In the day, the sun. At night, the moon and stars. Clouds can come and go as they please. This had been the cosmic sequence in ImagiNation for as long as its inhabitants could remember. This is what their stories had told them, this is what they had seen every time they had looked up at the skies.
Day and Night. Night and Day.
Once upon a time, the sky had been a significant factor in people’s lives. They looked up to find the gold of day in the sun, and closed their eyes to the silver of the moon at night. They found shapes in the clouds and read omens in the stars. There was a kind of reliability in this cosmic theatre for those who understood it; old men chose to sigh at certain times of the day and wayward women secretly smiled at the thought of tomorrow. Some – especially children, poets, and politicians – occasionally challenged the standard view of the skies. The Child sketched landscapes with many suns; the Poet, when drunk or jilted or both, made outrageous claims of being harassed by the moon; and the Politician of ImagiNation, like every nation, wanted to take credit for the bejewelled heavens and its stars near and far. These exceptional people aside, on the whole, the cosmic theatre gave solace to all.
That was in the past. Now, things were changing.
In what way? Well, to begin with, there had been incredibly swift technological progress in ImagiNation. The idea that the motifs of sky could be a guide for time and place, seemed quaint. Clocks and computers were more than adequate to position and fix every passing moment with a robust time-stamp. These were precise upto the millionths of a second and scientists swore by the competence of their digitality. Also, after the big washout caused by manic ocean swells and melted glaciers, there had been successful attempts at geo-reengineering. The climate had become unpredictable and the inhabitants of ImagiNation decided that the best way to bring seasonality back was to control what happenings in the sky they could. Tall towers were constructed that spewed salt into the upper air and automatic cloud-monitoring stations were set up on the ground below. As a result, the clouds had become whiter and more defined; parameters were set for their drifting range and they could be landlocked in a region if desired. Add to which, most of the population of ImagiNation had moved to live in cities. People worked in shifts and became busier than ever, often in front of flickering screens which bound them to both necessary tedium and unnecessary pleasures. There were so many kinds of electric illumination that the sky above their heads receded further and further away. The combined effect of all this was that hardly anyone looked up at the skies and the cosmic theatre had no audience.
Even those who had challenged the order of things – the Child, the Poet, and the Politician – had found other pursuits. The Child had electronic games that consumed it. The Poet was often locked up in the four walls of her room, floating on a drug-induced experimental ecstasy. The Politician was surrounded by stars of an entirely different kind: the celebrities, and it was quite advantageous to gather credits from them.
Whether the sun’s light appeared directly on the horizon or in a cloudy haze, the clocks announced the day. Night was when it got dark, at least as dark as it could get with the neon lamps and the flourescent globes everywhere. People went about their lives, pausing to think of the sky only in the rare instances when there was an eclipse, a snow storm, or acid rain. Who had time to stare at the heavenly canvas when there was so much to do in front of them? ImagiNation was becoming a super-successful prosperous country where there were so many kinds of profits to be made that wordsmiths had to coin a word a week for each killing.
The tempo of this business as usual was rudely jolted one day when an amateur astronomer made a shocking claim in a news sourcing agency, in print and online. And since all newspaper, magazines and websites relied upon the same central newsfeeder, the claim was widely circulated and began generating attention. This young man, who was known to the authorities as an insomniac dilettante with a powerful telescope that he had inherited from his great-grandfather, and who was a renegade when it came to timekeeping (it was whispered in his neighbourhood that he deliberately destroyed every clock he could lay his hands on – no, his clipped accented upper class neighbours in the opulent area would never dare lower themselves by gossip; this was the doing of his disgruntled servants who never knew when they might have to appear in the service of their strange master), had made a daring revelation: the night sky was a blank black.
When his report on the night sky above ImagiNation was first published, it prompted an outcry from the community of professional astronomers. ‘What does he know? That young uninitiated novice! The night sky is as it always has been; with its stars and the moon’. The Association of Expert Astronomers (AEA) even threatened to sue the media conglomerate which owned the newspaper, for propagating what they saw as baseless lies. In actual fact, the AEA was in a tizzy. The best professional astronomers of ImagiNation had come to rely so much on the computer simulation of the skies that they could not remember when was the last time that they had observed the real night sky. They remembered that a couple of generations ago, their forbears used to find elevated places of observation to personally examine the sky at night. But, who did that now? It was time-consuming and irrelevant – they had a perfect simulation of the sky which could be viewed in dark laboratory rooms as per convenience, and there were programmes that could even predict the course of astral bodies and calculate projections hundreds of years away. In any case, where would they find a place for scrutinsing the night sky? Most places were artificially lit non-stop to keep them secure. It was very well for this prodigal lunatic to spend his youth traipsing around far from the ubiquitous cities to find an unlit hill from where to look at the sky; this kind of behaviour could not be expected from professionals who had far more important things to consider – there were clouds to sequester and control, the fine tuning of power systems for the new solar planes, and the direction of missions to other galaxies.
In spite of these public efforts to discredit him, the young man did not stop making his assertions. He insisted that people realise – the stars and the moon had been wiped off from the night sky. Many doubted the truth of his utterances initially, though they had no means of checking for themselves. Whether the stars were pinned in the sky or not, they could not view them above the lit haze of the cities. Then, a few brave souls decided to undertake independent expeditions in the country to try and find a remote corner from where it might still be possible to view the sky as it used to be. This was not an easy task, for the means of transportation only existed between the cities. While there were excellent land routes and air lines that connected one urban area to another, for many decades there had been hardly any traffic out of this grid. This was partly the result of conscious policy to encourage efficiency in urban networks and deter any new movement into the established cities from outside.
When people began investigating the sky for themselves, it became clear that the amateur astronomer was right. The day dawned as it always did, but at night the sky was as blank as it was black.
This startling discovery prompted an entire range of responses. The immediate one was a new startup venture which became popular fast. It was called StarCo; the brainchild of a prominent tycoon, this company registered its offices in the capital city of ImagiNation and started trading on the nostalgia for the night sky as it once was. Their diverse portfolio of goods and services included the sale of ‘Night Experiences’ which could be enjoyed in their deluxe or standard versions in the privacy of one’s residence (the deluxe version had extra stars, meteor showers effects, a complimentary full moon and a souvenir star coin), organised ‘New Blank’ trips to a designated remote site from where to see the unstudded black sky, and personalised ‘Sky Makeover’ merchandise in pure silver and cut diamonds. StarCo’s success spawned many spinoffs in the entertainment industry and gradually people came to love the idea of what had happened and invented a term for it, theSpontaneous Sky Makeover became an accepted phrase.
Having delved into their calculations, the expert astronomers decided that the Spontaneous Sky Makeover was of no consequence to them, the AEA issued an official statement to that effect. Their computerised programmes still ran correctly, the galaxy missions proceeded as normal, even the lunar pull on the ocean waves seemed to be unaltered. The cosmic theatre had changed the scene but not the story. The sole difference from before was that the night sky was a blank black devoid of any twinkling stars or the waxing and waning moon.
The Politician decided to gain some mileage from the Spontaneous Sky Makeover. In private, alongwith his other star-friends, the celebrities, he bought many shares in StarCo. In public, he set up a special committee to revise the history of day and night and prepare new textbooks. There would be a definitive compilation of how the Day was ever more important and how the Night had been lost. He identified himself with the constancy and the true gold of the victorious sun. In his many speeches, he declared that his detractors were like the inconstant moon and the random scattered stars which had outlived their purpose. ‘What purpose did the moon and stars serve? Nothing. Nothing at all. Neither rational, nor efficient, nor necessary. We must celebrate their demise. The sun is the real thing, the true giver’.
The Poet, who was probably the last person to realise what had happened when she finally unlocked the door and let herself meet other people, refused to believe the news of the Spontaneous Sky Makeover. ‘It can’t be’, she cried, ‘I must be drunk or jilted or both to be hearing this’. At the same time, in the core of her heart, gnawed a terrifying thought, ‘The moon is gone, the stars are gone, who will harass me now? what will the focus of my torment be? The sun? No, that can’t be. The sun is too monogamous, too united and coherent. I can’t even meet its stare’. For a long time, the poet underwent drug-induced hallucinations in which she saw herself gazing at the crescent moon unblinkingly and picking stars gently off the firmament to place them on a sheet of paper where they glowed bright before they died and left traces of poems on the page. In time, her depression at the blank black night was replaced by surrogate stars. She decided that she would regard the faraway city lit windows as little square stars. With some practice, she was able to transplant her vision of the stars and it worked briefly. But, the absent shape shifting moon was nowhere to be found. That grave lack hounded her psyche and gave her a deep sense of guilt for not having communed enough with the moon when it was still around. To compensate and atone for this regret, she gave up all her lovers and surrendered her name. From then on, she would not be a Poet.
The Child outgrew the electronic games and its studies left it no time to draw landscapes. When it heard of the Spontaneous Sky Makeover, that instantly made it hungry. It went to the kitchen and gobbled half a cake. That time onwards, the Child developed a tendency to overeat and became more and more obese with age.
The amateur young astronomer stamped his feet in frustration, crushing another clock under his shoes (his servant on duty inwardly cursed him for the glass shards that would need clearing from the floor). The loss of the night-as-it-was had robbed him of purpose; he felt uprooted by big swathes of uninterrupted blank blackness that engulfed him in the most flashingly lit of rooms and in the sunny days; it was even seeping into his physical body. There was no solution. The stars and the moon had been his best companions. He killed himself in front of a mirror (his servant on duty loudly cursed him for the bloody mess that would need clearing from the floor).
Everyone reconciled to the Spontaneous Sky Makeover and the moon and the stars passed into the legends of ImagiNation.