It was a warm summer night, a long time ago, when we climbed into our beds on the rear patio, waiting for our parents to join us. Looking up at the star studded night sky (for there was little or no pollution in the early 1950s), I saw something fiery streak across my line of sight and disappear behind the tall eucalyptus trees bordering the boundary wall. I had once heard our old family retainer Ayub say that whenever this happened, it meant that angels were shooting bolts of light at the fleeing devil. I had also heard my mother talking about shooting stars and constellations and these conflicting inputs had generated and accumulated many questions in my young mind. Unable to hold back my curiosity, I cornered my grandfather one day and let loose a stream of questions about shooting stars. The old man smiled indulgently and led me into his library. He took out a green covered book titled ‘Sair e Aflaak’, written by Professor Mirza Muhammad Rasheed and asked me to read it. I stayed glued to the volume for days, laboring over the text and diagrams and frequently seeking my mother’s help to explain the contents.

Professor Rashid had established his credentials as an astronomer and academician in the pre and post-independence era. His book was a concise document about space and our solar system. Reading it, laid the foundations of my interest in what lay beyond our atmospheric frontiers – an interest that continues to this day. Regretfully, I misplaced the book, when we moved away from Queen’s Road, as this serene residential locality became infested with commercial establishments.

The Greeks held a special fascination for the stars and their fertile imagination fueled by their mythical gods led them to see star clusters forming images across the night sky. These images depicted heroes and deities from Greek Mythology and formed the basis of astrology as we know it. For example, there pulsating in all his glory was Perseus along with the sea serpent Cetus, killed by the former to save the beautiful Andromeda (also adorning the star studded canvas). In another section of the sky, Aquarius, the water carrier shone and pulsated in all its glory, while one could easily spot Ursa Major or the Great Bear next to its little brother Ursa Minor.

It was mankind’s interest in stars that spawned Astronomy and Astrology. The first is pure science that strives to unlock the secrets of the Universe, while the second is metaphysical and reads omens and signs from the stars and their movement. Astrology however predates astronomy by centuries and played a key role in the lives of ancient people and those who ruled them. The Mughal Emperors for example, always embarked on campaigns, when their astrologers had worked out a propitious date to do so. Predicting events and their outcomes through stars continues to be in practice in many places around the globe.

There is one star in the constellation of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) that has saved numerous lives – this is Polaris or the North Star. The last celestial body in the tail of the smaller bear, it stays stationary pointing due North. It therefore acts as a compass and is used to good effect by lost travellers, seamen and explorers.

Modern science is even now turning fiction into reality with references to interstellar exploration. Research has revealed that this form of travel will necessitate velocity equivalent to or beyond the speed of light and the crew may have to be put into a state of suspended animation. An amazing spinoff to this will be that individuals in the starship will experience time dilation – a phenomena wherein time would slow down for them, while it would continue at its normal pace back on earth. Some sources say that this dilatory effect may be close to one year of spaceship time equal to thirty six years on earth.

As I look up at the night sky now, I can feel a surge of excitement, undiminished by the realization that the dream of travelling to the stars may become reality for our children and their offspring and the verse, “Daaltay hain kamand taron par,” might no longer be a mere figment of poetic imagination.