When we were kids, Apollo meant the Gateway of India. The harbour around the Gateway was known to all as Palwa Bunder, of which the word Apollo was an English corruption.
Palwa, as everyone knows, is Hindustani for Mystus Vittatus, a fish found in the waters off Bombay. Ergo, Apollo Bunder. Not much later, I knew Apollo to be the Greek God of the Sun, son of Zeus, whose (pater et fils) shenanigans I read about and observed in my copy of Homer’s Iliad, the comic book version by Classics Illustrated.
All that changed after Apollo 11. Fifty years ago July 20, 1969, when I was five, the Apollo Mission put man on the moon. If ever there has been a BC and AD moment in the history of the human race, this is it. Nothing before nor since has equalled this achievement, and I am happy to say I was part of it.
Some memories help you root yourself in the past. Some are unreliable, but compelling. For me the most compelling of all the memories I have of early, very early childhood, is one where I hear people (probably at home) insisting that man can/will never step on the moon. In the fog of this memory, July 20, 1969, takes centre stage.
Of course, at my age, at the time, I had never heard of either the American or the Soviet space programme. Sometime after, and I was still as little at the time, I remember sitting in the garden outside my uncle Dawood’s farmhouse in Shirol, near Kasara outside Bombay, gazing up to a completely lightless sky, except for the incredibleness of the Milky Way, and watching a star mark its arrow-straight course overhead. A moving star! My uncle had a name for it: “Spootnik”. What was that? A satellite, he said. That didn’t make things any clearer, but still I loved the show.
Of course, after July, the news was all around. Men had landed on the moon. We even knew their names, vivid and evocative – Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. Images of spacesuit-shod, glass visor- (reflecting the blackness of space) wearing astronauts were all around us. In newspapers – the Times of India, in the Sunday Standard, in the Poona Herald, in the Illustrated Weekly of India. On the walls of restaurants, on Volga ice cream wrappers and on the covers of firecracker boxes during Diwali. Apollo 11, Astronaut, Armstrong, Aldrin, America all became Indian words.
My role in the success of the moon landings came soon after, on the October 24, 1969.
On that day, five years and ten months old, I found myself in Bombay, stationed at the turning outside the Crawford Market, under Lockwood Kipling’s marble murals, where the DN Road swings to Carnac Bunder. I was one among a huge crowd, lining both sides of the road. My uncle Musta-ali, whose finger I had held on to for the short walk from Bhandari Street to our current location, hoisted me up on the railing at the first roar from the mob.
Flanking motorcyclists in white uniforms formed the avant garde. The cavalcade arrived soon after, dark cars, as I remember, and in one of them three red faces in suits, their arms out, waving. Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. As they swept past us, I looked at them, they looked at me, and I waved back and waved and waved.
That night, my uncle and I went to the Azad Maidan. After their momentous encounter with me, all three astronauts had been ferried here for a much lesser event- the jaahir satkar by the Government of Maharashtra. [Watch a clip here.]
That night, Azad Maidan was festive. All of Bombay had turned up. Neither astronauts nor officials were in sight. A replica of the landing craft Eagle had been made, perhaps in plaster, perhaps by makers of Ganesh idols, I don’t know. From the Eagle, an astronaut was forever descending on to the Azad Maidan’s turf, just one small step away
On one side of their tableau, exactly like during the Ganapati season, a film was being screened on a stretched white cloth. It was a documentary on the Moon Landing. I watched amazed as the astronauts somersaulted in the weightlessness of their capsule, where down was up, where they attempted to suck blobs of water out of the air. I can’t vouch for these last memories, I may have seen these in the film of the event called Footprints on the Moon that was shown in cinema theaters not long after. I do remember the documentary being shown, though.
The vividness of that day has stayed with me. It is one of my earliest, sharpest and most enduring memories that I cherish to this day. We in our fifties are getting on in years now. We predate television, we predate computers, we bloody predate man landing on the moon!
Today, as I track the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary on the telly, on my phone, on my laptop, on Netflix, I am filled with nostalgia. I gaze at “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, alive and still kicking, I shout at the screen: ‘I saw you, man, you waved to me.’ Then I Google for the precise date when in their whirlwind tour, the astronauts came to Bombay for their tryst with me.
I was five. I was there.
Mustansir Dalvi teaches at the Sir JJ School of Architecture in Mumbai. He writes on a variety of subjects and has published two books of poetry. This article first appeared on his blog.