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The sun sets late in Italy during summer, so the fireworks won’t start until 10pm, my hosts said. I was in Lido, near Venice, having dinner with a group of friends, and everybody was looking forward to the evening’s display. We were still chatting over glasses of wine when loud booms of fireworks interrupted our conversation. Stepping out of the hotel, we crossed the road to the water’s edge and joined the crowd that had gathered to see the spectacle.
Across the water was Venice, the ornamental city where every bridge looks like an intricate work of art, and every grand old building, it seems, houses a Titian or a Tintoretto. In summer, Venice is crowded with so many tourists that wise Venetians go elsewhere, while tourists take selfies with the Bridge of Sighs.
I was there in mid-July, the weekend when Venice celebrates Redentore, or the festival of redemption, to remember the end of the 16th century plague which had claimed many lives. The Venetian doge, or ruler, of that time, Alvise Mocenigo, had promised to build a basilica on the third Sunday of July in 1577 to appease the divine. The foundation stone was laid on the island of Giudecca, and a floating walkway built, on which Venetians marched. What draws the crowds these days is a modern addition to the older ceremonies—the fireworks.
As we reached the water’s edge, the sky was illuminated. In the flashes of bright light, we could see couples sprawled in amorous embrace on the benches, some partially undressed and wrapped in one another, oblivious of the drama around them; they looked like scattered statues. Others ignored them, looking awestruck at the sky as magnificent patterns in red, blue, pink and green emerged from shooting streaks of light. There was geometry and symmetry; light spewed out of the bright explosions with a synchronicity that would make a choreographer proud. Circles spiralled into smaller spheres, glowing repeatedly, as if on cue and together, lighting up the sky. The Venetian skyline was a purple silhouette one moment, a pink one the next. There were collective gasps down the waterfront.
I felt a sense of déjà vu. I have seen awe-inspiring fireworks elsewhere as well. The British fireworks in the Hong Kong harbour on 30 June, 1997 had offered a fitting finale to the end of British rule in Hong Kong. We were at a friend’s home on the peak then, and the harbour glowed magnificently. The next night, the Chinese returned favour, and it wasn’t the same. The unruly anarchy of fireworks on a Diwali night that I remember from my childhood in India, generated noise and smoke, not art. By contrast, the Fourth of July fireworks I saw in American cities (New York and Boston) were precise, as if obeying the commands of an art director in a Hollywood film.
There is uniformity to such displays: A few rockets zoom off, they explode, and glowing, molten light flows from them. A few smaller rockets shoot off in coordinated directions, sending thousands of points of light scattering across the sky. The performance is impressive, but it is too coordinated, almost too perfect.
Feeling slightly underwhelmed by the contrived extravaganza, my mind went back to a visit to the same island, Lido, a few years earlier when a dear friend was getting married. My sons and I sat on a bench outside the church, glasses of prosecco in our hands. It was a pleasant May afternoon. The sky was clear and blue, the sun not yet harsh, the breeze mild, and it had rained lightly. Children were taking rides in the horse carriage in which the bride had come.
As afternoon turned into evening, I wandered towards the water, drawn by the setting sun. Venice looked beautiful across the lagoon, its fragile beauty enhanced in twilight. I recall a tree with branches that reached out gracefully, like the arms of a ballerina. It framed the domes of Venice perfectly.
As the light turned from blue to pale yellow and then pink, and with the temperature dipping, the sky showed the colours that no maker of fireworks can match. I recall walking back to the ferry point much, much later that night, when it was not yet dawn but no longer pitch dark, and the birds, woken up by our footsteps, began flapping their wings.
The fireworks display this July night was cool, like computer graphics; the sky in that evening twilight from a few years earlier had created a messy canvas with ever-changing colours that forced the watcher to pause and reflect. The colours of the fireworks this July could not capture the magic of that May evening; the sparks that flew out of the rockets were amazing, but they faded away quickly, turning into ash, disintegrating and disappearing, unlike the stars which emerged again once the smoke had cleared, glittering and adorning the sky, undimmed and unwavering.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.