December in Delhi portends fog. December in Goa is an endless expanse of clear skies. After a marvellous evening of festivities at the Taleigao Club, a late night drink in the open air seemed just the ticket. I followed the friends with whom I was staying up the dimly lit staircase of their home in Dona Paula, stepped onto the terrace, and emerged into a glittering new universe. The midnight sky was a deep, cloudless indigo, lit up by more stars than I’d seen in a very long time.
As I stood there in a happy haze, I willed the stars to arrange themselves into long-forgotten constellations. My boyfriend in high school had been an astronomy fiend, and stargazing camps had been joyful pit stops in our adolescent romance. Between the boy who would go on to graduate studies in physics, and the quintessential arts student whose brain shut down at the mention of anything mathematical, the night sky was a reasonable meeting point. Unlike Madeline Bassett, the P.G. Wodehouse character, I didn’t quite think the stars were God’s daisy chain, but the names—Orion, Cassiopeia, Arcturus, Aldebaran—held a strange magic. So long as I had some Greek myths to wrap around the stars, even I could convince myself that I was interested in black holes and red giants.
All these years later, my memory didn’t serve as well as I’d have liked. I could see Orion the hunter, with broad shoulders and a gleaming dagger dangling from his waist. I could see the Great Bear, though the uneven trapezium with a tail had never made its ursine qualities apparent to me. My friend Vishal and I agreed on which luminous object Venus was, only to then decide it was actually Jupiter. Despite our enthusiasm, none of us could identify anything more.
The next evening, returning from the mela at the Feast of St. Francis Xavier we drove to Panjim and stopped the car in front of a musty-looking building. “This is Junta House,” he announced, “and there’s supposed to be an observatory at the top.” It was past sunset and the offices in the area had closed. I followed Vishal suspiciously, past a leaking water pipe and up a not-too-clean staircase, convinced that nothing in this building could possibly be open.
I was wrong. On the second-last floor was a sleepy public library, and above it the Public Astronomical Observatory. The observatory is run by volunteers of the Association of Friends of Astronomy out of one sparsely furnished room that serves as office, library, and hangout. Welcomed by two young A.F.A. enthusiasts, we climbed a final narrow metal staircase to a terrace, where two large white telescopes awaited us.
A young man of about 19 told us we would be seeing certain things with the naked eye as well as through the telescope. Another volunteer, about 14, positioned the telescope and then invited us to climb a small ladder so that we could look through the eyepiece. Our guides were young but wonderfully well-informed, providing introductions to each object they showed us, and answering questions with enthusiasm. We began with Venus, and moved on to the stunning Andromeda galaxy, with a hazy ring around it. We saw the Summer Triangle constituted by the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, each the brightest star of a different constellation. The cluster called Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, was visibly lovely to the naked eye, but through the telescope it seemed like an enchanted blue world.
I was brought down to earth by a booming sound. I went to the edge of the terrace and saw the large baroque white church that defines Panjim’s central square. The bells at the Church of the Immaculate Conception were chiming eight o’clock. An hour had passed in what seemed like a flash. But a whole new universe had opened up.
Appeared in the April 2014 issue as “To Catch a Star”.
The Public Astronomical Observatory is open from 14 November-31 May (Junta House, 6th Floor, 18th June Road, Altinho, Panjim, Goa; firstname.lastname@example.org; astrogoa.blogspot.in/p/about-us.html; daily 7-9 p.m.). Visit during fair weather only.