This Article is From Jul 21, 2019

When India Was Obsessed With Another Moon Landing

For a 12-year-old schoolboy, Armstrong's moonwalk couldn't have been worse timed. The summer vacation had given over in the middle of July and for desis, the Eagle landed- given the time difference - on a Monday. That wouldn't have been so bad if Armstrong hadn't taken hours - bloody hours - to undo the hatch and climb down the ladder. The Lunar Module (it was capitalized in our heads) landed at a quarter to two in the morning. That wasn't so bad because in my brother's head and mine, that wasn't the main event and we could sleep through it. The main event was Man on Moon: Armstrong's boot meeting lunar surface.

Some crazed scheduler decided this would happen a little over six-and-a-half hours after Eagle touched down. In my world this meant that by the time we left home to drag ourselves off to the school bus-stop on Pandara Road, it still hadn't happened. Instead of listening to the great descent on a Philip's radio the size of a small trunk, connected to a reliable rooftop aerial, we would have to tune in to this world historical event on a dinky transistor radio which, even in optimal conditions, produced mostly static. Also it was illegal; St. Xavier's School didn't allow radios in school premises and officious bus monitors had been known to argue that school buses were, in effect, school premises.

Walking to the bus stop, Sudhakar and I were paralysed by the anxiety that we wouldn't be able to listen in, live, to the greatest event in our lives. There were apparently half a billion people who watched the moon landing happen but television had barely arrived in India and we weren't part of that communion.

Thanks to my obsessed older brother, I had been tracking this journey to the moon for the better part of a year. From cutting and pasting colour photos of Pataudi, Bedi and Chandrasekhar and articles about them on to sheets of chart paper and then filing them in shoe-lace binders, we had transitioned seamlessly into glueing profiles of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins next to carefully cut out photos of the space craft.  Cutting out the Eagle (which looked like a modernist metal frog) was especially hard because its landing legs were so thin that a single bad snip with the too-large tailor scissors we had meant a legless lunar module and a hunt for another photo.  I'm not sure why we felt we were improving these pictures and articles by embalming them in albums but I suspect that in the information-scarce world of the 1960s, we thought we were creating a handy private archive.

It helped that the moon landing was preceded by the greatest PR campaign in the history of humanity. The USIS (United States Information Service), which ran a library near Mandi House, had whole shelves of expensively illustrated books on the American space programme. It was a Cold War library and once Kennedy made the Space Race the centre-piece of this conflict, no expense was spared. Every month, a copy of SPAN, the US Embassy's propaganda magazine, slid through the front door, free. From lengthy photo features on the PL 480 programme, the editors switched in 1969 to saturation coverage of the race to the moon. Since both my parents were civil servants of sorts, we got two copies, one to cut and one to keep. SPAN was a symbol of how loaded the US was: every page was thick, glossy, photo-quality paper, crammed with colour photographs. And it was free.

So by the time July 21 rolled round, we knew in technicolor detail that this was a world-historical event. And because we were in on the run-up to the take-off, we adopted this great partisan Cold War adventure as our own. This didn't mean that we were thick enough to think we were all Americans now. No, we knew we weren't American children. We didn't have paper rounds, and we definitely couldn't turn packets of seeds into Daisy air rifles. But we could make believe that when the astronauts declared they came in peace for all Mankind, that meant us too. So much so that when I read that the Soviet Union had launched Luna 15, an unmanned mission to the moon, designed to show up the Americans by bringing moon rock home before Apollo 11 could, I was outraged.

That was a a propaganda coup in India, circa 1969. With Nixon in the White House, India was closer to the Soviet Union than it was to the US. Thanks to the '65 war with Pakistan, schoolboys knew more about military hardware than they should have and I knew, age 12, that India's air force had chosen the MIG 21 over its Western competitors. Before Apollo, we knew nothing about the American space programme, but a great deal about the Soviet Union's. Every middle class schoolkid could say and spell Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman in space. No one had ever heard of Alan Shepherd, the first American in space. The space race was the most unforgiving, winner-take-all sport of them all: no one remembered the guys who came second.

Till Apollo, space for us was all Sputniks and cosmonauts. Besides, I thought the Soviet space programme was superior because its cosmonauts made land fall instead of splashing into the sea, which seemed to be, quite literally, a harder thing to do.

But by the time Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took off, we were so invested in this epic journey that I remember thinking that the Soviet bid to steal a march over the Americans wasn't just petty, it was dumb. It was dumb because moon rock wasn't the point of Apollo 11, its mission was landing human beings on the moon. And if the Soviets didn't get that, they had to be terminally stupid. So when we heard that Luna 15 crash-landed on the moon and was a complete and utter failure, like a good (if temporarily enlisted) cold warrior, I thought it served the Russians right.

But none of that had happened when we climbed into X-7, our school bus. Radio reception inside the bus was just static made worse by engine noise. Even the senior school boys leaning out on the footboard, radio to ear, heard nothing but mooing and whistling. It was a 40-minute journey down Tilak Road, past Delhi Gate, through Darya Ganj, past the Red Fort on the right, before exiting the walled city through Kashmiri Gate, to reach the Civil Lines where St Xavier's bustled in the buildings of a defunct colonial hotel.

When we reached, radio reception improved enough to know that we had missed nothing because Armstrong was still inside, but there was no time listen further because we had to line up for assembly at 8.05. Father Ribeiro droned on for an interminable ten minutes, the school chorus sang the national anthem faster than we had ever heard it sung and we filed off to class with "Come September" playing on the PA system. We'd never be able to listen in to Armstrong walking the moon in real time once first period began. I thought filthy thoughts about parents and padres for their cretinous refusal to see that with History imminent, school didn't matter.

Miss Avasthi walked in for the Hindi period. She always looked as if she had a paan tucked into one side of her mouth when she didn't. She opened the attendance register...and a miracle happened. The intercom - a single speaker set in the wall above the blackboard - crackled and the vice-principal announced that the school would now listen to a broadcast of the moon landing. And we did. I can't swear that I remember Armstrong saying the great leap thing, but we heard all of it. It was just before 8.30 that it happened, the most exhilarating moment of our young, middle class, off-grid lives...but this time, gentle reader, I was there.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.