As I write this post, my Facebook newsfeed is flooded with fellow Indians exhilarating in joy over India's successful Mars mission launch.
'Proud to be an Indian, Good job guys, we did it. Now you know who the real emerging power is and Watch out, China, here we come.' Facebook statuses such as these plus many more, and thousands of proud Indians congratulating each other on social media are totally overwhelming.
The only other time I have witnessed such frenzy on social media was when India defeated arch-rivals Pakistan in closely contested cricket matches. An India-Pakistan match is good enough to stop the country, anytime any day. I know from personal experience that it's also the safest time to drive in India. The streets are empty and everyone is glued to their TV screens.
I was once told by a fellow journalist who used to report on the courts for a daily newspaper that on one occasion a judge adjourned the proceedings of a trial and asked him to find out if cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar had scored a century or not. Tendulkar failed, the judge returned pissed off and bail was denied to the plaintiff. Ouch!
Now, I cannot verify the veracity of this episode or whether Tendulkar's batting failure had anything to do with the merits of the bail plea but knowing and having seen the way how some courts work in India, I have a strong suspicion that the incident would have probably occurred in all probability.
Back to Mars and Facebook congratulatory messages. So there are gazillions of laudatory posts, TV clips, news articles, commentaries and what have you. If anytime, then this is it to showcase one's Indianness and waive the banner. Time to also drown the horrifying rape and corruption stories coming out of India and make way for nationalistic pride.
Then there are the patronizing and threatening posts as well that are completely immersed in nationalistic pride. Nothing wrong with the pride bit but the words of caution to those disappointed with the launch and worrying about the plight of millions of poor in India and whether India should have spent its money wisely instead of on a vague space mission, smacks of extremism.
One post read, ' Stop being a western puppet. If you are not proud of India's Mars mission then go live with the Taliban in Pakistan', while another read, ' For Heaven's sake, stop 'intellectually masturbating'. If you are so worried about the poor then do something instead of eclipsing our accomplishments with your morose pessimism. Get a life.'
Intellectually masturbating? You mean criticizing the reality of the situation is equal to 'intellectual orgasm'? That's a new for me.
Anyway, I totally get the drift. Its great and I am not denying the success at all. I am as happy at the scientific accomplishment as anybody else and wish for even more, though more realistic, timely and judiciously thought ones. For all the incredible success, a load of Mars bars from my side to the fantastic scientists and their political masters behind this accomplishment (pun intended).
So how exactly will this Mars mission serve India's poor, rich or the emerging middle class?
Scientific advancement, searching for Methane in the Martian atmosphere, looking for traces of water on Mars, possibilities of digging up extra-terrestrial intelligence, becoming future-smart, establishing space supremacy, etc have all been quoted as justification for the Mars mission and its cost.
Someone just seems to have conveniently forgotten the gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Anyway, one FB status read as, 'Rs 450 crores (USD 75 million) for an approximately 250 million miles journey to Mars. That's under Rs 6 (.097 USD) per km. Gosh, a rickshaw costs more than that. Well done, Indian Space Research Organization.'
Wow! Comparing the mission cost to a rickshaw ride to Mars. How cool is that? There are justifications galore all across social media and praises showered in Biblical proportions. But I am still not sure how it affects the daily lives of over a billion people in India who have no access to healthcare, water, sanitation, electricity, food and social security. Call me a cynic but yeah, that's that. I'll take any assault on my Indianness or loyalty to the country written off as a 'pseudo-Western thinker' with a pinch of salt and a big smile.
Now, for those who do not know India's fantastic fascination with Mars, the tale goes much beyond any scientific accomplishment or intergalactic mission. Mangal, as the red planet is known in India, is a heavenly body whose importance is most prominently pronounced in Indian astrological systems.
And Mangaldosh or the malefic influence of Mars in one's horoscope is probably one of the most feared. Astrology, popular belief, occult, esoterism, superstition or call it what you may, has it that if Mars is in your 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 8th or 12th house of your ascendant chart, then its bound to mess up your marriage and wreck up your relationship.
So if you've got a Martian aberration in your natal chart then you better find another one like you because in this case two wrongs actually do make a right and two people with 'bad' Mars cancel out each other's negativity. Apparently, you can also negate an irate Mars by 'marrying' a banana or peepal tree. And this has been like this for innumerable years and will remain for many light years like this.
Anyway, needless to say that the number of people believing in this superstition in India, a country where arranged marriages are performed after matching horoscopes and the 'compatibility of Mars', far outnumber those celebrating the success of the launch of the mission to Mars.
This is not going to change for a really long time. Millions in India have and an equal number will continue to factor their Mars before getting married or starting a family. The amount needed to be spent in educating people against this fallacy in order to kill this superstition will probably be many times more than that spent on the Mangalyaan, or the mission to Mars.
That's India's true relationship with Mars for you.
Rocket science is great but basic education even better. American Astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, famously remarked, "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."
Look inwards India. Do the right thing, do the journey within first. The heavens will wait for you, the Earth cannot. It needs more of your thinkers, more Gandhis, Tagores and Amartya Sens, besides millions of more educated Indians. Nothing else matters for now.