I remember it as though it were yesterday. Wikipedia informs me that it was 1979 – I must have been 13 then. We were in Calcutta and the city was in uproar over the news. Calcutta was like that – it was forever in a state of uproar long before India became that way. Nowadays we are all in a state of uproar – beef bans, fake news, apologies, lack of apologies, Supreme Court Judgements, Cauvery Management Board, you name it, we have it. And if not for that we are forever in election mode and every election is treated by the media as though it will change our lives forever. Back then, Calcutta used to get worked up over bigger things – the situation in Outer Mongolia, Vietnam, what Carter said about Brezhnev, whether it was correct to consider Trotshky a biggaar intellectual then Leneen. And we used to have a bandh every week over these matters of pith and moment. These were carefully timed to dovetail into a weekend – most bandhs were on Friday or Monday. Everyone was happy.

Skylab was another cause for uproar. It was after all made by those capitalist Americans. And look what had happened. There was this giant space station hurtling towards the earth and what if it fell on Howrah Bridge? Or Shahid Minar? Or Writers Building? Or worse, KC Das or Gangurams? Where would be go for our regular fix of Rasagullas? The media, such as it was then, played up the situation and soon there was panic. Schools were closed on the day Skylab was to fall. Mrs Mukherjee, our lugubrious neighbour approved- at least we can all die together she declared.

The Prime Minister then was Morarji Desai and he was a tough nut. He refused to declare a holiday under the Negotiatable Instruments Act. This NI Act was a sort of panchangam for all Government servants. Holiday declared under its auspices meant a real holiday. If not you went to work. Not only did Morarji refuse to consider giving people a day off, he also sneered at Skylab and coldly declared that there was no point in dying before death came. He got no votes thereafter.

On the day of Skylab entering the earth’s atmosphere, DD had special telecasts for the whole day, and was commended in Parliament for it. In Calcutta this meant reruns of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, some Rabindra Sangit by artistes with very serious expressions and then some choral singing of revolutionary verses. The equivalent in Madras was usually a rerun of Konjum Salangai, followed by MS Subbulakshmi bhajans and then some Vadya Vrinda. In Bombay they usually interviewed Naushad as he was the only man with a black sherwani. In the event, Skylab sort of fizzled out. It landed in Australia late at night and was never heard of again. Calcutta lived on. Satyajit Ray mentioned the Skylab scare in one of his Feluda stories. Some residents of Calcutta claimed to have been hit by falling Skylab debris. That may not have been true.

We would get Ananda Vikatan and Kumudam a week late in Calcutta. You could buy them at the Lake Market. I did a week after Skylab and one of them had a very humorous short story. A TamBrahm family gets together to monitor Skylab falling by listening to the radio and TV broadcasts. Grandfather is praying in the puja room. He was relieved that Madras was not on the route what if it falls at Macchacchuccets or Abu Dubai where his other children were? The young couple are glued to the TV set. Nobody pays attention to bedridden grandmother who suddenly screams “Ado – vizhunduDuttu!” They all rush to see that young baby, whom everybody had forgotten about had fallen out of its crib. Only grandma noticed.They all rush out to the doctor leaving the old lady listening to the radio as it announces the fall of Skylab in Australia…

Compared to all that, Tiangong appears to have been a damp squib.