The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 16, 2000
Time Off

Dealing with imaginary demons
By Manohar Malgonkar

RAHU and Ketu, the two demons, are as old as creation itself. Most Hindus know that they exist and live in fear of them because they know them to be enemies of mankind who are forever seeking to plunge the planet into darkness by swallowing up both the sun and the moon.

One or the other is seen in action whenever there is an eclipse. He chews up great arcs from either the sun or the moon so that its luster dims and it begins to look like a half-chewed biscuit. And indeed there are occasions when they must work in tandem and gobble up the sun or the moon whole.

But if prayers can make moutains walk, they can certainly exert moral pressure on celestial demons to give up their helpless victims. And this both Rahu and Ketu do, when they see how, vast numbers of devout men and women congregate in riverside holy places to take up the chant, De-daan/sut giran! Release our sun—-our moon; O, Rahu; O, Ketu and we will make amends by feeding the poor and by penitence.

  And it works; it has always worked. Reluctantly and with agonising slowness we see how the moon or the sun are set free; they regain their full size and brightness, seemingly none the worse for their ordeal and fall into routine, their eternal charge of providing both light and warmth to us earthlings.

To be sure, there are those who insist that eclipses are only shadows in the sky, and mock us for our belief in Rahu and Ketu, who; they tell us are only myths concocted by ignorant and primitive people.

How ironical, therefore, that these very scoffers, the men of learning who make fun of our Rahu and Ketu should themselves have invented a super-demon of their own, a sci-fi monster whom they called ‘Waitookay’, but which name they shortened into Y2K after the fashion of the names in the film A Space Odyssey in which robots were given such cryptic names as Artoo and Deetoo, which, too, were condensed for keyboard transmission into R-2 and D-2.

The advance publicity for Y2K was a three-month-long media blitz: the world’s celebrities were roped in. Military leaders, business tycoons, stage and film stars joined hands in a heroic effort to save the world from wreckage, as it were, to make us aware of the gravity of the situation. Beware, beware, they kept telling us, at the stroke of midnight on December 31, as the world celebrates the coming of the third millennium, Waitookay will manifest himself and send the business of the world into a tailspin: trains will grind to a halt, or derail, or collide with other trains; aeroplanes in midflight will go out of control; great nuclear missiles kept hidden in silos will release themselves and seek out their programmed targets; banks will shut down, telephones go dead, and everything—but everything—that is served by some computer system will go berserk.

In India, the team our media controllers had lined up to make us Y2K-conscious was formed by plump, middleaged, business-suited tycoons, not the pimply young men and women who dressed alike in shorts and sweatshirts who had mastered the wizardry of computers. They warned us of what might happen—the mother of all breakdowns—but told us not to panic, because they were determined to keep discipline among the ranks of the country’s computers. Depend us they told us, to make India Y2K OK.

Y2K—OK. It was the slogan for the changeover on the millennium night.

At that they didn’t seem all that sure of being able to forestall all contingencies and I, for one, was not taken in by their glib talk. And this was reason enough for me to slip out of the quite low-key millennium festivities in my own house, well before the hour of midnight so that I should be awake and alert at dawn of the first day of the new millennium, well in time to catch AIR’s morning broadcast—that is, if there was to be a broadcast at all for what was the guarantee that the AIR’s own computer systems had been rendered Y2K—OK?

So, while a hungover world was deep in slumber, I was awake and switched-on well before 6 a.m.,when the call-sign twangs were already on air, and then, miracle itself—Vande Matram followed by a news bulletin. So AIR had made itself Y2K OK in good time.

But with relief, came a sense of anticlimax, even—dare I say it—of being let down, because Y2K too, like our traditional Rahu and Ketu, had been shown up to be a shadow presence, a demon only in the minds of believers—-unless it was some kind of a colossal hoax thought up by the pranksters of the computer commandos.

I listened to the Hindi bulletin and then, just to reassure myself, the English version. Everything seemed to be, well, abnormally normal: no nuclear missile had gone into orbit, trains seemed to be running on schedule, and Indian Airlines was working on overdrive to cope with the stampede of holidaymakers to Goa.

But something that both newscasters said in their broadcasts made me sit up and listen. The date was the tenth of Pousya in the year 1921.

That was right. Nineteen twenty-one, and here we were, madly celebrating the year 2000.

And that reminded me of something else. One of the biggest books in my library is a volume called Vikram-Smriti Granth published by the Vikram University of Ujjain to celebrate the advent of the third millennium of the Vikram era, published in 1943.

It was all so unsettling. Braced to be told about chaotic breakdowns, I had to make do with a morsel of niggling uncertainties about the imperfections of the calendar. Here we were, stepping into the year 2000, with our own National Radio saying that for us the year was 1921, and on my worktable sat that hefty volume published to coincide with the second millennium of the Vikram Samvat which had been published in 1943, while the British still ruled us.

Other lands have other systems of measuring out the passing of time. The Chinese had their Tet, for instance, and the Islamic countries the Hijri which, so far as I can see, is the only era with a well-defined marker as its starting point: the flight of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in the year 622.

Other calendars don’t seem to have a beginning at all, only circumstantial evidence of being adopted in medieval times. The Christian era is said to be closely interlinked with the events supposed to have happened in Biblical times. But the Bible itself, whatever else it might be, is not history—a recording of actual events—but a spin-doctored version of popular romantic fables of the time, shaped and reshaped by many authors and passed off as actual happenings; as Louis Untermayer tells us by ‘‘Origen in the third century, Jerome in the fourth, Augustine in the fifth, and the venerable Bede in the seventh and eight.’’

But then the same is also true of our own eras, both the Vikram Samvat, and the Shalivhan Shake. Both were folk heroes more then identifiable rulers. Even the volume brought out to commemorate the passing of 2000 years of the Vikram era has not been able to prove the historicity of Vikramaditya. An article which deals with this aspect concludes: ‘‘It seems on the whole at least possible and perhaps probable... that a king of Malwa founded the era.’’

And Shalivahan, the founder of the era which is generally recognised as our preferred system of calculating the passing of time is, if anything, more elusive as a figure of history than even Vikramaditya.

Are they all creatures of imagination, then—like our Rahu and Ketu, and even the millennium demon,Y2K?—mere shadows, unreal.

Home Top