In a 1977 article in the Hindustan Times Evening News, New Delhi, which I mentioned yesterday, I had expressed a significant thought about today's heroic pioneer airmen being overtaken by tomorrow's ordinary airline passengers. When fishing for that cutting in my old files, I found another article in which I had expressed the same idea in the same column seven years later. And, like the earlier piece of writing, it still seems to be quite readworthy!
20 April 1984
Space and sky
In my schooldays I used to enjoy looking at the world map in my atlas and letting my mind wander endlessly.
I would gaze at the vast Eurasian spread of Russia, and I was immediately on my way from Leningrad to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway. One minute I'd be motoring through the Mont Blanc tunnel, and the next minute I'd be yachting in the Pacific Ocean or living in an Arctic ice-cap station.
But the inherent distortion in the relative sizes of countries as figuring in the standard Mercator projection of the world used to puzzle me in the beginning, and it has never stopped irritating me.
Though I did figure out the reason for it (that the latitudes and longitudes are depicted as parallel lines), I could never come to terms with such visual anomalies as Greenland looking much bigger than India.
But there's no such mental hurdle with a globe. Turning it round and round, you get an accurate picture of the way this world of ours is ordered, and even now I find it a fascinating exercise.
* * *
I was very young when Yuri Gagarin achieved terrestrial orbit in 1957, and I greatly envied him. He had the original globe itself placed before him for direct observation, and I felt a vicarious thrill imagining what he would be seeing.
Since then a great deal has happened in space, but when our own boy Rakesh Sharma sat inside Salyut-7 last week looking at the world through his cosmic window, I felt a surge of that old excitement again.
It was too late even in 1957 for me to have dreamed of going up in space, but when I think that my sons might well do it, I am lost in wonder.
I haven't given them the kind of background which would turn them into spacemen, but that may not prevent them from travelling in space.
I wasn't trained to be an airman; nor was I ever fit to be one. Nevertheless, I frequently find myself cruising at high speed five or six miles above the land, sitting comfortably in the pressurized cabin of a commercial airliner.
I look out through the window, and I see the world from a greater height than Charles Lindberg ever did.
It is a marvel of the modern techno-commercial world that that the adventure of a hero today becomes a routine experience of the common man tomorrow.
* * *
While there's an abstract thrill in jetting across the country at very high speeds and altitudes, there's a concrete pleasure in setting the clock back now and then and hopping over a short distance in a small, old-fashioned aircraft.
I had to fly to Jorhat in Assam last week, and there was no Boeing flight from Calcutta that day. So I got into a tiny Fokker Friendship, which hopped over via Gauhati and Tejpur.
We didn't climb above the cumulus clouds, and we flew along the left bank of the Brahmaputra. The Fokker's windows are tall, wide and curved, and I had a near-vertical view of the river and the enormous sandy islands. It was as if a detailed survey map had been spread out below me, and the flight was fascinating.
Rakesh and his Russian friends were still up in their spacecraft getting a grand space-view of the earth, and I was happy to have my own small sky-view of it.
But the intriguing aspect of the situation was that I was glad I was inside a leisurely , low-flying Fokker rather than a hectic, high-level Boeing on this particular occasion.
Back home in my South Delhi apartment, I relax on the balcony and watch the incoming airliners climb down their glide path towards the airport. And it occurs to me that my children might some day have a breezy argument about whether the earth looks better from the moon or from a man-made satellite.