When a country hurls a rocket to the moon, it is a serious matter. Its gravity-defying gesture is an indication of its pioneering intent, the quality of its thought, its sense of arrival as a people as, say, in the case of the United States. It could also be seen as clinical evidence of collective delusion of grandeur as in a poor country like India.
Hitler’s Germany was a victim of similar derangement in the 1920s and 1930s, and with what appalling consequences. Colonial Britain suffered from it for centuries till further depletion of their war-worn resources could no longer hold the great act together. If the curtain keeps coming down, how do you proceed with the play? Now, America is waging war with itself to come clean after the particularly traumatic episodes: 9/11 and Iraq. The US is beginning to learn to regard itself through the world’s gaze, which is why it will probably elect a kind of half alien like Barack Obama for president in a few weeks from now.
Future generations of Indians will see Wednesday’s launch of Chandrayaan-1 — an India-built rocket with assorted payloads, which will drop a 23 kg probe vehicle on the surface of the unsuspecting satellite by first week of November — as an expensive episode in the long history of our disorder coinciding with the liberalised 1990s.
The isolated pockets of wealth that trade and technology created in the last 15 years and their garish visibility against the vast, bleak backdrop of a garbage-strewn, gut-wrenching poverty have persuaded us to persist in the notion of our greatness.
Indeed, its ceaseless celebration and fashionable acceptance among the arrivistes have contributed to the deepening of our self-deception. Or perhaps illusion comes natural to us: remember, we are a people who couldn’t tell a rope from a snake. And so we believe we are a Super Power. But the sun-drenched and sick Sierra Leone of Super Powers. That is why the rocket to the moon is a cruelly hilarious symbol of our psychosis: we are so great that we have done all that is possible on earth, now to the moon. Soon we will all be weeping, with Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) chief G Madhavan Nair at the forefront of the maudlin movement, for want of more worlds to conquer. A nation of Alexanders!
But if only the latest report on the Human Development Index didn’t rank India 128 out of a total of 177 nations! This is a report that should shake us to our last hair. But truth is a mood-altering substance, and, with a low cunning so typical of the race, we have left it alone. Really, who wants to suffer through the jeremiad of facts? That, for example, in adult literacy Rwanda is ahead of us? Or, in aspects of excruciating urgency like malnutrition and starvation among children we are on an equal footing with sub-Saharan Africa, a continent to which we strike a habitually superior attitude.
Such is our vanity that though a little less than half of our billion-strong population, earning less than Rs 80 a day, are in terms of dignity and grace no better than the Blacks in America before the Emancipation Declaration, we have found a kind of justice in answering the black, back-lit phantom-spectacle with a $80 million rocket to the moon, a mission that the former USSR and the Americans cracked nearly 50 years ago, and followed it with 60-odd successful forays whose objectives (3-D map, mineral composition, presence of Helium-3) do not substantially differ from Isro’s.
So why the moon? Because, “with China going ahead in the space field, India can’t lag behind. Moreover, some kind of colonisation of the moon can’t be ruled out in the coming decades. We have to our presence.” If this sounds like Madame Bovary plugged into the voice box of President Bush, you are wrong. This is an Isro spokesman at his grandiose best. Ideally, then the next rocket to the moon should take off from the Dharavi slums. It will show to the world where the Indian poor can be sent on a weekend without water. And perhaps keep them there.
CP Surendran is a journalist and poet based in New Delhi.