IT INEVITABLY BEGINS WITH someone being left behind. People call out the missing person’s name, but there is obviously no response. It is dark—voices must substitute for faces. There is disappointment, even anxiety, rushed blaming, stain of hunger on breath. By 3.30, they are all there—waiting eagerly for the appointment. After the noise, mostly graceless, of human feet, there is a poiseless calm, a silence triggered by expectation, not very different from that which attends the transformation of cheque to cash. Something changes to keep balance, like shifting weight from one leg to another—and so the statuesqueness of the sky is transferred to us, its watchers, while the sky, now almost non-existent, takes on our mobility. The sky is like leftover ash from a clay oven—no one remembers it, as no one remembers ash. And then, as forgotten ash comes to life, from a whisper of the unknown, someone blows ‘foo-foo-foo’ into the sky—it is like waking up a child who doesn’t want to wake up.
I stand there, shivering, as if I were a leaf that could fall off any moment. The sky shivers too—as if it too were a leaf that could fall off any moment. And then the similarities end. The cold turns me smaller—I collect parts of myself into a bundle, as if my heart and stomach were a hive where other parts of me, my limbs and my head, should collect. The opposite is happening in the sky, though we don’t know that yet.
There is repressed silence, almost like inside a soda bottle, waiting to burp. Occasionally, the chattering of teeth—it seems like an impurity.
‘Oi toh,’ someone shouts. There it is.
A false clue. For it isn’t.
I turn my head to look at those beside and behind me. I do this silently, for I suddenly feel something that I’ve not felt before—that my head might make a sound while moving. I wonder whether it’s sleep, or whether I am sleeping. My neighbours are not—their heads are pointed towards the sky as if it was a giant projector screen.
And then someone turns on a switch though we hear no such sound. And the tautness of expectation and anxiety cracks, like china falling from the hand. ‘There’, ‘there’, ‘there’, they say in their various languages or dialects of joy. The ‘there’ speakers point to various directions—I notice this from the profile of their noses, because it is still dark, when shadows are more visible than skin—while I wait for the sky to help them reach a consensus. I imagine that I am more mature than all of them, even though I know that the truly mature people are the drivers sitting in their cars after having ordered their first cup of tea. I correct myself immediately—the most mature among us are the mountains, their peaks indifferent to the juvenile drama.
Juvenile it might be, but we are not the first, neither shall we be the last. What is it that drags people out of their beds, from their sleep, turns their sleepy eyes into those that could thread a needle in the dark? The first poems, the first songs, the first similes, the first voyages—they have all been sparked by this, the primordial sense of wonder at watching the sun rise, as if all the moments lived before that had been a life lived blindfolded.
As I stand on Tiger Hill in Darjeeling, part of a congregation of strangers who have come here to do just this, to see the sun rise as if it were an invention, a piece of magic in a laboratory, I do not know why I think of shoulders. Yes, shoulders—about how shoulders distinguish humans from all other creatures. I think this even as my brain contests—that there’s the brain, and there’s the thumb, whose position on the hand marks it as unique to humans. I do not know why these thoughts come to me—it is possible that they are a remainder or continuation of my thwarted sleep. Or, it is possible that I am thinking of the mountain’s tired shoulders. The sky tests our patience, it tests my flat feet. I grow tired of standing, I look for a place to sit, even as I’m aware that it would be breaking the norm, that one meets the sky’s first light on a hilltop in standing position. I push away my sterile rebelliousness—the sky’s broken its fast every morning when I’ve been in bed; why then this fake ritual?
My mind competes with the sky’s—it’s almost as if we are playing a game of who-blinks-first. It is exhausting, this waiting, more exhausting than all the firsts that are celebrated with affection. There is, of course, a telling difference in the nature of the two: the other firsts are usually retrospective, primarily because unpremeditated, like say first love; this one, to witness the day’s first light, has the awkwardness of a planned adventure. We’ve encountered it before, in art, in cinema, in metaphor and thick description, in poetry and in prose—it couldn’t be very different from them, such is the genre. And yet we go to it. Standing there, with my hands rubbing against each other to activate the genie of warmth, of heat, I find myself thinking of the epics, of the great stories. Arundhati Roy’s words from her first novel have stayed with me: ‘The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.’ This is the great story of the sunrise—we know what will happen, as we do in most stories, and yet we have come here, to witness what we already know will happen.
ABOVE US STILL is a blackboard that is waiting to be cleaned—the tired stars its chalk scribbles. Like in a classroom, people speak in whispers, as if talking were illegitimate.
I am bored—the sun has begun behaving like a bureaucrat. Yawns and sighs string the air as I feel the nervous but sad energy of waiting for a clerk to return to his table in a government office. Every moment seems to be a waste, every moment a moment of delay. There is much to be learnt from this—to relinquish the desire for control, for this really is beyond our control. A little boy brings his learning to the contest—“It’s been more than eight-minutes-and-twenty-seconds already. My book says that that’s the time it takes light from the sun to reach the earth. Does it mean that light was late to start today?” The father says something I can’t hear, but a young male voice reaches my ears again (I can’t be sure whether it’s the same boy): “Perhaps it woke up late today because of the cold.”
I think of the impossible—frozen light, how it might feel to see light turned into a statue. It is possible that my freezing ends, my nose and feet and fingers, abet this.
And then it arrives, like a toddler on tiptoe—unstable but energetic, unafraid but cautious. It walks across the sky on its toes, and there, on those spots, its footprints erase the darkness. Then, as if suddenly aware that walking could produce this, like a dancer discovering the eyes in her feet, it repeats the action, now in a different spot. This is repeated a few times, but all of this happens so fast that it catches everyone unaware. Like a pearl necklace that has accidentally come unstrung, so that the pearls are falling on the floor but one can’t really decide which particular pearl fell first on the floor, for such is the speed of scattering, and such is the nervous energy of the moment, that everyone, including me, is now confused where light first stamped—or stomped—its foot. There is argument, inconsequential, like all arguments about the first, about origin. But everything gives way to relief—that the sun has risen, a fact so long taken for granted, historically and intuitively, transformed into a metaphor for permanence, and yet, this cold morning, it has passed the test again.
In the cars that take the observers back to their hotels and guest houses there is a sense of jubilation. They discuss stories of failures, failure having become a transferred epithet as it were—the failure of the sun to ‘rise’ and meet those awaiting its appearance has become the failure of its disappointed audience. Names cancel out each other—names of family members and friends, former colleagues and distant relatives, even strangers on trains who, like the ancient mariner, once recounted the story of their disappointment to them. A stock exchange of bad luck is being documented. They are relieved, their shares have survived—they have seen the day’s first light.
It’s a kind of sorcery-like the first things always seem to be. I say sorcery with reason-see how light manages to get everywhere before everyone, see how it even got to the first page of the Bible!
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That no sense of superiority should attach to the peculiar human desire for the first—first love, first day in school, first salary, and so on—comes to me again when I think of the tiny village that gets the day’s first light in India. I’ve imagined it for decades, much before I heard of it. Imagine, we know without actually being told, comes from ‘image’; ‘kalpana’, the Sanskrit word for imagination, stands for ‘forming’, ‘arranging’, ‘decorating’ and even ‘forgery’. When I first hear its name, the monosyllable beating on my eardrum, I half-believe that my kalpana has forged it into being: Dong. That it is in Arunachal Pradesh is, of course, no surprise: Aruna is the sun-god Surya’s charioteer, and ‘acha’ means a high region, usually a mountain. We needn’t look elsewhere, for the stories are in the words themselves, stories and histories—I’ve imagined Aruna racing through a dark sky, gasping for breath but filled with pride: like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle that is waiting to find meaning, Aruna reaches the spot, and then there is light. It’s a kind of sorcery—like the first things always seem to be. I say sorcery with reason—see how light manages to get everywhere before everyone, see how it even got to the first page of the Bible! ‘… and there was light’, of course!
I confess, then, that I have been a detective of light. I do not mean this only as metaphor. Even in my sleep I can see a crack between curtains. In a tropical town where there is little to distinguish truth from rumour, people sleep inside a mosquito net, unsure whether the mosquitoes are innocent or murderers. I am no exception to this traffic rule. But there is a difference between other mosquito nets and mine. My side of the mosquito net is covered with a curtain-like piece of cloth. It is a desperate shield to protect my sleep from being invaded by light. And yet, in spite of such fortification, rare is a morning when I don’t complain about a leak of light somewhere through the curtains, that, because of the sneaky character of light, has infiltrated through the perforations of the mosquito net and then through my closed eyelids into where all the light accumulates in our eyes. The day’s first light. In that sense, I am a light detector. For someone as suspicious of morning light as me, the tourism and fascination for the first light of day is often annoying and even scandalous.
And yet it seems to be as old as the language of mapping light and its curious tendencies. For it is not just in the name of Arunachal Pradesh and its village which gets the country’s first light. It is also in the name of the continent where we live: it is possible that ‘Asia’ derives from ‘Asu’, a Semitic root which could mean both ‘rising’ and ‘light’, and is therefore a condensed metaphor for sunrise, the ‘Eastern land’ where the sun first rises. The light of Asia. I still do not understand this desire, this power, this quest for the first light of day, this witnessing of childbirth as it were.
Returning from one such trip to Tiger Hill, this time as a failure, I find myself writing this:
We wait to see the sun as if it were a cake waiting to rise. We check every few minutes —time is in our legs, we count in steps— for a fleck of white to pinch the frame. It’s the opposite of kohl bleeding from eyelids— a smudge would be enough.
We think mountain-time as malleable as meat— we think waiting can marinate everything. The mountains are inexperienced— their stones haven’t learnt promptness of service. We are impatient, as we are with the dead. We complain, though we’re unsure of our grief— as if our presence was a question for which the mountains have refused an answer. We take it personally, as we do our destinies and baldness patterns that run in families. All tourists before and after us are competitors— we compare merit, why Tiger Hill’s sunrise should’ve swum in their eyes and not ours, the jealousy one feels for Sophocles, why Aristotle should’ve written about him, and not been our contemporary. We don’t know why we want to see the icy peaks, their sun-specked aloneness, like art on a canvas, cursed with a sail-less life, of only being watched. We don’t know how it’ll change us, or even the world. We only want a glimpse, and denied it, we walk back to our minced life, unforgiving but somehow innocent, like a balloon that’s leaked air, whose body wasn’t born for eternity.
Returning from a trip to a sunrise point in north Bengal’s Gajaldoba, my seven-year-old nephew draws what he has just seen. It is not the first time he has drawn such a scene: mountains, water, trees, blotches of green, the school-genre has given him practice before he encounters these nouns in real life. Gajaldoba’s sunrise point is called ‘Bhorer Alo’, meaning ‘morning light’. My father and I discuss the title of Sunil Ganguly’s novel, Prothom Alo (The First Light) in passing. My nephew draws as we speak. I notice that he’s drawn all the constituents of his painting, everything except the sun. Soaking the brush in water and rubbing it hard against the cube of orange in his painting box, he draws the sun, scattering light with his inefficient brush as he imagines the sky’s flint catching fire.
I do not remember the painting anymore, nothing except that the day’s first light was drawn last, at the very end.
I cannot exactly say why it reminds me of my mother wearing her red bindi at the very end, just before she steps out of the house.