Astronomy, evolution, and the tea-seller


There’s this small roadside tea-shop next to the Centre. The man who owns and keeps the shop is from Bihar. We call him Pandey-ji. He’s a colourful man and he is, if not happier, more cheerful than I can be. He is a poet of sorts (do you ‘remember’ Johnny Walker’s sar jo tera chakraye? He writes (not that I know he can write) poetry of that oeuvre). His best one was about this country we live in–his country, our country (mera desh tarakki kar raha hai // har shehar mein chori, daka sab ho raha hai, mera desh tarakki kar raha hai), a little heavy-handed, perhaps, but the sort of anger that I might put down in writing.

Pandey also asks me, every time I go buy chai and smokes from him, something or the other about science. His most frequent questions have been about astronomy and evolution (Hey, is the Earth a sphere, did you say? And we go around the Sun and the Moon goes around us? How high is the Earth’s atmosphere? What’s there outside? Nothing? So a man wouldn’t be able to breathe? How did human life come about, anyway? We evolved from single-celled life, you say? How did that life get here? Panspermia?).

These are not dumb questions by any stretch. I say that because he always adds, after I’ve answered his questions with whatever Hindi I know (what’s Hindi for ‘Oxygen’, do you know? I blabbered for two minutes trying to explain to him what Oxygen is in trying to answer why none of the other planets of the Solar system have life), that he’s an uneducated man who can only ask these questions and try and learn something. These are questions that have bothered philosophers* for millennia; only for the last four centuries have we known that the Earth isn’t the centre of the universe, that it’s a planet in an orbit around the Sun just like half a dozen others. And only for the last century and a half have we known what is today the backbone of all biology, evolution by natural selection. So not dumb questions, then.

My answers, though… they’re a different matter. It isn’t, of course, that the answers are hard. We’ve known the answers for quite some time now, like I said. A reasonable class 12 kid should be able to answer most of these questions. It is that my facility with Hindi can only take me so far (“I can count to nine, and ask where the bathroom is”). What I would really like is to be able to show Pandey the Hindi version of Cosmos (Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, if you insist on being an originalist).

I happen to know Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is available as a book. Is there a Hindi translation/equivalent?

*ADDED IN PROOF: I say “philosophers” here and comment in the next paragraph that class 12 kids could answer most of these questions. I must add that this is not to be read as approval of Steven Pinker’s views on philosophy.


5 thoughts on “Astronomy, evolution, and the tea-seller”

  1. I know a person who one asked a dumb question, ‘What is oxygen in Hindi?’. To him I raise this conundrum: what is Oxygen in Kannada or Telugu or Latin, what is my name in Tamil?

  2. I’d settle for a translation of that Bill Bryson-Stephen Hawking meld, too, actually

    (to wit: Brief History of Time: Hawking; Short History of Everything: Bryson).

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