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It So Happened
The Comet 2, Part 2.
• Duttada returns home to a warm welcome and a ceremony, which
is not a scientist's delight.
• A secret communication sends him rushing to the local sweet shop.
• Indrani Debi says that Khoka, their eight-year-old grandson, has
saved the world. Her husband is seriously puzzled.
Arriving home he found another crowd gathered under a pandal.
He glanced questioningly at Indrani Debi. Surely she knew how he
hated crowds. Indrani, obviously uneasy, offered the explanation:
"I have arranged a yajna and called priests to bless you."
"But why? Just because I left the shores of India? You know it is
no longer taboo! And in any case you know my views on these
Indrani Debi looked at Sibaji babu, the younger brother of her
husband. Sibaji babu coughed and explained, "We have all been
very disturbed since you discovered the comet. Guruji recommended
a shanti yajna to pacify the evil spirit behind the comet. We are all
waiting for you to perform the yajna."
"May I know what specific advantage there is in this ceremony?"
Duttada was outwardly calm.
"The comet you have discovered will not cause any ill effects on
At this remark Duttda blew up. "Don't you know that this is all
superstition? It could be condoned in the olden times when man
did not know what comets were. Not so in modern times. Comets
are known for what they are, their movements are forecast precisely
by mathematical calculations and it is clearly established by
statistical studies that their visits have no correlations with disasters
on the Earth ... All this is of course futile on my part to explain ---
you and the likes of you never read even the elementary books
Since his return from London, Duttada was in regular
correspondence with Sir John Macpherson. Their friendship had
grown out of their appreciation of each other's virtues. Sir John
admired Duttada's scientific outlook while the latter admired the
former's discipline and efficiency. Their correspondence never
mentioned the Project Light Brigade although once in a while Sir
John would hint at its progress in a subtle manner that Duttada
Meanwhile Comet Dutta was following its predicted path. In due
course it developed its tail. It circled round the Sun without breaking
apart; nor did it evaporate. The scientists on Project Light Brigade
therefore knew that the threat of collision was now very much real.
In the middle of October, Duttada got a letter from Sir John. In
the midst of descriptions of the meeting of the Royal Astronomical
Society, the unseasonably warm weather, the opening matches of
the football season and a recent bye-election, Duttada spotted the
sentence he was eagerly looking for: "The charge of the Light Brigade
has begun. Let us hope for the best." So the spacecraft had been
launched on time.
But will it achieve the rendezvous in time and at the right place?
Will the remote control detonation work? What if the gigantic nuclear
pile fails to fire?
Duttada could not share his anxieties with anyone around him.
He had to participate in and outwardly enjoy the Puja ceremonies,
the Diwali celebration and other festivals. His sole daytime relaxation
was in the company of Khoka, his eight-year-old grandson, and of
course at night looking through Dibya.
He was regularly monitoring the comet, now clearly visible even
to the naked eye. On November 18 a special messenger on a scooter
from the British Council brought in an urgent telex message for
him. The telex operator in Calcutta had wondered what was so special
about it to make it so urgent. But on reading it Duttada lost all his
lethargy and rushed to his favourite rasagolla shop. The
"I am confident now of buying my Christmas presents on
December 15 --- John Macpherson."
On December 15 Comet Dutta came closest to the earth --- at a
distance of 80,000 kilometres. Millions saw it and admired it. Only
a handful knew how close they had come to total annihilation.
When the comet had gone far away and was seen no more,
Duttada felt it safe to make the following comment to his wife: "Now
that the comet came and went, are you satisfied that no major
disaster took place that can be attributed to it?"
"I agree that there has been no major disaster; but there could
have been some. Do you know how they were averted?" Indrani
Debi said with quiet confidence.
Duttada looked at her. Did she know? How could she? He had
never mentioned Project Light Brigade to her. He probed cautiously,
"I don't understand what you mean."
"It is very simple. There were no disasters because of the yajna
at our house."
"But I never performed the yajna. Don't you remember, I refused
to have anything to do with it?"
"Of course, I do. But we found a way out --- at least Guruji did.
He said that if you were unwilling to perform the yajna, it would be
all right if a descendant of yours did it. So we got Khoka to deputise
for you. And it has worked! Isn't Guruji clever?" Indrani's voice had
a ring of triumph.
Duttada formed a mental picture of Khoka performing the yajna
uttering mantras dictated to him which he did not understand,
pouring ghee at specified intervals into the fire, offering flowers...
And then the picture changed to an assembly of scientists at the
conference analysing the problem, devising solutions and executing
them rationally and efficiently.
It seemed hard to believe that both pictures were different aspects
of contemporary human society. Duttada was aware of the gulf that
separates the rich from the poor, the educated from the illiterate,
the privileged from the unprivileged. But this gap between the
rational and the superstitious seemed to him far wider, far more
sinister. Will human society ever succeed in eliminating it?