Night Vision by Subhadra Jayaraman

Since human beings have limits bestowed upon them genetically, they are incapable of such feats as flight or survival under water. However, historically, humans have strived to be everything they can’t and reinforced their abilities with technology. Airplanes, gliders, and choppers help them fly, while submarines and diving equipment help them survive at great depths underwater. One such thing we have not been presented with, is the ability to see clearly without the presence of external light. At night, while we can make out the rough shapes of things, we cannot see sharp images. Which is why Season 8, Episode 3 of the Game of Thrones was more like the Game of Groans since we couldn’t for the life of us comprehend what was happening in the most important war of the entire series and spent significant time cursing the asinine lighting editors. The absence of night vision was also why fire, electricity and lighting equipment has been so popular in our civilization. We have a lot of reasons why we need light – so that we excrete in the bathroom and not the broom cupboard, so that we don’t ram into a tree while driving, so that we in fact sneak the milk and not the dosa batter out of the fridge, and so on. But have we ever thought about the times we would prefer the darkness? I assure you I am not a dacoit or an assassin and urge you to keep that in mind as I advocate that darkness is sometimes utterly beautiful, and not having perpetual light is not so bad after all.

I have always been afraid of the dark – it is the irrational fear imbibed in me from years of watching movies with evil things that often looked ugly and came with scary sound effects. The first time I got the chance to experience the beauty of darkness was when I was hiking the Eastern Himalayas by the Parvati river. In one of the campsites where we rested, at an altitude of around 10,000 feet, there was not a single lit structure in site. We were far away from any human settlement and did not have very bright lighting equipment of our own. As it went from the yellow to orange to gradually the purple hues of dusk, and I realized that I am right in the middle of giant intimidating peaks towering all around us, it all started feeling quite ominous. However, when it eventually became as dark as a raven’s beak, something overwhelmingly gorgeous happened. As the Earth was enveloped in impervious darkness, the skies lit up. Every single inch of the sky as far as I could see with my limited neck rotations (another thing humans lack when compared to owls) was sprinkled with twinkling stars. The sheer beauty of it made me want to embrace this darkness and I wondered why I was ever afraid of it. I then started chasing this feeling of elation and continued my pursuit of the dark night skies. Just to be able to see these starts in an unveiled, cloudless, threadbare night sky became one of my favorite hobbies – meteor showers from a state park in Pennsylvania, stargazing from a small cottage in the middle of rural New York and looking up at the skies from the Death Valley National Park in California. I don’t know any constellations or celestial formations or zodiacs in the sky (please, I’m not a Centaur). I just know that it takes my breath away, leaving me wanting for more every time.

There was another time darkness and its hidden wonders took me by surprise. When in Thailand in 2017, we took a seven-island tour by sea. We were on a fairly small motorboat, and it was a full moon day with tides as high as the heavens. The first half of the tour in the daytime was quite an interesting experience, although the water was so remarkably choppy that going snorkeling after lunch seemed like quite a terrible idea. After sunset however, we were all ready to return. The tide was dangerously lapping at the boat as though ready to swallow it up whole any second. But our Thai boatman explained that we are about to make another stop in the middle of the sea by another boat also idling there, and we will all be allowed to enter the water once again. I refused and thanked him politely as I had no intention of getting into the scary waves that looked like Medusa’s hair. A bunch of others including my friends got into the water though and they were instructed to hold on to a rope tied between the two boats. Then the boatman took a giant bucket, scooped some sea water into it and placed it on the boat for the ones who did not enter the water. He then asked the ones in the water to put their heads underwater and the ones on board to put their hands into the giant bucket and be ready. Then he cried loudly to his counterpart on the adjacent boat, and without warning, all the lights in both the boats were turned out simultaneously, plunging us all into the velvety blackness that I was sure came before death. As our eyes adjusted from the rings left by the blazing white boat tube lights, we started to see what the boatman intended us to (maybe he was standing there with a proud look on his face as we made marveling exclamations, but like I said, it was too dark to see). Minuscule bioluminescent phytoplankton, the stars of the ocean, glittered and winked and danced inside the water. As I moved my hand inside the black water in the bucket, I saw them sway with me in rhythm, as though they were waiting for an orchestrator all along. I might have felt a little jealous of my friends in the water and kicked myself a bit for being a wimp, but the joy of just seeing these live creatures glowing away in the waters cheered me up significantly and took my mind off Medusa for a while.

While night vision is not our forte, the visions that night has to offer are countless. It helps to pause once in a while and recognize the calm and serenity that darkness imbues, for maybe one day we will stop associating the night and the dark with evil and start acknowledging the deep beauty and mysticism in it. 

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