon would have no ill effect upon the unborn baby.
We were surprised to hear this. But Dr. Bhargava’s explanation made sense: “If anything goes wrong with the pregnancy or the baby, I will be held responsible. Better to tell her to follow her ma-in-law’s advice.”
Proving that “coming events cast their shadows before”, an inauspicious event occurred twenty-four hours before the eclipse. Upon reaching the dak bungalow, we had set to work unrolling mattresses, making beds, preparing the evening meal. As Vasantha unrolled her mattress an evil black messenger emerged; he lashed his curved, forked tail against her fingers. Their sting is excruciating, killing infants and small animals. In this bare and stony terrain there was not a clinic or dispensary for miles around. I cannot recall if someone produced an antihistamine tablet or aspirin from their first aid kit. Nevertheless, it was hours before her agony subsided.
As evening fell we walked to the lakeshore. Those were empty days in the landscapes of India. The scene has changed since then. Now tourists crowd the lake and visit the museum of salvaged Buddhist era temples which were submerged when the grand Nagarjunasagar dam was constructed, a miracle project of the 1950s. They traverse the waves in pleasure boats and tourist launches. A vestige of a hoary past that we saw then survives till today. Its classic, almost Homeric, simplicity is astonishing. A lake fisherman poled a “frail bark”—his coracle, in the waters.
This simple craft consists of a circular reed basket with a stout leather hide stretched on its outer side. Since then I have seen also seen it on the winding course of the Tungabhadra River in the southern state of Karnataka.
As night fell after our evening meal, Dr. Bhargava prepped us on what to look for during the eclipse. I recall hearing of Bailey’s Beads, a silver corona, diamond rings, solar rays, and sunspots.
The next day after a leisurely breakfast we drove further into the Deccan heartland. The Deccan is the vast southern plateau which takes up most of the Indian peninsula. The name simply means “south”, or south of where the sub-continent’s “Turki” invaders first established their rule. It was once a great chunk of Africa named Gondwanaland after India’s aboriginal Gond inhabitants. Crashing into and under the Asian mainland, it shoved up the Himalayan chain with acts of gargantuan seismic mischief.
Vishnu also had a role in creating the Eclipse. When the elixir of immortality was churned out of the ocean by his agency, this “amrit”, or ambrosia, was seized and gulped down by demonic Rahu. The Sun and the Moon sent an urgent SOS to Vishnu. So Vishnu chopped off the offender’s head before the nectar could pass into his body. The vengeful Rahu, reduced to a deathless head, continues to swallow the Sun and the Moon from time to time. For lack of lodging, the bodiless head rapidly disgorges his mouthfuls. Rahu and Ketu, the headless body, make an astrological appearance in the firmament as the respective celestial and lunar nodes of intersection.
However, mythological interpretations were not on our minds that day. We halted at what looked like the centre of the totality zone, positioned ourselves upon a large flat-topped boulder, clambering up with picnic and viewing gear. Spread around us was the Deccan Plateau in all its emptiness. But for a tiny village of mud and grass huts, it consisted of an open, scrubby plain, marked by dramatic, randomly scattered boulders and rocky hillocks.
At a distance, these basalt shapes resemble petrified dinosaurs traversing an ancient volcanic tableland—rambling, anchored giants. Our binoculars revealed a group of Europeans who had positioned themselves on one such formation.
To our left we overlooked the modest Lambadi village. The Lambadi people are thought to be related to the gypsy tribes who wandered westwards out of India more than a thousand years ago. The habitation consisted of half a dozen huts sheltered within a circular corral of long and forbiddingly barbed keekar branches interlocked and laid like loops of razor wire. A small family, a cheerful snaggle-toothed grandmother, her son, her daughter-in-law and a little boy, approached us. Three or four goats moved ahead of them, kept in line with a stick. The family was traditionally attired, the women laden with rustic silver jewelry in full colorful skirts and shirts adorned with bright winking mirrors set in frames of embroidery. The man wore a dhoti, shirt, and turban, but the little boy was in short pants.
The old woman was very curious about us, as we perched upon the rock munching coleslaw sandwiches and sipping tea from a thermos. We told her of the momentous spectacle we were there to witness. Her son and daughter-in-law wanted none of this; with frowning faces, they gathered up their flock and hustled them into the corral. That would have been the 22nd of January, 1898, the last time that totality had swept through the Deccan and over her little village. The event had been written of in the papers. Recalling her handed down family story, I felt strangely one with the continuum of eclipses past. Can a total eclipse be an ordinary thing? Perhaps if you have seen a harvest moon lay its wash of silver upon an eerie landscape and there is no light pollution to ruin the spell, it might compare. Or travelled way up north in bitter winter to see the Aurora Borealis. Even so, the fluke of a total solar eclipse hitting the same spot is about once in 350 years.
We gave the old lady an exposed negative. And waited expectantly. Strange to look at the face of the sun. I thought of Saleemuddin, a dignified and fervent Musalman cook that we had once employed, who told me, “A woman is like the sun. You cannot look at the sun, you should not look at the face of a woman”. Yet here we were, sitting on a boulder, actually looking directly at that forbidding visage, even seeing the black specks, the very sunspots that even non-scientists have heard of. It struck me later how miraculous it is to look at Almighty Sun, the Light, the Deus, the Zeus, the Deo, the Deva to which we earthbound creatures owe our very life and sustenance, from which our early minds created notions of omnipotence, God, and creation.
The total eclipse on January 22, 1898 that was remembered by the Lambadi woman’s father. This path of totality across Indian Peninsula was not to happen again until February 16, 1980.
We waited. It was 3:49 in the afternoon when the landscape turned into a crepuscular shadow. Night began to fall. Not a building or mountain existed then to break our endless curve of horizon. The European eclipse gazers were faraway dots, other wanderers settled upon another salient of our planet. Except for the livestock, nothing stirred in the afternoon sun; the village seemed bereft of life.
An eerie, disorienting dusk made its silent presence. It was an encounter with a spectacle from precreation. A beautiful, clear red dawn lay in a 360-degree circle, so unfamiliar and unsettling as to make us feel small, alone, and vulnerable. We, who were members of a species that is given to the bravado of explanation–mystical, magical, scientific—that is confident to assert his dominion over all. At the overwhelming moment of totality, all faith, confidence, and even logic flee. A primordial instinct takes over, to prostrate oneself upon the ground in unquestioning awe and amazement. We become as primitive mankind,“sore afraid”.
It was about 3:45 in the afternoon. The sun hung comfortably in the sky at an angle of about 40 degrees between zenith and horizon. On a 16th day of February the sky over the unsullied Deccan is clear and brilliantly blue, reliably free from cloud or rain. Or so it was that 1980. Through our negatives, we saw the moon begin its journey across the sun, eating it up until all that remained was a sharp diamond-bright sickle of silver light. We gazed through the filter, when suddenly a huge, charcoal ball dominated the sky, resembling nothing known or seen before. We shed our negatives to see in plain sight this strange object hanging there, suspended in space, with no string, no support, nothing to keep it in place, emanating a platinum bright corona. A few stars gave testament to the brief night.
The previous evening’s lessons about looking out for Bailey’s beads, diamond necklaces were lost in breathless instinct to stare. The totality continued for an eternity of two minutes and thirty-three seconds. To receive the memory of a lifetime, one to hand down to other lifetimes, as had our Lambadi companion, was a unique privilege. All gasped in unison in a collective orgasm of utter delight and ecstasy. The old lady, more devout than we, called upon God, “Ram, Ram!” We screamed, shouted, exhaled and started in joy. Slowly the apparition dwindled into its familiar avatar.
When it was done, we packed up and left. We returned to Hyderabad to find that the old gentleman had suffered an angina attack brought on by the anxiety of positive prayer, fasting, but mostly, I think, from the intense disappointment of missing out on earth’s grandest spectacle.
Maya Malhotra was born in Bombay and educated in India. She now lives in Washington DC. She spent some time as a copywriter but later embarked on a 27 year career in real estate. Now retired she spends her time between America, Canada and Bombay.