When I was four I used to pester my great-grandmother to tell me how her mother looked.
“Did she look like you?”
“Like Bapama?” That is, her daughter, my father’s mother.
“Did she look like me?”
“No, you look like your ma.”
My great-grandmother was probably fed up with this obsessive questioning. She would cannily switch to a subject that always got my attention: the flooding of the Netravati river when she was a young girl and lived on its banks. When red water forced its way noisily into her house and carried away everything in it, even the big tin of chakli she had spent the whole of the previous afternoon frying. The lid had come off and the crisp, crunchy chakli had floated out and become soggy. The slo-mo image of red water dragging the tin out of reach of her outstretched hands made me sigh with sadness. Much later, I wondered why we never talked about how she escaped, or what happened to her family.
Through my early school years I realised that if I tried to imagine my ancestors, the same face would appear in my imagination no matter how many great-great-greats I added. It would always be my great-grandmother’s face.
I once asked my younger sister if she could do it. Her eyes widened as she tried to, then she shook her head. We both looked at our youngest sister expectantly. She screamed, “Don’t, you’re scaring me!” We were taken aback. “You’re making me think of lots and lots and lots of old, bent people everywhere, with bald heads and no teeth and sad faces, walking with sticks!” Phew! She definitely had loads of imagination.
Even now I can’t go very far back in time. In my mind’s eye I always see what other people have already created in movies and documentaries. Known Earth history dates back to 590 million years, the period called the Cambrian age that lasted more than 50 million years. And that is only the known history of the Earth. Prior to that there was an age called the Pre-cambrian age that makes up seven-eighths of Earth’s history, about which very little is known! I can’t imagine any of this. To me, visualising anything beyond 5,000 years is a stretch.
It is the same with space. The Milky way can be seen as a clear strip across the sky. I don’t have to struggle to imagine it. I have seen Andromeda, our nearest galactic neighbour, both with the naked eye and through a telescope. Apparently, there are many more galaxies in the universe. If I try to imagine them I see a scattering of stardust fading away into the distance. In my mind’s eye it is astonishingly close to the edge of the Milky way, because I simply can’t go that far, distance-wise, in my imagination.
When I think of an atom I can understand quarks combining to form hadrons, i.e. the protons and neutrons, of the nucleus. Then a vague picture of the Hadron collider flits across my mind for a split second and then it hits me that I can’t imagine beyond quarks. Of course, it’s a highly specialised subject and I don’t expect to understand it, but the main feeling I’m left with is that human beings are actually in a straightjacket with very little wiggle room, in a way. This life, this reality, is a narrow band on the spectrum of all there is.
The importance that we human beings give ourselves individually and our countries collectively is so disproportionate to everything in the universe: galaxies to quarks to historic time. Add to that, all the species of animals, plants and other living/extinct organisms, the broad category to which we belong. We’re upstarts and we have an infant’s belief that the world revolves around us. In the face of all that is known isn’t that ludicrous? We are not masters of our fate in terms of birth and death, the two most significant events of our lives. We are mere accidents, like everything else on earth. Just a coming together of molecules in a certain form in the primordial soup, a form that has stumbled upon a code to perpetuate itself.
There are people like Hans Rosling who have said this is the best time to be alive. Going by statistics, it is true. We know terrible things are happening in different parts of the world. But people are happy with their lot in other parts of the world, that we don’t hear about. Regardless of events that are heavily publicised on television and awful stories that fill newspapers, I think there’s something to be said for taking a Pollyanna view of things considering how brief our sojourn on earth is.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
*The mean sojourn time for an object in a system is a mathematical term for the amount of time an object is expected to spend in a system before leaving the system for good.