A difficulty celebrating Chandrayaan 3

I’m grateful to Avijit Pathak for his article in Indian Express on August 29.

After the Chandrayaan 3 mission achieved its primary objective, to soft-land a robotic lander on the moon’s south polar region, there was widespread jubilation, but I couldn’t celebrate. I felt guilty and distressed, actually, with the thought that my well-rewarded scepticism of India’s affairs these days had finally scabbed over (and back) into cynicism. Even the articles I wrote on the occasion had to pass via the desk of a colleague, who helped spruce them up with some joy and passion.

I had a few hypotheses as to the cause. One was that, by virtue of knowing what exactly happened behind the scenes, and having followed it for many years, I saw the really wow-worthy thing to be some solution to some problem with Chandrayaan 2 that, if fixed, would lead to success today. But something about it didn’t ring true.

Another that did was rooted in an anecdote I’d heard or read many years ago, I can’t recall where. There was a stand-up comic event in Bombay. During a break, the comic steps out to the side of the building and has a smoke. A short distance away, he sees some people from the audience stream out for some fresh air. A beggar approaches this group asking for money. They tell him that if he shouts BMKJ, they will give him 10 rupees. He does, and they hand him the money and walk back in. The comic (who is the narrator) then says that he doesn’t want to make this crowd laugh and leaves.

I don’t know if I have ever been a nationalist but I have been and am a patriot. In his article, Pathak berated the “muscular nationalism” fostered by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its consequences for the forms that the education, practice, and expression of science have taken in the country. In this milieu, he wrote, he couldn’t bring himself to overtly celebrate the success of Chandrayaan 3, tracing his arrival at this conclusion from the ‘first principles’ of the reactions to the mission, its “political appropriation” by the powers that be, and the unglamorous nature of work to bridge the “gap between technology as a spectacle and science as a way of life”. It is this articulation for which I’m grateful: I couldn’t find the path myself, but now I know.

Celebration isn’t for the outcomes of a single mission on one occasion. It’s for all the outcomes of a process that assimilates many impulses, driven by multiple beliefs and aspirations. Chandrayaan 3 may have been a resounding success but imagine it is one point in a process, and then take a look at what lies behind it. I see an island called ISRO, the unique consequences of India’s fortuitous history, and the miracles that have become necessary for celebration-worthy scientific success in India today.

Among the distributed sweets, the light and sounds of the firecrackers, and the torrent of applause, I sense the comedian’s jokes to ease the mind of a nation that preserves this state of affairs.