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Stories

From Sushant Patnaik:

Varanasi, India. 22-July-2009

As my cell phone alarm shrieked sharp at 4 AM, I crawled out of my bed in a semi-conscious state realizing that a part of my mind wanted to badly catch up with the sleep deficit. But I was more excited then sleepy. As I peeped out of the window, the Morning Star blinked at me from near the horizon. Clear skies. Perfect.

I would generally respond to clear skies on a humid July day with curled lips and a frown, but today was different. It was 22nd July 2009. The D-Day. 10 years of wait about to culminate. I had jotted down the date on my "1000-things-to-do-before-I-die" list back in 1999 when I missed the last total solar eclipse. And now was the time. I quickly freshened up and walked out down to the narrow street looking for a cycle rickshaw as the sultry July air brushed against my face. The early morning hustle bustle had already begun, it was Varanasi after all and the spiritual culture needed you to be up a couple of hours before sunrise. The rickshaw puller went around countless turns and umpteen narrow lanes before we reached a spot with a police barricade.

I was promptly informed that I needed to walk my way to my destination Dasashwamedh Ghat, half a kilometer walk from the barricade. As I started hiking, I realized that I am a part of a small sea of humanity, all walking towards the Ganges and all bound in a single emotion of expectation and excitement. I could almost smell the eclipse fervor in the air. The group of orange-clad sadhus bulldozing their way across the crowd. The caucasian couple who wished me "Happy Eclipse" as I crossed them. People clutching cameras all set to glue the moment in memory. The hoards of men and women silently muttering a personal prayer and walking straight towards their destination. Undoubtedly, all roads lead to the Ganges. Once I was on the Ghat (river bank), with considerable difficulty and with enormous support from cellular technology, I located my group of buddies with whom I had clubbed to watch the eclipse. They had already secured a place - a high rise platform right next to the Ganges - one of the best spots available to view the eclipse.

One bird's eye across the reptilian Ganges bank and I realized that I am one small negligible speck in a vast ocean of tiny dots. But all humanity was about to be dwarfed by the splendor of what was about to happen. As the sun's first rays beamed out of the horizon, a million eyes searched for a glimpse of the eclipsed sun. And there it was - a huge fiery orange disc with its upper right corner sliced off by a tiny crescent. The eclipse had begun. As the sun rose, the fervor on the Ganges bank grew, knowing no bounds. Chants in chorus rose. People seated on the ground, eyes closed and muttering a personal prayer. Thousands of cameras looking straight in the sky all set to capture history. People with folded hands standing in waist deep water. Groups of people with an otherwise unstylish eclipse goggles on their faces. Witnessing the most significant astronomical event of the century in the cradle of a 6000 year old culture - this was definitely the eye of the storm!

As the sun rose, it gradually went behind a thin veil of clouds - letting you see the crescent with almost naked eyes. The sun was now almost half eclipsed. It was like looking at the moon only a few times bigger and many times brighter. The faint sunlight had assumed a strange, almost unreal bluish white tint. The air had gone a little chillier. The chants had become thunderous. The fever was almost uncontainable. The sun was now almost eighty percent eclipsed. It was then that the dark cumulus clouds appeared from nowhere and veiled the sun. All available meteorological skills in me came together to predict the time the wind would take to blow away the clouds. A vain consolation. The predicted mean cloudiness for Varanasi for 22 July was 68%. The clouds would definitely clear off. What if this is the rest of the 32%?? Million questions. Million answers.

Everyone watched with bated breath as the sun kept playing hide and seek with the clouds. And then as if all prayers have been answered: the clouds suddenly cleared off as the sun - now a thin faint line of light, a dying crescent - shone against the blue skies. I looked at the time in my cell phone - reset last night to seconds of accuracy - 6:22 AM, 2 mins 10 seconds to totality. The sun had almost narrowed down to an invisible line and almost abruptly, it went completely dark. Then suddenly, as if something "bloomed" out of the crescent, It happened. Totality. There it was. The black sun surrounded by a celestial bluish orange halo - the solar corona. The black disc of the sun outlined by a fine line of shimmering light and gushing forth colored flames.

The sudden descending darkness was eerie. The air went completely still. The disoriented birds flying nowhere. A million eyes in the sky. It was as if to complement the deep uncanny silence - the crowd suddenly roared in amazement! I was in complete trance. My small rug sack slipped as I clasped my hands on my mouth. Awe, surprise, ecstasy, disbelief - it was as if all possible human emotions gushed forth in my spine in a million volt moment. I fought with my logical mind to believe what I was witnessing. This is the moment. Be aware. You are here!?

They say the totality lasted for 3 minutes and 10 seconds. For me it was but a single moment of unbelievable splendor. As suddenly as it had started, with the same swiftness the eclipse moved into the next phase - a bead of almost blinding light appearing at the periphery of the sun - the Diamond Ring Effect. No wonder they call it the "God's Eye" - seemingly nothing else would come closer to comparison. It was a breathtakingly beautiful culmination to an equally; if not more splendid spectacle.

The sun grew back to a small crescent as hoards of people climbed down into the river for the post-eclipse dip. By this time, my mind, eyes and imagination had almost lost all capability of letting go of what I just witnessed. It took me a few minutes to bring my orientation back to the present moment as I realized that the eclipse has reduced to more than half and people have started wrapping up. 10 years of wait and 600 miles of travel - all worth every moment of it! As I write this piece in the train on my way back to Delhi, I am gazing at the early evening sun near the horizon. I am aware that somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, a small part of my conscious is still expecting the sun to go crescent. And waiting for Totality.