On Guru Purnima, people thanked their gurus, mentors and guides. I thanked the moon, which was so bright, it seemed like a sun.
The moon has taught me more than anything in the sky of my life. On nights in the forest, during field work, or during a late-night stroll, moonlight has lit my path. It has made rocks look like silver, and made nocturnal white flowers look like glowing stardust. The path taken by millions of people who live in or near forests or countryside — making their way with just silver moonlight. The moon, shining through a window and pooling on my face — gently, unlike sunshine — has been life’s constant companion. And during the lockdown, the moon has been a saviour. During unbearably restricted days in a containment zone, I have waited for the moon each night. Doing lunar photography, looking at my patch of sky from my patch of hard ground, has been a liberation.
People celebrate the full moon with all kinds of dramatic names — the wolf moon, the blood moon, the thunder moon, the super moon, the strawberry moon, and Guru Purnima. But I have preferred the moon when its not full. I like the mystery of the three-fourths moon, or the sharpness of the crescent moons. Moons that are not so bright that the scars are washed off; moons that carry dark portions with pride and panache.
As the country debates on a fairness cream changing its name to ‘Glow and Lovely’ from ‘Fair and Lovely’, I find myself thinking of the moon. The moon is not flawless. In fact, its scarred, pitted face is a kind of pride I find flaw-some. On the other hand, people have compared the full moon to a woman’s face. But this is disingenuous to both. Women are not celestial objects, and women should not be loved just because they are fair.
What if the moon was black, not white? (This would technically not be visible to us, as it reflects the light of the sun.) But imagine if it was. Suppose the moon was green, or black, and that became a standard of beauty because everyone around the world looked up at the moon. As they look up, they feel wonder and amazement fill their bodies. And thus, they may have wanted men and women to also have green, or black, faces. This may seem to be crazy scenario, but it also shows us how subjective values can become. In a world that only wants a green face, a white face would be seen as ugly and undesirable. Perhaps people would sell creams and dreams for acquiring green faces.
The thing I take away from the moon is a not a comparison to a feminine face. I take away the fact that the moon is objectively its own, authentic self. It is scarred, it is not even white (the colour of the moon is actually grey), and for most days of the month the entire moon is not even visible to us. I want India to rise up to accept women as they are, as they want to be. Not fair, not dark, but rather a Sumedha and Urvashi or a Ritu, known for her own personality and idiosyncrasies.
I haven’t given the moon a nickname, because I know that though it feels mine, every culture looks at it differently. Someone found a rabbit on the moon. Others connect lunacy to the moon. Some worship it like a God. We have a lunar calendar and many festivals around Purnimas. This represents the best of human culture in a way – we look up to something hanging in the sky, and give it a meaning special and personal to us.
I have gazed upon the moon looking out from a room full of people, feeling how gentle and shining it is at the same time. I have looked at the moon from the Himalayas, where it feels bigger and closer. I have looked at the moon from the thick brown fog of Delhi’s air, hoping we learn to unpollute so we can see the moon closely again. In January last year, I was in Chilika, in Odisha, standing at a place where the land met the sea. It had been a long, tiresome day. There were early morning bird surveys when the air was balmy and the sun hidden, and there were mid-morning and day long meetings when the air was no longer balmy and the sun burnt our skin. The heat in coastal areas makes it less like January and more like a timeless place untouched by seasons. I was waiting for moonrise, and the gentleness of my favourite celestial friend. As the moon rose, I struggled with elaborate camera settings.
Forty minutes later, I had my pictures. In each of them, the moon looked blush pink. And that’s just the moon for you, barren, but lush with possibility. Flush with colour even though we think its bone-white. At a certain point of the horizon, the moon is yellow like cheddar. At certain days of the year, it is pink or rust-red. On all days, it is something we can barely control or predict. Because the moon lives with the clouds, and the clouds are as fleeting as inspiration can be.
The day after Guru Purnima, I was back on the terrace, waiting to shoot pictures. A bank of clouds hid the moon’s face. I waited a long time. Part of me felt cheated. There was a very small window of abandon I had during the lockdown, and I felt bad that a day I had waited for would not find place in my camera.
Then I realized I was taking away something much better. I was looking for something, and not finding it. But I was also learning to look again. That’s all that life is about.
You get shoved down, but you learn to get up, give yourself a shake, and look for the moon again.
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