My First Sidewalk Astronomy event

I first read of sidewalk astronomy in 2007 when I read about the work done by John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers . I have been wanting to do it and the dream died a quiet death as I began working. Lucky for me that someone else had also been thinking of doing the same and set up a page on Facebook for the event which was to be held across Mumbai.

Sidewalk Astronomy involves setting up a telescope on a sidewalk with the idea of showing the public the night sky through the telescope. Since these events happen in a city and we’re faced with bright city lights that drown out the fainter objects, this event seeks generally to look at brighter objects – usually the Moon, the planets and if one is lucky, a few bright stars.

The first sidewalk astronomy event in Mumbai was to be held at various locations – Nariman Point, Worli Sea Face, Shivaji Park, Bandra and Thane. I went to the Shivaji Park event to volunteer.

The event was slated to begin at 7 o’clock. At half past six, the venue was clouded out. I was joined here by Henna and Arpit Gada. Henna was organising the event across Mumbai and Thane. Phone calls at this point seemed to suggest that other venues too were clouded out. We took a round around Shivaji Park to look for a nice place to setup the telescope. We ended up selecting a spot opposite the Cafe Coffee Day at Shivaji Park.

We got curious eyeballs as we began setting up the telescope at the spot. People walked upto us and asked if there was a special astronomical event that we were out to observe or if we were doing a specific research. An old couple had also come reading about the event published in Daily News & Analysis, the newspaper. Unfortunately, it was still clouded out.

We had spotted the Moon a couple of times as we walked around Shivaji Park as it played hide and seek. We spotted glimpses of the Moon and began showing late evening walkers the Moon through a pair of binoculars. We had setup a telescope but it was too rickety to show anything through. We used three pairs of binoculars to show the Moon.

As we began reaching out to people, asking passersby if they wanted to see the Moon, we were helped by a few people who had come to see and had seen the Moon. I was tasked with seeing to it that nobody robbed the binoculars and began counting the number of people who were watching. I lost track at a 110 where a huge crowd of people came in and there were small lines.

That number may seem small but we were doing this between 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock at night as India was batting in the finals of the T20 World Cup that was going on. We’d also chosen a less crowded spot since this was everyone’s first experience.

People who watched the Moon through the binoculars loved it and expressed interest in wanting to do it more regularly. We promised to come back in May if we could before the Monsoons. It was a wonderful experience for many. Struggling with the binoculars, their weight, then getting a grip and then learning to focus and then the wonderful sight of the Moon. Some even spotted Jupiter which was hanging around near the Moon this night and were curious to know what object that was. A few people enquired about getting binoculars and costs and where one could get them. Some were reliving their childhood experiences of going out with Khagol Mandal and similar amateur astronomy groups in and around Mumbai. A couple even went home and got their kids back to the spot to see through the binoculars. We got a few people who were quite afraid of even taking a peep through the binoculars and then wouldn’t leave it after they saw the Moon through the binoculars.

This is the real joy of astronomy. Sharing a sight with people who miss this. I wish we had spots within the city that were as dark as villages so that people get a chance to see galaxies and planets that are now invisible. But, for now, people wanting these sights have to travel quite far to catch a glimpse of some of the wonders of our universe.


2012 was a year that I spent watching at least two movies a week every week till December. Once I was back in Mumbai, the frequency fell drastically. So much so, that the last movie I had watched was Ramleela.

Today evening was spent watching the Malayalam movie Drishyam with family at Aurora Talkies in Matunga. The movie was awesome. I am absolutely in love with the plot and the script of the movie. Combined with the visual editing, the movie was an absolute treat.

I also think watching the movie at Aurora Talkies was a wise decision. The audience cheered with every twist and turn in the movie. And there were quite a few of these sprinkled across the movie. The film actually seemed to control the reactions of the crowd. That, in itself, is saying a lot.

CryptoParty in Mumbai

The Free Software Movement Maharashtra in association with the Software Freedom Law Centre organised a Cryptoparty in Mumbai yesterday. The event was scheduled between 10 AM and 1 PM.

Having organised Wikipedia meetups in the city, I understand how difficult it is to get a good venue for the event. But, an event could be considered useless if it’s not timed properly. Most people perhaps with the exception of IT firms work on Saturdays. So, I do not understand why the timings were kept so. Also, perhaps a time little more to the evening say like 4 PM to 7 PM or even 3 PM to 6 PM, would make it a possibility for people to leave early to work to attend the event.

One of the reports from the event is here.

How Chembur’s Changed

It has been a little over nine months since I returned from my old workplace in Bharuch, Gujarat. In this time, I’ve been lazy enough to not go out for my evening stroll through Chembur. Today, I finally made the time. I am totally amazed at the ongoing change in what was once a lazy eastern suburb of Mumbai.

Walking out of Chheda Nagar, I see concrete and steel rise up into the air, the beginning of the Santacruz – Chembur Link Road. The project was scheduled to open in 2008 and recent reports suggest that it will not be open even in 2013. The World Bank funded project that is being built to enhance East to West connectivity has also marred some of the stunning views of sunsets and the visual observation of the planet Venus that I was offered on my evening walks. But, as the board says, Thank you for putting up with this inconvenience now to enjoy a better tomorrow.

The Sky Walks are the next treat. The concept conceived by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) in 2007 as a way of de-congesting the area near the railway stations has been built over old shady roads that were my walking ground in days of college. It has also made me change my decade old walking path. To it’s credit, it’s not as shoddily designed and is built over a route that commuters are used to and helps them avoid going down and climbing up a flight of stairs each.

The old BEST bus stand at Ambedkar Garden now has a commercial complex consisting of shops at the ground level and houses hospitals and coaching classes at the upper levels. It now becomes easier for kids stressed out at coaching classes to visit the doctor, I guess. The bus goes beyond this structure at the back of which the pass counters and conductors rest places have been built.

The Central Avenue Road that stretches from the Chembur Railway Station to Diamond Garden on the Sion – Panvel Highway. This road, once a road sided with shade trees and independence era bungalows on both sides of the road, are now lined with high rises and buildings which houses several banks that have opened branches here.

On the return road through Ahobila Mutt, Sandu Garden, Chembur Head Post Office down to the market, things almost remain the same. Here too, there are some changes. The hall where my first year birthday party was held stands torn down. The hall, my father jokes, would not have seen any event more important than my birthday party. Through the gap one can see the Monorail station coming up. Usually I was able to see the Fine Arts Society, where I gained training in carnatic vocal music as a kid. As I go to the base of the Chembur market bridge I see a skeleton of the Sky walk that would connect the monorail station to the railway station.

As I walk to the corner store at Amar Mahal to grab a Coke, I am thankful for something remaining the same in the past decade. I do not believe that humans are built to witness this speed or scale of change around us. I think we need these things – parks, buildings and corner stores that are permanent so that we can sit, observe and contemplate on the fast changes that have been transforming Chembur. Whether for good or bad, now, only time will tell.

How the City Moves

I watched Parag Khanna’s TED talk recently. This gave me a new way of thinking about how Mumbai has been changing recently.

A slew of infrastructure projects now seek to connect Mumbai East to West. These include to some extent the Monorail, the Link Roads and the Metro. These connecting roads passing through the slums, the old industrial belt and through hills are getting widened.

Mumbai is tilting on its axis – which was exceedingly North to South from the suburbs to the city. With the move of bulk of the government institutions and private offices to the Bandra Kurla Complex and to the western suburbs, the tilt seems to be getting more clearer. The middle class which worked in the town are now moving to the western suburbs. The local railway lines and the road infrastructure has not been built to take this tilt yet. Hence the traffic jams in the western suburbs and the link roads. The tilt is interesting because in the central suburbs are vast amount of industries and the thriving unofficial economy of the city that keeps the North South link oiled. It will be interesting to see what happens to these in the days to come.

Closing Down of public libraries in Chembur

As a teen growing up in the suburbs of Mumbai, I had access to some very fascinating public libraries in Chembur. I didn’t read anything until my teenage years after which I didn’t have time to do anything else but reading. Many of the libraries have shut shop. The recent one is the Ramchandra’s Circulating Library at Amar Mahal which has now paved the way for yet another cycle shop.

My mom and her sisters read at the Shashi’s Three Star Library in Zerox Galli, near Chembur Railway Station. It was here I read most of my Hardy Boys collection (along with the 1 book/week I got in school). It is here I started reading Jeffrey Archer and Sidney Sheldon. He wouldn’t give me many of the other books I was interested in (like horror fiction) and this put me fairly in the pure fiction category in my reading tastes. It was also here that the librarian suggested Wodehouse to me to keep me away from Stephen King. Needless to say, I enjoyed Wodehouse. This library is now a stationary shop.

There were many other libraries too but to which I did not apply for membership and which have now closed.

There was a Five Star Circulating Library at the corner of Ambedkar Garden. This has now become part of clothes store. This had more of the books that women like and very few selections for what would today be called young adult audiences.

There was also a library on the ground floor of the municipality M ward office. This has now been converted into a Citizen Facilitation Center. The library has been moved to a smaller space near the Sai Baba Temple with a smaller but a more Marathi-centric collection.

After losing the Ramchandra’s Circulating Library at Amar Mahal, the only one in Chedda Nagar is run by a very old gentleman – he runs Ankur Circulating Library. He’s recently decreased the size of the library claiming difficulty in maintenance.

Good libraries have also taken a beating as new bookstores like Crossword and Landmark and online spaces like Flipkart have made it easier for book lovers to purchase books rather than borrow books. The libraries that exist are not being able to get some of the latest books in circulation.

I have a growing collection of books that I am waiting to share but am not yet entirely sure how. It’s something in my head. A need for a public circulating library with an updated stock of books.

Talk by Susmita Mohanty at the American Center

It was Srinivas Laxman who forwarded me the email and invited me over since it was a public talk (video) to be held at the American Center, New Marine Lines. Given the rains and a talk about the Shuttle were not really great pull to go attend the event. At the end of the day, though, I am glad I attended the event.

Even though I was born in the ’80s and a video of the Space Shuttle Discovery lifting off with Hubble is what pushed me into space, I have never taken the trouble to sit down and get to know the Shuttle, the vehicle. Watching the last few sets of shuttle launches, space walks, pictures tweeted and shuttle landings have reduced the ignorance but I have never known about the anatomy of the shuttle, which is where Susmita started her talk today from.

Going from there she described the various activities – standing, moving, sleeping, use of the bathroom, controlling the spacecraft, bathing, spacewalking, repairing the Hubble. She tried hard to get the audience to understand how hard it is to do simple tasks inside the shuttle.

She ended her talk talking about the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, SpaceX’s Dragon, Bigelow Aerospace’s space hotels and lunar bases and an EADS Astrium video on space tourism.

The question and answer session was as interesting as any for a science outreach event held in Mumbai. The teens and children asked the really interesting questions – prospects of space entrepreneurship in India, shielding astronauts from cosmic rays and other effects (put by a kid as “are astronauts damaged by air from galaxies”) and prospects of Middle East in space exploration. The university kids (which included people from IIT-B and the Pratham small satellite team) remained silent. The older people asked really weird questions – showing they had selective information which they could not make sense of.

An interesting question that did not get answered was what was the mode of communication between spacewalking astronauts and the spacecraft – audio feed or radio.

The final space shuttle launch will be on July 8, 2011. The space shuttle Atlantis will fly for this mission.

Russian Cosmonaut visiting Nehru Centre

June 9, 2011 is the day when Russian cosmonaut Viktor Savinykh will be visiting the Nehru Center, Mumbai. In the morning he’ll inaugurate an exhibition on space. The exhibition will be open to the members of the public on the first floor of Nehru Planetarium till June 18, 2011.

In the evening Savinykh will talk on “50th Anniversary of the first human Space flight“. Savinykh became a cosmonaut in 1978. He’s flown in space for 252 days 17 hours and 38 minutes on three spaceflights. He flew to the Soviet Salyut 6 in 1981, Salyut 7  in 1985 and the Mir in 1988. On Salyut 7, Savinykh helped restore Salyut 7 with which ground control was lost. He, along with Vladimir Dzhanibekov manually docked with Salyut 7, replaced batteries and restored power and control to the station.