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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Super Nova: A Short Story

We were only very few in our class. The subject was Astronomy. Little I realized earlier that rarely students opted for Astronomy as one of their elective subjects during their college studies. When I was young and in school, I had visited Chennai during summer vacations and during those days, my grand-mother used to take me to Marina beach and there, lying down on the beach sand, I used to watch stars and get excited and curious about ‘space’ and whatever is out there. Ever since those days, I was a keen star gazer and I was reading tit bits about planets and stars from time to time. In my small town, there was no reading library worth its name and I had very little access to current information on sky and the stars. Luckily opportunity to study Astronomy knocked my doors when I entered college and Astronomy was available as one of the elective subjects.

We had a very interesting professor Dr.Mohan who taught us Astronomy and he was a master story teller. It was intriguing to learn that it took more than a millennium before the geocentric view of the universe got disproved and rejected and we accepted a heliocentric view, where Sun is the centre of our universe. I was appalled at the knowledge of existence of several universes like ours. I got thrilled at stories about this universe coming into being from ‘seemingly nothing’ during the “Big Bang” and about several stars and planets coming into existence from gaseous masses. I read with great awe how this universe keeps expanding at a great pace. Thinking and contemplating on the possibility of existence of black holes somewhere out there in the sky, from which nothing can escape in their ‘event horizon’ region, frightened me. I never missed Dr.Mohan’s classes and his stories. Our mutual relationship worked on an excellent chemistry of understanding, appreciation and interest in astronomical events and discoveries.

Binary stars are stars that move around their common centre of mass. Some of them could be large, bright, ten to one-hundred times the size of the Sun, with a cool surface, believed to be at the end of their life cycle. These are known as Red Giants. When a Red Giant sheds it outer layers as a ejected gaseous envelope, a very dense, small, hot star in the last stage in life appears, and these stars are known as White Dwarfs. When matter that accumulated on the surface of a White dwarf explodes, then the star suddenly brightens very dramatically and remains bright for a few days, and then fades away, gradually returning to its dim appearance. This phenomenon is called Nova. The largest and most luminous type of star is known as Supergiant. They are dying stars and have diameter up to thousand times that of the Sun. They are formed when very massive type of star uses up its hydrogen fuel and begins to expand and cool. An exploding supergiant is known as Supernova. It attains temporary brightness of hundred million suns or more and it can shine as brightly as a small galaxy for a few days or weeks.”

Even, as Dr.Mohan was explaining this candidly, his majestic voice exploding in the class room, my mind slowly drifted away to my sister Brinda.

Brinda, my sister, is extremely brilliant, active, inquisitive, studious and very, very pretty. Simply, she is a star in our house, a pet for my parents and adored by many. I have envied her and her talents from time to time, but I was also proud of her. She was in class seven last year.

Nine months back ago, one day she complained of fatigue and fell ill for a week. She was diagnosed as suffering from anemia and was put on medication. She turned normal soon.

Around the same time, Mr.David, a new mathematics teacher joined her school and he taught mathematics to Brinda’s class. He was very likeable and many students adored him. Brinda, already looked upon as a mathematics genius, was seen interacting with Mr.David more often. Her keenness to learn more and more in mathematics had puzzled Mr.David and he gradually realized that she was not only brilliant, but growing beyond her age in mathematics. Brinda went to him about problems that were more complex and involved a higher learning. She took extra pains to learn calculus, differentiation and integration, trigonometry and a few other areas that were meant for higher classes. Week after week, she was presenting to him tricky problems and her own solutions, in topics that were way beyond her class. Mr.David concluded that he was dealing with a kind of wizard. His own mathematical skills were challenged a few times by Brinda and he also teased her with more complex and varied problems. This went on for a couple of months.

Initially, Mr.David kept things to himself and one day he reported this to the Principal of the school. When the Principal and another senior interviewed her, Brinda astounded them with her speed in solving problems of higher mathematics. They commended her and informed our parents who were extremely pleased and soon, Brinda’s extraordinary brilliance became a common topic of discussion in the school and among our friends and relatives.

The Principal soon began wondering whether they were dealing with a child prodigy in Brinda and sometime later, they decided to put her to test. A few university professors were invited to test Brinda and after several sessions of grilling, they agreed that Brinda was definitely an extraordinary brain.


While her anemic conditions appeared to have improved, Brinda started reporting sickness more often during the same period. She complained of loss of appetite, sore throat, and had erratic high fevers. Once while walking, an iron nail plunged deep into her toes and she bled excessively. It took several days to heel. Doctors diagnosed that her immune system was getting weak and she was put on further medication. Our parents were very frugal and managed the family on a meager income. They started feeling the pinch of her medical expenses on our finances and their debts were rising. But they loved us a lot. Our residence was shifted to another locality to save Brinda from mosquitoes that were breeding and spreading disease from an open drain near our old house and this added to their expenses and debts. In the new place, Brinda enjoyed better ventilation and clean air.

Meanwhile, there was an open competition in mathematics for students and was conducted at national level at New Delhi. Brinda was sponsored from her school. The judges were intrigued by Brinda’s performance in those competitions and decided to put her on a few higher testing. Brinda won in every test put to her. Learning about her outstanding performance, Brinda received a personal award from the President of India in a special gesture and also the unique privilege of spending a few hours with the President. The President was once a professor in Mathematics in a foreign university in his younger days and he treated Brinda as a very special and unique guest.

As soon as Brinda returned back from New Delhi, she fell ill once again and was hospitalized. The doctors shifted her to much bigger facilities in another government hospital at a nearby town where she stayed for a month. During that period she had a roller coaster ride about her health. One day she was bright and charming and on another, she looked totally devastated and miserable. Whenever she felt normal and was about to be discharged from the hospital, her condition would dramatically worsen. Diagnosis went on and on without any end and doctors had no clue. After a month, she left hospital with a long list of medical prescriptions.


After she returned from the hospitals, Brinda went on an unprecedented steep ride. She suddenly appeared to have developed the ability to solve many mathematical problems mentally without needing a paper and pen. She solved many complex algebraic equations instantly. She said she was getting images of answers before her whenever problems were posed to her. She literally saw the answers in her mind. She went through another series of testing by several expert groups and she was finally pronounced a mathematical genius and prodigy.

Another day, Brinda vomited non-stop and diagnosed as having serious inflammation in her throat. She was admitted to the hospital. Dr.Surinder from Stanley Hospital, Chennai was on a visit to our place on some mission and our hospital Chief requested him to look at her case. Dr.Surinder suspected that Brinda had something more serious than what was imagined and he wanted to examine her at Chennai. We all rushed to Chennai and admitted her at Stanley Hospital.

And that is when we had the rude shock. Brinda was diagnosed as suffering from Leukemia, a kind of cancer of bone marrow and doctors recommended transplantation of bone marrow as they felt that she might not be able to bear and go through the painful chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Her condition was considered very critical.

The news somehow reached the President of India, who, by-passing all procedures, ordered airlifting Brinda to All India Medical Institute at Delhi. Her treatment began fifteen days ago and is going on right now. I had my classes in the college and my semester exams were due. So, I returned and I am now listening to Dr.Mohan, my astronomy professor describing Nova.


“Nova and Super Nova are nature’s great wonders. Science is still trying to understand these phenomena and get better explanations. Why some stars accumulate mass, why they explode when others don’t, are all matters of speculation even today.” I heard Dr.Mohan speaking. “But you know something …………… Nova and Supernova are not peculiar to stars alone. If you look at it philosophically, there had been Novas and Supernovas among men, men who suddenly arose from no-where, stayed shining brilliantly for some time and then disappeared without any plausible explanation. That is how, some great men, had appeared among us, made tremendous impact, and left a huge trail of storm and dust. There was one Ramakrishna, a poor Brahmin who was made a priest in a Kali temple in Calcutta. He rose suddenly to a level where he was reverently called Sri Bhagavan, a god like stature and his disciple Narendra, later on known as Swami Vivekananda, for whom Ramakrishna had waited for, shot even further though under the shadow of his Master. Swamy Vivekananda showed Shri Ramakrishna to the entire world. Was Ramakrishna or Vivekananda a Nova and Super Nova? Extend this thinking further. Many names might come to your mind. I am leaving it to you to guess and determine for yourself. Yes, we have had Novas and Supernovas among us too.”

He concluded when the bell rang to tell us that the class was over. The entire class left while I was still seated alone brooding and ruminating: Is Brinda a Nova or a Super Nova? Tears rolled down my cheek.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Brave Hearts: A short story

It was getting dark and I was getting worried.
Bhavana, my sister and I studied in the same school and she was in sixth and I was in tenth class. Ever since I bought a used bicycle from my senior for scrap price, we went to school together in my cycle. Arrival of a cycle was a boon to us as the government buses plied less frequently and we used to have long waits before. On occasions they would never turn up, when we had to walk back three kilometers to home.
Twice a week, Bhavana went to a teacher who stayed close to our school for music lessons. Charu teacher who taught music was very proficient, took students only selectively, and strict. During those days, my father, who worked as a fitter in a factory in the nearby town, would pick up Bhavana while he returned home from work. But every alternate Mondays he had to work overtime and bringing Bhavana from her music classes was my responsibility on those days.
That day, her music teacher was in more than her usual enthusiastic moods and was spending more time with Bhavana who was equally matching her teacher’s enthusiasm. The class went on for long and I was waiting for her. When finally the classes got over both Charu teacher and Bhavana spent some more time appreciating each other and that day’s lessons and it was really late and getting dark.
When she was finished, Bhavana got on the carrier of my cycle. I took the small by pass road that connected my village to our school and that meant we would commute one kilometer less. A cycle ride through this by pass would normally be very exciting and enjoyable with very cool breeze blowing over across a wide ridge between two nearby mountain hills all through the year.
On either side of the by-pass, there were mango groves, thick trees, bushes, and some patches of green fields. A cool water canal with gurgling water running down was another exquisite site on the way.
The panoramic view used to be picturesque and Bhavana, as the nature lover in our house, enjoyed the ride back.
I cautioned Bhavana that we ought to rush as there would be very little lighting and the road could become dark. Besides, today was a New Moon day. She said, ‘So what! Even better…. I could watch birds and bats returning back home.” She was the fearless and I was her opposite. I feared darkness. A host of other things too scared me.
Midway it became pitch dark and my stomach churned. Only some street lights were shimmering here and there and I pedaled faster. Lots of fire-flies were illuminating the dark sky.

“Arun, stop for a minute,” shouted Bhavna from behind. I hesitated, but she had already jumped down. “I hear a child crying,” said she.
“What? A child crying in this wilderness! Why do you worry? Some villager should be taking care of it. Let us not waste any more time. Come on.”
“No, I had been hearing the cry for some time now. Let us find out whether there is any problem,” insisted Bhavana. She had already started running in the direction where I too heard the cry of a child. I ran behind her.
Behold! There under a tree, in a cloth cradle, from where the cry came, was a small child, hardly a year old. Bhavana looked around to find out whether there was anyone, but there was none. She rushed back to the cradle and lifted the screaming child. My attempts to stop her were in vain. The baby was already in her arm and she was cuddling the child. The girl baby had no dress on her and she was completely wet. She had a running nose and her hair was sticky. Her body was covered with black dirty mud and she appeared ugly, but nothing bothered Bhavana. I detested the very sight.
“Bhavana, this is too much. We have to go back home. Our mother will be anxious and worrying about us. We are very late. Leave the child where she was. I am sure her mother or father will come back soon and take her away. Be assured.” I told her.
“What Arun? Leave this hapless child here? How can you be so cruel and inhuman?”
I was becoming restless and angry with Bhavana. But I could also understand her compassion and felt she had a point. The place was dark and scary and I was afraid. Poor Baby! I was ambivalent. More time passed. Still no one was in sight.
“Let us take her home. Mother will advise us on what we can do with her.” She already started walking back to our cycle carrying the child on her shoulders. The baby was quieter by now, though still crying on and off, and Bhavana was comforting her.
I pedaled faster and Bhavana held the baby tightly even as she adeptly tried to balance herself on the cycle. Our mother was anxiously waiting, and on seeing us bringing a baby with us she was shocked and alarmed. Panting heavily, we explained how we found the child.
“We can’t keep the child with us. We need to report to police. We would run into problem.” She said worried. Some neighbors too had assembled by that time and raised sharp questions. Our father too reached home.
Sundar uncle in our neighborhood brought his scooter. We all squeezed ourselves in the backseat, our mother holding the baby in her arms. He drove to the nearby police station and father followed us in his cycle. There, we met with a policeman, who was bulky and looked threatening. He questioned us in a menacing tone, but soon became very understanding. Bhavana answered most of the questions boldly and I was half hiding behind her. The Sub-inspector of Police (SIP) too arrived soon. We tried to explain once again as best as we could how and where we found the child. He was very appreciative of our gesture even while he expressed concern that being a rural place, it was possible that the baby’s mother or father ought to have been working in the nearby field and possibly would now be searching for the baby. Realizing that he could not keep the baby in the police station, he was in a fix. Sundar uncle came to his rescue and saved him from embarrassment by suggesting that the baby could be left with our parents overnight, if that was okay with the SIP. He also suggested that the SIP could identify some suitable place for the care of the baby later during the day. Bhavana was quite happy about the turn of events.
Not immediately finding any other solution, SIP agreed and ordered another policeman to keep a watch our house for our safety. However, he wanted to visit the spot and make sure that the baby’s parents were not looking for the child. So, he took me with him in his motorbike while others returned home. However, the place where we found the baby looked darker and deserted and no one was sighted there. I noticed that my fear for policemen became subdued.
Our parents were very appreciative of our compassion for the child. It was almost midnight by the time the baby was given a bath, wrapped up in a towel, fed with milk and put to sleep. I noticed Bhavana taking keen interest in everything about the baby. I slept away. I heard the baby crying from time to time during the night. Bhavana tried to be awake, but she was also overtaken by sleep. Our mother seemed to have been awake for the whole night. The policeman sent by SIP was with us for sometime in the night and he too retired back to his house with a promise to come back in the early morning.
Next morning the SIP arrived in a jeep borrowed from a nearby station and arranged for sending the child to a children home run by a Sai devotee, we have heard of, not very far from our place. Overnight, he had also arranged for publishing the news in the local newspapers. He also took Bhavana and me to the spot where we found the empty cloth cradle still hanging loosely from a tree branch. They made enquiries in the nearby localities and there was no clue.
News spread slowly and it reached our school headmaster too. He too arrived at the spot. We became instant heroes in our school.
Bhavana was not to allow the matter to rest. She suggested that we go back to the place again that evening and make more enquiries. I was apprehensive, but conceded. I noticed that her enthusiasm was spreading to me too. We met a number of local villagers. We also went back to the children home to enquire about the baby. Bhavana had already christened the baby as ‘Muthu’ and she was very happy in the company of Muthu, who was all smiles now, not even remembering that her mother was not there to look after her.
The routine continued for a week. In between, we also visited the police station and only once we got to meet anyone who could give us any information about the baby’s parents.
One day Bhavana looked so sad and miserable. Someone in the class had told her that probably the parents of the baby could have deserted the child and ran away as she had seen in some movies.
“How can a mother do it?” Bhavana questioned me angrily. I had no answer.
Thanks to Bhavana’s inquisitiveness, on the eighth day there was some break. One of the villagers reported having seen a nomadic gypsy group roaming and camping near the area where we had found the child and that there were a few babies too in that group though he could not be sure how many. We dashed to the police station and luckily, the SIP was available that time. We reported what we learnt. He lauded our efforts and enthusiasm and promised to look around all gypsy camps nearby.
The very next day, there was some unconnected news. A woman’s dead body was found floating in the nearby pond. However no connection could be made with the child. The body was sent to mortuary in the government hospital in the nearby town.
In another town, the police arrested someone on suspicion and in his detention, he had blurted the truth. Two gypsy groups had had a quarrel about money while camping. He was part of one of the groups. When the group parted ways after bitter quarrel, he picked up another private nasty duel with one of the woman who was putting her baby to sleep placed in a cloth cradle. In a fit of fury, he had severely beaten that woman who swooned and fell to the ground and he left the scene to join other people in the group. Presumably, the woman was not dead and was only unconscious. She ought to have regained consciousness and managed to reach the pond looking out for water. She probably lost her balance or consciosuness and that answered for her body having been found in the nearby pond.
Alas! The poor baby lost her mother, but gained a place where she would grow securely and would have some education, decent food, clothes and lots of love. Bhavana and I visited the children home once in a week to see “Muthu”. Even my parents visited the child and gradually took interest in the homeless children and decided to spend the weekends in their company. It was a nice feeling we all had.