Note: The following article was originally published on July 21, 2019, and was republished on September 6.
We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of walking on the Moon and we are excited about landing on the Moon for the first time.
These sentences are not out of chronological order nor are they false or mistaken. They are both true because the first ‘we’ and the second ‘we’ are not synonymous. They represent two different identities, and of the same individual if she is Indian: we – humans – are celebrating the 50th anniversary of walking on the Moon and we – Indians – are excited about landing on the Moon for the first time.
Neil Armstrong, the first human on the Moon, was moved by the sight of Earth beyond the satellite’s horizon, a blue-green orb cradled by long stretches of darkness on every side and which he could blot out by closing one eye and holding his thumb up. He saw no borders, no contested lines on land or water, but all of humanity occupying the surface of a tiny marble, with only each other for company in a profoundly empty universe.
Some have even celebrated this as the unexpected legacy of Apollo 11: the birth of an image that inspires us to stay united. But this is much easier said than done, and not always for bad reasons.
Chandrayaan 2 is a case in point. Its very existence alerts us to our Indianness as separate from, rather a subset of, humanity. It reminds us gently that arbitrary lines do crisscross the face of Earth and that we Indians are decidedly on one side of some of those lines, as are the Americans, the Chinese, the French and the Russians. We may all seem to be in this together when seen from the Moon but we are not when seen from Earth, and this is perhaps the only vantage point that matters.
Armstrong’s comments were well ahead of his time, or even ours, because they dream of a world where one human going to the Moon is the same as all humans going to the Moon. It is a utopian re-imagination of how spaceflight or even all of science works. It skips over some of the biggest problems assailing humanity today, instead suggesting the weight of loneliness our cosmos has imposed on Earth will alone suffice to bend the arc of justice down to where it belongs.
This will never happen. It is impossible to believe that it could if only because the arc of justice does not budge until it is acted upon by the very people it affects. It is impossible to believe humanity has been on the Moon when the only way a non-American person can get up there is by slogging it out through their own national space programmes. And this should be no surprise when it is impossible to overlook the inequities that mar the face of Earth, which seem no less invisible from the ground than they would be through the eyes of a white American man on the Moon.
Consider a scientist from the developing world. Let’s say he is a male, English-speaking middle-class Brahmin so we can set aside the ceaseless discrimination the scientific community’s non-male, non-Hindu/non-upper-caste, non-heterosexual, Indian-language-speaking members face for the sake of our discussion. The picture has already been oversimplified. This scientist has access to some instruments, a few good labs, not many good mentors, irregular funding, not enough travel grants, subpar employment prospects, insufficient access to journals, lives in a polluted city with uneven public transport, rising costs of living, less water to spare and rising medical bills.
If at this juncture we reinstate the less privileged Indian in this matrix, it becomes a near-chaotic picture of personal, social, economic and political problems. Even then, it is still only the substrate upon which international inequities – such as access to samples from other parts of India and the world, information published in journals that libraries can’t afford or exclusion from the editorial boards of scientific journals – will come to bear. Finally, there is the climate crisis and its discomfiting history.
In this regard, there seems to be an awkward knot in our collective national imagination, at least in principle. It is as a confrontation between the reflex to celebrate the Apollo 11 mission and embrace the opportunity it affords to transcend for once the issues that divide us, and in the same moment reaffirm these divisions and acknowledge India’s impending first attempt to soft-land a robot on the Moon.
Art, music, cinema and fantasy could help unknot it, but not entirely. It might also help to remember that the romance of having a man on the Moon itself was the product of a perceived politico-ideological imbalance. And it was perceived so strongly that it disregarded overwhelming public opinion even as, over time, it began to invent justifications for itself through iffy economics and misplaced nostalgia.
So then, who are we? Are we human, are we Indian or are we somehow a superposition of the two? If you were swayed by the messages of humanitarianism on July 16 and July 20, you were also reconceived by yourself as much as everyone else as an individual of the Homo sapiens of Earth. If you were swayed by the messages of nationalism on July 15 and perhaps will be on July 22, there will be no escaping the reminders of your Indianness.
Either way, it is a strange identity to embody, and it is not immediately clear how one could embrace both without situating them in a hierarchy of progression: our cultural-sexual-political-social-economic identity first, biological next, and envision the endeavours of humankind as a journey from one stage to the next, when one human walking on, say, Ganymede, will truly stand for all humans walking on Ganymede.
But until then, for good or for bad, but mostly for good, we walk separate paths, acknowledge the lines between us and work to make them as invisible on the ground as they are from the Moon.