It was cold, bitingly cold. The scrawny rickshaw-puller seemed to have had a particularly healthy breakfast, for he was pedaling fast. Or perhaps the pleasant surprise of having a light passenger load had given him added wings. In any case, the cold blast of wind felt like needles piercing my face that not even a generous application of Tuhina cream could thwart. My fingers were getting numb and I longed to be able to put them in my trouser pockets, but I couldn’t as I also had to balance my maroon colored school bag, a green lunch box with cute little plastic spoon, knife and fork and a water bottle with it’s screw-on cap doubling as a cup. It was my first day at school at St. Xavier’s, in the sleepy little district town of Hazaribagh in Bihar, India, famous for once being a summer resort for wealthy Calcuttans and for hosting a forested national park, reputed to contain a few tigers in the wild.
It is indeed amazing how the mind filters trillions of data bytes and decides to retain the most trivial of information but is often content with only a vague recollection of what are surely more important events and occasions. This was my first day at school after all, and yet all that I remember of that day is that my newly bought uniform of grey trousers, white shirt, red V-necked sweater, navy blue blazer and a striped tie on blue background was wholly unequal to the bitter cold of that January morning of 1970. And the fact that my teacher’s reluctance to let me go to the bathroom during her class led to a completely wet and avoidable situation which I do not need to recall today.
One week was enough to have me enamored with my school. The elegant buildings, seven different playgrounds, including two cemented tennis courts, the wonderful school cricket team (district champion, no less), immaculately dressed fathers of the Society of Jesuits in their pristine white cassocks, awe-inspiring teachers and wonderful friends — it had all the elements needed for a lifetime of friendship, love and more. But three things stand out as having created a permanent mark in my impressionable seven year old mind within those first six days:
- the school crest laid out in mosaic spanning an entire hallway width of the main building, showing the logos of the four houses that the students would eventually be assigned to,
- the absolutely mouthwatering “Aloo Chop”, available for 25 p from the canteen during the morning breaks between 10:00 AM and 10:15 AM only, and handed out on strips of yesterday’s news papers, along with shredded onions and green chutney, and
- the annual drama production on “Moon Landing at Hazaribagh”, to be performed in front of a 1000 strong audience.
The last point needs some elaboration. You see, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the moon on 20th July, 1969, the very first time that humans had walked on the lunar soil, and thereby ignited the world’s imagination. The landing was broadcast on live TV worldwide, but India did not have any TV stations to tune into then, and internet was not even a dream. But people did follow the landing live on the radio and I understand that the school authorities had given a one-time exemption for students to disregard bedtime rules and listen to the commentary. The exact time of landing was 1:48 AM on Monday and I guess there may have been quite a few tired yawns in the classes that day.
The impact that one scientific success can have on malleable and receptive minds is hard to describe but readily apparent for all to see. I can visualize the feverish discussions among the students about the Apollo XI’s preparations, the actual moment of landing, how it might have felt to be in Michael Collins shoes, what it would take to work at NASA and similar other innumerable innocent queries. When grainy newspaper photographs were all one had access to in terms of immediate visual confirmation, imaginative powers in fertile young minds must surely have rushed in to provide stimuli. One such outcome was the decision by the Dramatics Society to have the annual school play titled “Moon Landing at Hazaribagh”.
I do not remember the details very well, but one of the astronauts needed to befriend an “alien” at Hazaribagh, having landed on Hazaribagh soil and then discovered that his craft, the magnetic Zeus-XI, would not re-start. I was that “alien kid” and being the only one who could understand their language, needed to convey their needs to the “adult aliens” from Hazaribagh and convince them not to tear the Zeus-XI apart. As to why I was the only one to know the language of the astronauts I do not remember. And the reason why I was chosen to play the part is one of many abiding mysteries that I shall never be able to fathom, though I have a sneaking suspicion that it was because I was the only one ready to dress up as a girl and play the character.
The encounter with Zeus-XI and it’s astronauts started my lifelong obsession with theoretical science and science-fiction. My personal contribution to science and technology may be debatable, but no one can doubt my interest and passion. Isaac Asimov, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, Carl Sagan and Robert C Clarke dominate my Kindle list and I salivate at the release of other such books as much as a kid did during the Harry Potter days. On slow days, the mind goes back to the school years and sometimes I wonder if I should recreate my version of the play called “Moon Landing at Hazaribagh”. Maybe one day I will.
That was an inordinately long introduction to what I intended to focus on in this blog, which is time travel. But that is how I have evolved to be — a slow, shuffling rambler who cannot get to the point fast enough to hold anyone’s attention. It is fortunate that I am not a travel agent as I would have probably planned a direct New Delhi-Dubai trip via Melbourne (because one absolutely had to see the new baby at the city’s Orang-utan sanctuary, and who incidentally, are our closest relatives). But I digress again.
My love for theoretical physics and metaphysics takes me to subjects such as string theory, black hole, parallel universe, Big Bang et al. I do not profess to understand them — in fact, I am far, far away from understanding the physics of these esoteric terms — but what I am fascinated about is the futuristic fiction that emanates from all these theories. And hence, my enchantment with time travel. Think about it for a minute. If you had a chance to go back into history, would you not want to do it and view how a different era lived? Does the thought of being in Marty McFly’s (the protagonist of the comic
science fiction film “Back to the Future”) shoes, or rather, his futuristic 1985 car, not give you goosebumps? Or perhaps you are more open to the suggestion of viewing the future — yours, your descendants, human-kinds, the worlds, universes, whatever… And therein lies the beauty and elegance of time travel. Within a blink of an eye you are transported to wherever you want to be, in whatever dimension, century and universe you fancy, be an observer or benign participant, and stay with the conviction that if things got too crazy, you could be escorted back to the safety of your current congenial environment.
It is indeed strange how the human mind connects dots. I am part of a WhatsApp group of my college friends and the usual messages and posts circulated there can be categorized into four:
- Good morning/Good evening, with some feel good message and image
- Message/image related to the greatness of God
- Humor, usually of a mature (some would say puerile) variety, and
- News of group members
It is rare to get general information to be circulated here, and to be fair, that was not the intent of this circle. But, last week, there was a video interview posted showing an interview of Prof Michio Kaku talking about the US H1-B visa. While that was engrossing in itself, it called to mind his book “Physics of the Impossible” in which he talks about, among other things, teleportation and time travel. And toying with the concept of time travel led me to conceive a time-filler, a game if you will, on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was in the form of a simple question: If I had the ability to travel in time, what would be the incidents I would like to witness as an impartial historian?
I laid out a few rules, as otherwise it would be messy:
- List of top five events I would like to witness, in no particular order
- It necessarily has to be in the past
- It will not involve me or close family members (to avoid bias)
- I could only be a benign observer, and in no way influence the outcome
I realized the exercise was not as simple as it first seemed. I would have loved to be present at the Big Bang and witness the moment of creation, or singularity as scientists have called it, but I was uncomfortable assigning to me such limitless powers. I would have loved to be present during the Jurassic age and get a selfie with the T-Rex, but since humans had not evolved at that point, it would not have been logical for me to be there. Similar rationale prevented me from shaking
hands with Lucy, the 3.2 million year old ape, our most famous ancestor. That left me with the realization that while my time travel could be to the distant past, it had to remain within the constraints of human development. Now, evolutionary history says that modern humans developed around 200,000 years ago, migrated from Africa 100,000-150,000 years later and developed the ability of modern symbolic culture and language around 50,000 years ago. While fascinating, this was too broad a time range to indulge in the fantasy of time travel and so I perforce had to add a fifth and a sixth rule to my previous four: the travel to the past has to be where there is a recognizable and historically acknowledged event in documented human history, and it could not be a succession of events separated by considerable length of time. So, evolution was out and so was a visit to the city of Atlantis or Lanka (of Ramayana fame). Or even the Kurukshetra war, detailed in the Mahabharata, though the idea of being able to observe all the great warriors propelled to action by their individual understanding of dharma (right) seems fascinating.
Armed with these set of rules, and a writing pad and pencil, I plopped down on my comfortable sofa to decide the five most important events that I would like to witness. It turned out to be a momentous exercise. I had initially given myself thirty minutes to come up with my list. I came up with at least twenty that seemed to be all equally enticing, and some twenty more which were very close also-rans. To my surprise, ordinary events from ordinary lives were as alluring as historically significant events. Strange is the way how the mind works.We think we know ourselves, but deep inside us, there is often a thought or a wish that can truly amaze us when it floats up to the surface.
Pruning the list to five was very difficult — what was in my top five one moment turned out to be in my bottom ten in the next iteration. The thirty minutes turned to a couple of hours and I was still nowhere near a conclusion. Hours turned into days and I knew things were beginning to look ludicrous when I even had difficulty falling asleep, which is a rarity, as Rupa will readily confirm. Apparently, under usual circumstances, I need to hit the bed and the next moment I am in slumberland. However, as with everything else in life, things eventually returned to normal. A quick jog in the crisp cool morning air of the Bois de Boulogne cleared my head and I had my final list. Here they are:
- Watch Macbeth being performed at the Globe theater during Shakespeare’s times (around 1600’s). Perhaps I could venture backstage during the performance and sit with the bard and watch Lady Macbeth spout “Out, damned spot! Out, I say.”
- Hear Jawaharlal Nehru speak at the Parliament House on the midnight of August 15, 1947 on India’s “tryst with destiny”.
- Witness the war between the Macedonian and Paurava army on the banks of the Jhelum river in 327 BC and the defeated king Porus’ defiant wish that he be treated as a king ought to be, in spite of being vanquished, and Alexander the Great acceding to the request.
- Watch Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda). Would then know for sure the identity of the model and the mystery behind the Mona Lisa smile. But be assured, not a word shall pass my lips — the suspense must endure for all times.
- Watch the apple fall on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and his stunned realization of the powers of gravity. OK, the story is probably apocryphal but it is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that for the purpose of my blog, we shall assume it happened. At the very least, we will be able to determine its veracity.
Dear Reader, what would be in your list? There is no right or wrong, just what appeals to you.
Oh, I need to get this out too. One of the rules above was that anything directly connected to self or family could not be listed. But if that was not one of the requirements, the top ranked item for me would be to hold hands with my father when he was battling the final stages of Alzeimer’s. The disease had robbed him of his memory and his ability to speak. He was not able to recognize anyone and had turned into a thin shell of his former robust self. Weighed down by the powerful psychotropic medicines and sedatives, he would spend most of the time lying down on his bed, gazing out at things unseen. If I could time travel I would go down to Kolkata in the monsoons of 2007 and just sit beside him and hold his hands for hours and days together. He would probably not recognize me, but who knows — maybe he would, through my touch. I know we had a special bond together.