Tag Archives: astronomy

The Venus Flytrap: The Sons Of Mars

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Mars retrograde is supposed to bring the men back. The planet of ambition, sex and war – at least as per astrologers and storytellers – had backtracked not even three days when my text messages started showing signs of an accurate forecast. A retrograde is when a planet appears to be moving backwards in the sky, and its astrological effects are said to be a little askew. Seeing these effects in my inbox, I did not reply. Call it the thwarted drive of a weakened Mars or the long-term strategy of a sensible warrior. It may not be wise to pay heed to astrology, but that returning men rarely warrant replies is a permanently valid prophecy.

It so happens that Mars is also astronomically important this month, and its proximity to Earth at the end of July means its visibility increases for sky-watchers. It also has a perihelic opposition, when it’s at its closest to the sun while also directly opposite to Earth. And at the end of the month, Mars will come closer to us than it has in a decade and a half, and this will almost coincide with the longest lunar eclipse of the century.

Our planet experiences lunar eclipses a few times a year, but Mars has them almost every night, and in totality. Its two moons – Phobos and Deimos – are relatively small and frequently covered by the sun. There cannot be any total solar eclipses on that planet. Mars is the Roman name for the Greek deity Ares, god of war. His sons were Phobos and Deimos. Phobos – named for fear, from which we get the word “phobia”. Deimos – named for dread, especially before battle. The young twins accompanied their father into war. Fearsome to behold, Deimos was lion-headed, and his brother had a fiery gaze.

I looked at images of Phobos and Deimos and felt a strange and loyal smugness. They are not as pretty as our moon, who despite all her craters and caprices is complete in herself. They are misshapen, and strike me as being untrustworthy. Phobos is believed to actually be a pile of rubble with a thin crust, and is known to be collapsing internally, torn up over its tidal interactions with Mars.

The mother of the twins was Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love, and because of this they were also the gods of the fear of loss. Not loss itself but the fear of it. Perhaps Dread and Fear include the anxiety of sitting by an ailing loved one, or the disquiet of realising someone does not intend to call you back.

Our moon has no scientific name. She is The Moon. And surely among her many prestiges she is also the governess of loss – not the one who controls or creates it, but the one who looks over those who experience it. We are mostly made of water, more receptive to the lunar pull than to the retrogression of a distant planet.

So Mars is in retrograde and maybe the men will try to come back, but even with the occlusion of an eclipse, they should know they’re treading in a selene-centric galaxy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Cosmic Longing & A Heart-Shaped Bloom-Bruise

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He found a way to tell me he was wandering near the house I lived in then, a way to get me to ask what he was doing there, to spritz my wrists impulsively with nocturnal jasmine and walk out the door. But I didn’t ask. All of that year so far, I had caught a refrain pulsing in me, with no proof: “my heart is going to break”. And so it did. I had known before I’d known. And then I knew, incontrovertibly.

But that was the week they’d flown by Pluto and sent back images of a heart-shaped bloom-bruise on its southern hemisphere. So, instead, I laughed with delicious bitterness at the meme that made the rounds – “so you dumped me years ago and now you’re driving by my house real slow” – of earth’s obsession with the ex-planet. I sent it to my friends, and they too laughed with me, and then I put my phone away and colluded quietly with the night sky. Its burning brightnesses, its invisible implosions. My heart was going to break, but so what, 320 light-minutes away was one that had broken billions of years ago.

I looked at those images of Pluto and marvelled at the perfection of that heart. It, too, was a scar, the result of a collision with interplanetary debris. They call it Sputnik Planum, sprawled across by a frozen, far younger expanse. Sputnik Sweetheart, I thought – but perhaps that was too sentimental for the star-seekers who know their gods and their stories, who named its principal moon for the ferryman of the dead, and dark regions after Tolkien, and one terrestrial macula for a goddess whose nepenthe helps souls forget lifetimes, and others for different beings of other underworlds.

That NASA flyby was the first time that human eyes had seen the celestial body with such clarity. Now, almost a year later, we know even more. Beneath that iciness, the young surface thrives with heat, continuously replenishing itself. Pluto’s heart beats, is what the astronomers and scientists now tell us. It beats like “bubbles in a lava lamp”, is their specific description, and I think of something silent and aquatic. What if we got closer, learned more? Would it beat the way wings flutter as a hummingbird descends to slip its beak into the flute of a flower? Would it beat like the throbbing at the corner of someone’s lips as they sleep, the one you don’t touch unless you hope to wake them? Blood-tide in the conch of the body, song-tide in the silence of the deep.

Would it beat the way his fingertips uncertainly drum surfaces around me now that he knows he can do nothing to thaw my wintry demeanour?

Someone else, longer ago, cracked open corridors that led me to the songs of pulsars. And later, listening to warbling conus shells – a mermaid, according to local legend – from my maternal homeland, I thought of those dying stars too. Does the beating heart of Pluto make a sound?

Only light-minutes of distance, not insurmountable light years, and each generation closer and closer. I’m listening. Are you?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.