When your editor innocently asks what you think of the government’s dream of sending a man to the moon, it’s a loaded question. He’s either sizing up your politics or he’s run out of ideas for his column, and either way your answer will determine your career prospects. So when I was asked this question the day Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee put the Indian space programme on steroids, I cautiously enumerated the many advantages of having our man on the moon.
It certainly sounds more impressive than having our man in Havana. Besides, the moon will soon be turned into real estate and mining concessions and it’s useful to have first-mover advantage. But finally, it’s just great PR. The US milked the cachet of Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” to project itself as the unchallenged technological leader of the world, though this was untrue. It succeeded despite the energetically circulated rumour that when Armstrong landed on the moon, he was met by a Sikh shopkeeper who sold him a glass of special tea and offered to sell him the Sea of Tranquillity too. Such is the emotive power of a manned moon mission, and this week’s Chandrayaan-I launch is our first step in that direction.
But I’m not sure that my editor found my answer entirely convincing. Neither did I, because as we talked a Sixties hit was playing in my inner ear. ‘Whitey on the Moon’ was this number written in 1969 (the year of the Apollo 11 mission) by The Last Poets, a Black nationalist jazz-funk group regarded as the founding fathers of what is now called hip-hop. The following year, it was covered by Gil Scott-Heron, the ‘Godfather of rap’, and reached cult status along with his own hit, ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’. The spoken word number tells what happened to a ghetto man while Armstrong did his moonwalk: “A rat done bit my sister Nell/ (with Whitey on the moon)/ Her face and arms began to swell/ (and Whitey’s on the moon)/ I can’t pay no doctor bill/ (but Whitey’s on the moon)/ Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still/ (while Whitey’s on the moon)…”
Of course we must invest in space. A nation with a nuclear deal but no man on the moon seems curiously incomplete. But it is perilous to neglect the man in the street, our equivalent of Scott-Heron’s ghetto guy, for he will sweep you away. Like in 2004, when he realised that the government of Vajpayee — who started the Indian moon frenzy and actually named Chandrayaan-I— was disinterested in him, and quietly swept him away.
(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)