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Even as clouds obscured the sun, the village of Taregna in Bihar, tagged by Nasa as "the best place in India to view the solar eclipse", kept its tryst with destiny on Wednesday morning. So what if it missed out on the climax? Indrajit Hazra reports. See pics

india Updated: Jul 23, 2009 11:04 IST
Indrajit Hazra

The sun, on Wednesday, rose at Taregna at 5.11 am. Except no one got to see it. Exactly 24 minutes later, it started being gobbled up. Again, no one got to see it. As the sun was totally blocked by the moon from 6.25 a.m. onwards, with the sky still cloud-covered, darkness suddenly descended. And then, 3 minutes and 47 seconds later, it lifted as suddenly. See pics

Throughout the diluted show, eyes, cameras and telescopes were fixated on the sky for the most stunning celestial con job of them all: a total solar eclipse.

But before Taregna returned being just another sleepy village some 30 kilometres from Patna that was barely connected to the world by a rail line and a very bad road, it enjoyed its special place under the waning-waxing sun to the hilt. It started in early July when America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) tagged Taregna as the 'best place in India to view the total solar eclipse' .

Well, that doesn't quite ring true now. But for the purpose of recognising that there was more to Taregna's 'eclipse frenzy' than spotting the ringed sun, let it be known that it all started at 11.12 on Tuesday night.

11.12 pm: A huge hub-bub rises from the east that is heard from the rooftop of the Taregna Hospital that's supposed to provide the best view in the village that is supposed to provide the best view of the eclipse in the country. It turns out that the 10.30 Patna-Gaya local has made its routine stop, disgorging hundreds of passengers in the village that was once under the shadow of the Naxals. The excitement of these hundreds is not of waiting to witness an astronomical event; it is the late-night frenzy of being part of something that's half Kumbh Mela and half First Day First Show.

12.25 am: A very different lot finds their way up to the hospital rooftop. These are the members of the Tamil Nadu Astronomy Association led by R. Ramesh, a professor of commerce from faraway Chennai. The enthusiasm of this pack of nerds (there's a girl among them) is not yet infectious, but with words like 'radiation', 'Baily's beads' and 'totality', it's just a matter of time. Among them there's Amit Kumar from the National Aerospace Laboratory, Bangalore, and S. Srikrishna doing an MSc in physics MSc in Chennai, who are as excited about testing their 'eclipse binoculars' as boys of their age are about scoring.

12.44 am: Not to allow the Chennai gang get away with all the glory, four members of the four-member Association of Friends of Astronomy, Goa arrive. Their plan is to film a documentary on the eclipse for the Department of Science and Technology, Government of Goa. One of them mentions that Varanasi and Dibrugarh were options as solar eclipse destinations. "But we checked the satellite images and Taregna looked like the best option for weather conditions."

1.10 am: "By sitting here you won't get to see anything," the voice in the loudspeaker blares into the open where some 400-500 people have settled down in the rain-wet, muddy mound opposite the barricaded and well-lit Taregna Hospital. They seem to be staring at the five-storey hospital as if waiting for a glimpse of a superstar. Their response to the police announcement is a loud, cheerful roar. But some of them have got up and gathered, standing closer to the perimeter fence -- and blocking the disintegrating road in the process. In the semi-darkness of the mound, with a posse of lathi-wielding policemen facing them, the waiting crowd doesn't seem like locals waiting for the eclipse or the arrival of the CM, but people waiting eagerly for a rock concert to start.

1.55 am: The stairs leading up to the roof of the hospital are furiously being swept in anticipation of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's arrival some three hours later. A man with a metal detector is also doing his bit to make things look super-important. Security personnel presence is everywhere. With the Naxals having called a five-state bandh, no one's taking any chances.

2.40 am: Red carpets are being unrolled and flimsy plastic tables are being covered with tablecloth. It's vital that the CM feels comfortable about this yet-to-be inaugurated hospital. Three sniffer dogs sniff around.

3.10 am: More people are gathering and sitting down at one end beyond the bamboo barricade surrounding the hospital. Earlier in the evening, a makeshift stall had been selling fried snacks there. There is a cool, strong breeze blowing and the weather is perfect. A few flashes of lightning in the sky don't seem to bother anyone at all. But not a single star can be seen. It doesn't look good.

4.00 am: Venus can be seen. More faintly, a few stars too. All is not lost. The VIPs have started coming and are munching on biscuits that taste too much of cinammon.

4.33 am: Amitabh Pandey, head of Delhi-based astronomical organisation, SPACE, gets on the public address system and announces the time and the fact that the sky is cloudy. The pre-dawn light confirms this ominously. Perhaps to keep people's minds occupied, Pandey has started talking about Aryabhata and how this area was his workplace some 1500 years ago.

4.50 am: Just to rub it in, Pandey tells everyone that there's a planeload of people who will be seeing the eclipse from above the cloud cover. He does, however, add that he's hopeful that here in Taregna, something of the eclipse will be visible. The lights on the rooftop are switched off. The pre-dawn light exposes the enormity of the dark clouds-covered sky. The faces of the organisers are look unnaturally long.

5.00 am: Pandey rather desperately asks people over the microphone to get off the roof of an old building next to the hospital that has been declared unsafe. At the front of the squat one-storey building is a sea of jostling people. Many more are pouring in. The sky is being churned by the wind.

5.10 am: Standing near the edge of the hospital roof, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses the crowd. He tells everyone that this is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion and... Before he can continue, the microphone stops working. After a few minutes, he takes the mike again: "This wonderful play of Nature, everyone has come to see this, to see this in a scientific temper. I feel proud that the world is focused on Targena today."

5.25 am: Sub-Inspector Kedarnath Singh calls up his family on his mobile telling his wife what exactly is happening. He also urges her to look up and watch the sky. "<Dekho. Utho.>" (Look. Get up)

5.53 am: Pandey's holding the mike again and this time he makes a sad attempt to lift spirits by letting the crowds know that everywhere -- in Surat, Varanasi, China -- clouds have blocked the celestial view. So Taregna is not alone in its sorrow. It has startled to drizzle lightly, resulting in what can be now confidently called the beginnings of a 'damp squib'. Meanwhile, the crowd, now dotting the rooftops (one group visible with a banner stating: 'Welcome To All Great Peoples For Coming In Our Great Village') and lined up on the road, is lectured by Pandey about the dangers of climate change. More comforting words by the Chief Minister, praising the people of Taregna, thankfully follow. "This is a festival. Being here together is cause for celebration by itself." But he spends the rest of his speech telling people to stay away from the edges of roofs, shouting, "<Shanti me rahiye! Shanti me rahiye!>" (Maintain the peace! Maintain thepeace!)

6.05 am: With desperation plain on his face, Amitabh Pandey announces that the sky in Varanasi has cleared and who knows, there might still be hope for Patna and Taregna. But he's already moved on to selling the charms of the sky turning pitch dark during the total eclipse. He also pops a biscuit into his mouth to show the gathered crowds that there's nothing harmful in eating during an eclipse. As he chews, umbrellas have popped open.

6.25 am: Darkness falls as if someone's flicked off a switch. Nitish Kumar conducts a running commentary as the dawn turns to night to the delight of the crowds who start applauding and cheering as if watching the final over of a tightly fought cricket match. Then equally suddenly, the light returns. Nitish Kumar tells the crowds below, "Did you see the sun come up the second time? This is the second dawn. I will bring light again to remove Bihar's darkness like this." The crowd roars with approval even as the real show got blanketed out.

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