“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
So begins Douglas Adams’ hugely popular book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a science-fiction satire of a man plucked from the earth before it was destroyed, and taken on a journey through galaxies, meeting depressed robots and three-headed presidents and dining at the restaurant at the end of the universe.
The book published in 1979 retains a cult following today, and for hardcore readers, the line is thin between fact and fiction - whether it is debating the significance of the number 42, trying a real life recipe for Pan Galactic Gargle-Blaster, or appreciating the irreplaceable uses of the towel. May 25th of every year is celebrated as ‘Towel Day’ as a tribute to Douglas Adams.
What is the craze all about? Why a ‘Towel’? What are these strange concepts which cause any Douglas Adams fan to double up in laughter?
The writer: Douglas Adams
Born in England in 1952, Douglas Noel Adams was a novelist, scriptwriter and humorist who started his career with radio and television comedy. After a series of small productions and odd jobs, he made his breakthrough with a science fiction comedy radio series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in 1977.
According to Adams, the idea for the title occurred to him while he lay drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, gazing at the stars and carrying a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe, when it occurred to him that "somebody ought to write a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". He is reported to have later said that the constant repetition of this anecdote had obliterated his memory of the actual event.
The concept was later adapted into the bestselling series of books, which he calls a ‘Trilogy’ in five parts. With its extraordinary plot and unique sense of satire, the book caught the imagination of people from all age groups and backgrounds.
Adams was a big admirer of the novelist P G Wodehouse, of whom he wrote ’ He’s up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought, where you will find Bach, Mozart, Einstein, Feynman, and Louis Armstrong, in the realms of pure, creative playfulness.’
Adams was a radical atheist, he fought for environmental causes, and was fascinated by technology and is said to be the first person in Europe to buy an Apple Macintosh. Adams died of a heart attack on 11 May 2002 when he was just 49. He was living with his wife and daughter in Santa Barbara, California. One of his last public appearances was a talk given at the University of California, Santa Barbara, titled ‘Parrots, the universe and everything’, recorded days before his death.
The book: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The earth is to be demolished to make way for an inter-galactic bypass. Arthur Dent, the hapless human protagonist, is rescued in time with the help of his friend Ford Prefect, and goes on a journey to various galaxies, time-travels on a Chesterfield Sofa, tries to make himself good cups of tea, and meets colourful characters like a manic depressive robot Marvin the Paranoid Android and Eddie, a shipboard computer who was "brash and cheery as if it was selling detergent"
The books in the series -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, and Mostly Harmless takes the reader through hilarious incidents, including teleporting into the middle of a cricket match in the Lords, and the human race's eventual replacement by a shipload of middle managers, telephone sanitisers and hairdressers.
The towel: The most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have
The importance of a towel, that makes an appearance in the starting chapters of the first book has been a quirk picked up by fans so widely that May 25 is celebrated as Towel Day in many countries, where people wear a towel around as a tribute to the author and encourage newbies to give their favourite book a read.
And what does a towel do? “You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; …. More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost." ”
Towel Day was listed as one of ten cult literary traditions in Huffington Post, and many countries show their support for the fans with various measures -- bars offering discounts for those with towels, candy stores creating their own versions of the Adams’ Babel Fish. In 2013, the Norwegian transport company gave away some special towels to customers that allowed them a free ride on their buses and boats, and a branch of the public library at Washington DC offered prizes for those who wore a towel to the library.
According to Adams, ‘What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.’
The following: it takes one number to unite the fans -- 42
The extraordinary quirks and unique characters of the book have got it a fan following from all across the globe. The Towel Day page on Facebook shows pictures from Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Peru, Moscow and Rome of gatherings and celebrations in honour of Douglas Adams.
In India too, some young professionals wore a towel to work got strange looks from their colleagues but also kindred comments from other fans on social media. The allure of ‘42’ is enough to excite a Douglas Adams reader. “It is a special sort of humour that not everyone gets. The answer to life and 42 becomes a common part our family discussions, when I ask my husband an uncomfortable question, he usually answers with 42,” laughs Vidhya R, a 36-year old software professional. “Once I received a message ‘42’ from my mother when I was shopping and was quite spooked, until I realised she was telling me which shirt size to buy!”
“I like the book because of Arthur Dent. Here is a man who is yanked out of earth and in a bizarre universe all around him, but all he wants is a cup of tea! I find that incredibly funny along with the absurd comedy in H2G2. It goes to show that sometimes we’re all like that, we are given so much but all we want is something that we’re used too from the past,” declares Sanjana MV, a 25-year old advertising professional.
Along with fish, towels, super-computers and cows that talk to you before becoming beef, many quotes and passages from the books are still shared and laughed at by fans today daily. What are some of the most popular quotes?
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
“The chances of finding out what’s really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.”
"On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
“He was staring at the instruments with the air of one who is trying to convert Fahrenheit to centigrade in his head while his house is burning down.”
“Don’t Panic! “
The writer Neil Gaiman in an interview about Adams has said, “I haven’t known many geniuses in my life. Some brilliantly smart people, but only a tiny handful would I class as geniuses. I would class Douglas, because he saw things differently, and he was capable of communicating the way he saw things, and once he explained things the way he saw them, it was almost impossible to see them the way you used to see them.” For many of his fans, this is what defines him- it is very difficult to think of Life, the universe and Everything as anything other than 42.