In 1997 the comet Hale-Bopp took hold of our imagination like no other celestial event had in my lifetime except maybe the Solar Eclipse of 1995. We decided it was not enough that we merely see the comet, we had to photograph it. Ten years ago a camera was still a big thing, and digital cameras were unheard of. So when Magan got hold of an SLR, we decided it was time we went looking for the Big Guy. This is a recollection of that trip and of the picture above that Magan took that day.
It took a long time coming before Magan and I actually hit the road in pursuit of the Hale-Bopp. Until then several early morning chases had turned up a blank, most notably the one with Naguesh. After no amount of knocking Jaggu's door in the dark of night had elicited a squeak, Naguesh and I struck out for the plateau before dawn broke over the Engineering College and sat out the dark hours on the plateau garotted by laterite that had changed color to black from being exposed to the elements for hundreds and thousands of years. There we sat, shivering in the cold, and eyes peeled out for the comet in the skies overhead, a Star Dial in my hands but no Hale-Bopp. To this day I cannot understand how Hale-Bopp eluded us that day. And when a herd of buffaloes paused to look at us on their way to their grazing grounds we knew it was time to pack up and try another day. So when Magan suggested that rather than look for it in the early morning hours we should try late evening hours, I readily agreed. We took a different route from the earlier ones.
With my back weighed down by a rucksack packed with camera equipment; a SLR, a tripod, binoculars and a refractor telescope, Magan and I wound our way past the Ajanta Cashew factory, along Cashewnut plantations that swarmed up the hill, broken only in pockets by towering Betel nut palms and a smattering of Jackfruit trees whose fruits hung from the stem like bags under weary eyes. Flat terrain broke into view as the bike laboured up the hill through Priol and into Kerim, a sleepy village nestled in the heart of Goa. Then, a rebellious gravel path veered off the road in Kerim. The road runs on to Savoiverem before drawing up short at the ferry point connecting Volvoi to Maina Surla across the river Mandovi where large barges load Iron Ore from the mines across the river before transporting them to far shores while leaving behind barren land that has turned red in angst.
We took the gravel path in Kerim at the turn guarded by a small semi circular temple called Bhooth Khamba, where cane baskets and small change are offered by worshippers and travelers to appease the resident ghost, believed to menace lonely travelers. Saffron flags fly from staffs affixed to the top of the temple. Across the road from the Bhooth Khamba, bang opposite the gravel road running past the hill we were now making for lay the memorial to Nilesh Naik, a local youth killed in the police firing during the anti-Nylon 6,6 agitation. Thapar-DuPont eventually pulled out of Kerim in face of implacable opposition to the project by local villagers who feared pollution from the plant. It was possibly among the few successful ‘environmental’ agitations in independent India. The gravel path ran on to the now abandoned offices of Thapar-DuPont. Amid broken bottles littering the place, grafitti covered walls stand testimony to plans gone horribly wrong. Occasionally village youth sit among its ruins, drawn to it as much by an association that defined Kerim as by its desolateness in the middle of seemingly nowhere. I had sensed a strange disquiet among the ruins on an earlier trip there.
It was late evening when we took the turn and bumped along the path, pulling up by the side of the hill a short run later, the bike groaning and slipping in the loose gravel. The hill stood dark and large. In the dark even the gentlest of hills take on an ominous character that belies their very raison d'etre. Even in that little light, for, light drops even quicker in the hills, I could see that this hill was different. The massive block of laterite, turned black by unrelenting exposure to the elements, showed in its uneven edges that could quickly cut skin if you were careless. Stony hills rarely have the gentle curves that other hills do. Somehow, I believe this gives them an implacable, unforgiving character not unlike the reputation the village acquired in the middle of its stand-off with the administration over the Nylon 6,6 plant.
In fast fading light, guided by a feeble pen-torch that Magan had carried along to help him set up the telescope and camera attachments, we made our way to the hill more by remembered instinct than by any visible signs to guide us. A previous memory from an outing to another hill where we had seen a Cobra among jagged laterite mounds, rushed to the fore as I negotiated the dark, sharp edges on the way to the base of the hill. I determinedly pushed the thought of another unscheduled encounter from my mind as Magan made his way ahead.
It was the first of April and Hale-Bopp was on its last perihelion before pulling away from the Sun on its way out into deep space, not returning until 4380 unless Jupiter exerts sufficient pull to further skew up the date. With skies conducive for photographing the comet, we ascended the rocky summit that had flattened out into jagged edges of laterite. It was past seven in the evening and a calm breeze soothed our wait for the celestial visitor.
We had the whole hill to ourselves. In the distance to the west, rolling hills beaded the horizon, allowing a faint view of the massive radio towers on Taleigao plateau, a good part of thirty kilometres away, maybe less as the crow flies. To our left a small vale opened out, trees crowding it's rim, and between them reflected slivers of the Kerim water body. Along it outline, lined by brooding trees, snaked a thread of a road, an occasional vehicle droning past.
All fell silent. I sat facing the Western skies. The last vestiges of barely visible twilight hung tenaciously over the undulating necklace of hills. Lapwings flew across my face, twittering home. The sky was shedding it's blue gown for a more appropriate black for the approaching night.
Gradually, emerging from the silent darkness in the North-Western skies, was the comet, a celestial tattoo on the body of the mysterious universe. The only sounds were of vegetation swishing in the breeze and the whirr of the camera shutter release in the background as Magan shot frame after frame of the comet. The atmosphere was unreal. Before me, beneath Perseus, despite hurtling at over 16 kms per second, millions of kilometres away, the comet appeared to rest content in the skies, pampered by the warm brightness of the Milky Way stretching across the skies overhead. The setting seemed complete.
Then it got pitch dark. The Big Dipper in the north was keeping the Pole star company like it had for millions of years. Behind us to the east Mars glared down with blood-shot eyes, and below it lay the inverted L of Virgo. Leo stretched across lazily. Corvus and Orion as striking as ever, beckoning our gaze upwards to partake of the show put up by the skies, a royal welcome for Hale-Bopp. We might as well have been sitting in a planetarium and not realized it, intruding into celestial matters.
Sitting there I thought of the things people think of when overwhelmed by nature. A human lifetime, human distances, mobility and the like pale into insignificance when juxtaposed with celestial magnitudes. The unknown excites imagination. What was I in the larger scheme of things evident in the little that was on display that night?
I wondered if someone like me sat on this very hill when the comet last visited Earth over 4,000 years ago and as I looked up at the stars twinkling away mischievously I was certain there were many among them so far away that I was seeing them now as they existed at the birth of mankind. What then had they been witness to which they cannot communicate to me just as the streaking wonder before me cannot regale me of the world it passed by on it's last visit, four millennia ago. As we retraced our path I looked up at the comet and bade goodbye 'like me you'll go away but when you return someone else will wonder about you and his place in the world.'
And we left the night behind in the silence of its interminable pauses. The kick caught on and the bike roared, shattering the silence of the heavens.