What is it about space travel that is so alluring? Even a ‘short’ journey in space takes a long, long time. It’s cold up there, dangerous up there and, what’s worse, for long stretches there’s nothing up there. Alpha Centauri is the star system nearest to our own and even that is over four light years away – or to put it another way 25.6 trillion miles; and yet, when you get there, most of the universe is going to look much the same as it does from Earth, because as vast as the distance from here to there sounds, in relation to the size of the Universe it’s trivial.
Ever since i can remember i have longed to make that voyage. Alpha Centauri is my love, my other. It is all that is unattainable – the 99.999999% of the Universe which not only will i never visit, but to which a visit would be impossible.
For me but not for my descendants? Because it is conceivable that one day we – as in human beings – could make such a journey; whereas for most of the Universe no such possibility exists. We would have to become something other than human – and would therefore no longer be ‘us’ – to endure the centuries, millennia even, that even the fastest spacecraft would require for the trip to other galaxies.
Even measured in light years the distances to these can run into the billions; and at such a distance, there is no way of knowing if the galaxies are still there. After all if the picture we’re seeing is billions of years old, who knows what’s happened since? And their size! In what way is it meaningful to visit a galaxy? We live in a galaxy, but if we were to climb into a spaceship at birth and visit a planet – or even a star a day – we wouldn’t see them all before we died. 100 to 400 billion: that is how many stars our galaxy contains.
By contrast, a visit to another star system sounds positively manageable. And what an experience! Imagine seeing the Sun as a yellow pinprick in the darkness. For just as Alpha Centauri is visible from Earth, so the Sun would be visible from a planet orbiting either of the two stars* in that system. Just as astronauts, when they saw the Earth from the Moon, gained for the first time a sense of the Earth as an object separate from themselves; so from Alpha Centauri we would gain something like the same perspective on our Solar System.
Might Alpha Centauri contain an alternative Earth? Unlikely, given its twin suns, but it doesn’t stop people dreaming, especially those of us who have never felt fully at home on this Earth. The important thing is that it remains unknown and thus is the perfect playground for dreams and nightmares, much as was true of Mars or Venus before spacecraft revealed the more prosaic truth: that Mars is an empty red desert and Venus** an inferno. We may still wonder sometimes about the possibility of life on Mars, but for the most part our Martian fantasies are now not about what we might find there but what we might create there: terraforming. There’s another parallel too: just as Mars and (occasionally) Venus have been conceived as mirrors or twins to the Earth, so Alpha Centauri performs this function for the Solar System as a whole.
I think, having considered it, that all these factors play their part for me: the longing to attain the unattainable; the need to reduce the universe to something more intelligible; the desire to see the reality i live within from without; and an adult version of my childhood dreams of a passage to other worlds.
* Actually, there are three but the third, Proxima, is much smaller and dimmer.
** An atlas we had when i was a child included an ‘artist’s depiction of what Venus might look like’. It showed a lush, vaguely prehistoric looking jungle.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1942): Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate. He has been one of my literary heroes ever since i was introduced to his work as an undergraduate student studying – supposedly – Bangla (Bengali). I remember the first time i encountered his writing. It was a letter, which he wrote home while travelling from India to Britain. I no longer remember the exact contents, only that in it he mentioned the Suez Canal. What i do recall is being awestruck, even with my very limited command of Bangla, by the beauty of his writing.
Reading him in English is, by contrast, a much more frustrating experience. The songs and poems fare especially poorly. Translators seem obsessed with rendering the most minute details of Bengali life to the exclusion of the real essence of the poetry. Do we really need to know the name of every musical instrument, flower or season? Tagore’s is the poetry of transcendence, of the way in which the particular points towards the universal; footnoting and exotic vocabulary can only get in the way. Nevertheless, i enjoy the translations by Brother James, especially of the song lyrics. They communicate the rapture, the devotion which is at the poems’ heart:
You may have millions of stars and planets,
but you don’t have me.
You won’t be able to tolerate that,
You’ll have to draw me to Your side,
for You are alone
if i am alone.”
(Gitali 77, excerpt)
Tagore also wrote novels, short stories and plays. He painted, he founded a school – in fact the breadth of his accomplishments is astonishing. I feel almost as if i’m trivialising him then when i say that of all his works it’s what Wikipedia describes as his “autobiographies” which are my great loves. Two books in particular, “Glimpses of Bengal” and “My Reminiscences”, go everywhere with me: I carry them round with me on my iPhone to turn to when i feel drained by life’s pressures. Tagore had a magical memory. I don’t just mean that his memory was good, but that he remembered what mattered, the things that could make a scene live again for a reader – even one who’d never seen his world or anything remotely like it.
I’ll conclude by giving two very different examples, one from each of the titles I’ve just mentioned. Not exactly favourite passages, but ones i’ve alighted on tonight as i’ve been flicking through the books. The first i find touching – although others will perhaps consider it a bit mawkish:
“I saw a dead bird floating down the current today. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree…”
(“Glimpses of Bengal”)
The second is just funny, but to understand it you need to know that the arrival they are awaiting is that of their dreaded English language tutor:
“It is evening. The rain is pouring in lance-like showers. Our lane is under knee-deep water. The tank has overflown into the garden, and the bushy tops of the Bael trees are seen standing out over the waters. Our whole being, on this delightful rainy evening is radiating rapture like the Kadamba flower its fragrant spikes. The time for the arrival of our tutor is over by just a few minutes. Yet there is no certainty…! We are sitting on the verandah overlooking the lane watching and watching with a piteous gaze. All of a sudden, with a great big thump, our hearts seem to fall into a swoon. The familiar black umbrella has turned the corner undefeated by such weather! Could it not be somebody else? It certainly could not! In the wide world there might be found another, his equal in pertinacity, but never in this little lane of ours.”
So there you have it: my plea for Tagore. Do not be put off by translations which seem designed to convince you he is unreadable, or by the idea that his work is all esoteric and mystical. It isn’t. If at least one person who reads this post falls under Tagore’s spell then my work here will be done!