Forty-four years ago, come Sunday – Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon. For a large section of Chennai’s youngsters, this was one of those historic events that we came across in a textbook. But it certainly wasn’t that long ago, because if you ask your parents or even your grandparents, it’s doubtful they won’t remember hearing this news that had millions gaping in awe at the time.
City Express recently undertook a moon expedition, minus the space craft. The mission? To find out what Chennai’s aunties and uncles were in the middle of, when the radio announcement came cracking through. And no, there were no television sets back in 1969, not even the black and white kind. Here we go: takeoff time.
Premila Nithyanandan (68) is a grandmother of four, but ask her about that day and she says it’s one she holds close in her memory. “I remember it well because it the was the same day that I found out we were expecting our first child,” she reminisces.
“There was a party at my house that evening, that’s when we heard about the moon landing on the radio...we were making jokes then that by the time our children grew up, they would probably be living other planets!” Premila was 24 that day, and between her soon-to-come baby girl and Armstrong’s lunar footprint, the evening was toasted among friends with a glass of wine.
Wouldn’t it have been funny if she had met 6-year-old Kumaran G who heard the same announcement in school the next morning at their daily assembly? Of course, the first thing that Kumaran did was to go back home that evening and pull his own mother outside – to ask her to point out the stick figures of men walking on the moon! Now a businessman and father of two, Kumaran cannot help but laugh at the memory. But he says with a smile, “When you talk about the moon, that’s the first thing I remember... staring at it outside my house and trying to find something different about it – a shadow, some movement, anything.”
Ask most middle-aged folks today what they were up to on that excitable day and the answer usually revolves around gathering with their siblings around the radio or their parents having read out the newspaper to them the next morning so they would remember being a part of this history. “I was at my school assembly,” says Arivalan (61). “And the headmaster and teachers said a prayer that all the astronauts would return home safe,” he recalls, trying to remember what the exact words were.
Perhaps one of the few Chennaiites who managed to catch the moon landing on television was Leela Balaraman (72). This was because she wasn’t at home in India, but in the United States with her husband that year. “We were having lunch at a friend’s place,” she says. “I remember how thrilled we were and how big this event was to us at the time,” she goes on.
Oddly though, she makes it a point to add, “It seemed our American friends weren’t as excited as we were... they were just making jokes and drinking beer.” And luckily for the world, Armstrong was under only one influence at the time – gravity.