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What does it mean to be Desi? This is a question I’ve been grappling with since I launched this newsletter last summer.
To me, the purpose of Central Desi is to demonstrate that being Desi is not a 2-D experience. South Asians are diverse and complex, and we are more human that stereotypes allow us to be. Being Desi means nothing in particular: We aren’t a people of one religion or country of origin or skin color or career choice or economic status. Desis are everywhere, and everything. And yet we are still something unique.
In this issue, I want to introduce you to Rupesh Varghese, a New Jerseyan whose childhood was split between Oman and India. His family is from a remote part of Kerala, where a young city boy could gaze up at the night sky and see the possibilities of this magnificent existence. Technologist by day, Rupesh spends many nights camped out in his car, one eye on his telescope and the other on the galaxies above.
His passion for astrophotography defies simple explanation. He is an Indian American who works in IT. But he is also so much more.
All photos courtesy of Rupesh Varghese
The most interesting thing I can tell you about Rupesh Varghese right now is that he just became a dad. I don’t know how it’s going, but I spoke to him five weeks before his wife was due with their first baby. Her first baby, at least. It’s possible that Rupesh considers his telescope his first.
As far back as Rupesh can remember, he was fascinated by astronomy. His mother was a photographer who always carried a camera with her. Eventually the two came together in his mind.
This is a story of a man falling down a rabbit hole. First it was pictures of the sky in landscape shots, a photograph of the moon. Then, he was borrowing telescopes and spending the night in remote fields to take long-exposure shots of far-flung galaxies.
“You’re capturing history in a way, because all of these galaxies are so far away,” he told me. “It takes millions of light years for the light to travel to us. So what you’re looking at is basically a time capsule, and I find that very fascinating.”
It’s worth asking: Why New Jersey?
New Jersey isn’t exactly a safe haven for astrophotographers. From most parts of the state, light pollution (and other pollution, probably) make it difficult to see much of the sky. But the astro-fanatics live among us, and they have a club. The New Jersey Astronomy Association has an observing site in Voorhees State Park, where it is dark enough to get a good shot.*
For uber fans like Rupesh, there’s also Cherry Springs in upstate Pennsylvania, an international dark sky site. It’s the only spot on the East Coast with nearly no light pollution. (As the park website helpfully points out, a dark night sky is a natural resource, just like plants, waterways and wildlife.)
Planning a trip there takes time. There’s no cell phone reception, so you need to print out paper maps. You need to check the weather and make sure you’ll be there on a clear night, when the celestial objects you want to photograph will be visible, and the moon won’t be shining its annoying light at your telescope like a flashlight. You need to pack camping gear, along with your telescope, camera, mount and tripod. You need to program your software so that the computer you attach to your telescope tells it how to move and take photos throughout the night. When you get back, you’ll stack hundreds, sometimes upwards of 1,000, photos to capture a single image. (The data in each image is so faint, so this is the only way to make a final image like the one below.)
Oh, and you need to prepare for the bears. Rupesh used to put on Airpods and listen to music while he was out there, but then he heard rustling behind him one trip and saw five raccoons rifling through this astronomy bag. Then there was the time he was packing up and saw a bear. Now, Rupesh usually sits in his car if he’s alone.
Star parties. There are also star parties where astrophotographers gather and photograph a special occurrence together. Someone brings a regular telescope to look through after everyone has set up their gear, and they look at new galaxies together. Sometimes 500 people will gather at Cherry Springs from places as far as North Carolina.
Rupesh loves a good star party, but he is also dreaming of when he can build a backyard shed with a roll-off room, so that he can do his photography from home.
“If you’re in your backyard, you set it up and go watch TV,” he said.
Plenty of passionate Garden State astrophotographers have packed up and left for places like Arizona, where they are spoiled with gorgeous skies most of the year.
But Rupesh is an Indian man, whose wife is Black. His child is Black and Indian, and he likes living in a place where that’s not going to be a thing. Also, being within a half hour of a Target is helpful.
“I love New Jersey. It’s a great state for liberals,” he said. “Other places have their perks for astronomy, but everything else is a downgrade. I care about social politics and that’s not something I can do just for a hobby.”
Do it for love
“If I didn’t spend money on this, I could have bought a house by now,” Rupesh admitted as I probed deeper into his world.
I’m not sure how his wife feels about this, or the overnight trips he spends out in the woods. But she did buy him his first telescope. It was cheap by astro-standards, Rupesh explained, but she spent all the money she had on it when she was a grad student. How sweet is that?
Rupesh works at a prominent university in Central Jersey, in the IT department of the computer science department. He went to school for engineering, something he said he did “because it was expected,” but he couldn’t finish it and spent years working in retail.
“I wanted to study history and become a professor,” Rupesh said. “My dad was like, ‘No son of mine is going to be a history teacher.’”
Rupesh considers himself pretty nontraditional, in that he was never motivated by money. He likes to pursue what makes him happy, but he’s not planning to turn this hobby into a day job either.
“I don’t want to take the joy out of it,” he said. “Now that I have a career, this is a pure mental break from work.”
Astrophotography helped Rupesh weather the pandemic. It gave him and his wife space when they needed it, and it allowed him to have faith when they navigated stressful moments such as conceiving a child and developing careers.
When you love something that much, maybe it’s worth keeping it for yourself.
*Rupesh wanted to mention that NJAA offers public nights where anyone can visit the observatory and look at celestial objects through the largest telescope in New Jersey — for free (donation optional)!
Thank you, Rupesh, for your time! You can see Rupesh’s amazing photography in galleries around New Jersey, including at Small World Coffee in Princeton, or at his website, Lost Photons. Share your thoughts on this discussion by replying to this email or commenting on Instagram.
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