From the ‘chintan-manthan’ on Mangalyaan emerged this gem that our rocket cost less than an apartment in uptown Manhattan. Well done, India, sending out an inter-planetary spacecraft with more dash than cash. Mangalyaan, whose further success we most earnestly want, is an exciting outcome delivered despite the usual challenges.
However, while nobody denies the immense development issues that need to be continually addressed, why is it not better understood that India also has the right to science, the right to stretch her mental muscles further in a subject that has long made her think, that India has an old cultural view of space and many Indians, an aptitude for science? That Indians like making yantras?
If we look at Pokhran One (1974) for perspective, it was not only a nuclear-blast year but also a drought year. Pointing out these facts in his recently published lifebook, Dr MS Swaminathan says: “Jagjivan Ram was Agriculture Minister. Food stocks had come down and Indira Gandhi had started the Food for Work programme. We had to buy two or three million tonnes from USA on commercial terms. I went with Jagjivan Ram to meet the US Agriculture Secretary at the World Food Congress in Rome. He was rather rude. Jagjivan Ram told him very firmly, ‘I have come here not to beg, but to buy. I wanted to buy some wheat. If you don’t want to give it, someone else will’, and he walked away.”
Project India went on despite the international sanctions that slammed down after Pokhran One and we also diverted shiploads of rice to feed a reunited Vietnam, having already fed more than a million refugees from the War for Bangladesh. These choices were reportedly backed by a high degree of domestic confidence engendered by Indian agri-scientists, who had worked hard with farmers to upgrade our food situation to a level of self-sufficiency. As to which, we have experienced 11 drought years after Independence, between 1951 and 2009.
Another archival thought: days after Apollo 11’s moon-landing on July 20, 1969, Richard Nixon visited India on July 31. At the reception held in the US President’s honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan, dancer Yamini Krishnamurti presented ‘Chandram bhaja manasa’, a famous Sanskrit song to the moon, taken from the ‘Navagraha’ song cycle composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835).
Forty-four years after that appropriate choice, how fitting it would be if a modern Indian composer were to commemorate ISRO’s achievement with a new take on the old paean to Mars (‘Angarakam ashrayamyaham’) from that very set.