And how the moon shone when it got dark

When Donald Trump triumphed in the US presidential election and India's currency devaluation threatened chaos recently, the supermoon gave people reason to look on the bright side

So the United States has elected Mr Donald Trump and India has devalued 86 per cent of its currency in a single stroke.

That leaves my relatives across one ocean with wallets full of worthless paper, my cousins across another checking on their residency papers and me in Singapore, worried about the economic implications of both events.

We found one bright spot in a period of seeming global lunacy: last week's dazzling, supremely photogenic supermoon.

This is what we do, after all. As Asians, we have a history of finding the bright side in darkness. We know how to keep calm and carry on.

History was made and made personal for me this past fortnight. From my block of flats, I could see the unusually large and bright supermoon.

Earth's satellite was closer to the planet than it has ever been in my lifetime. It was last this near to us in 1948.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

This past fortnight, Mrs Hillary Clinton did not become the first female president of the United States. Some American friends fell into depression, certain that the election of Mr Trump legitimises all that is toxic in the world: misogyny, bigotry, the cult of the individual above the good of the community.

Around the same time, the government of India declared that all existing currency notes of 1,000 rupees (S$20) and 500 rupees were no longer legal tender.

This was a surprise move to flush out undeclared wealth. It has left tourists from the country, like one aunt currently visiting me in Singapore, with not enough money to take a cab home from the airport when they return.

History is made once in a blue moon, one like last week's supermoon.

In between attempts to photograph the orb, my father's cellphone buzzed with messages and calls from around the globe.

Friends and relatives from India had plenty of time to talk while caught in traffic. National highways were choked with vehicles as drivers scrambled for legal currency to pay toll booths.

The callers were surprisingly upbeat despite the chaos and the day-long queues at banks to exchange their worthless money for the newly printed 2,000 rupee and 500 rupee notes.

I have heard that the human spirit flowers in adversity. I am seeing it put out new buds right now, as the world is pulled relentlessly into an unpredictable, even frightening, future.

Look on the bright side, they said. (We were, it was the closest the moon had been to Earth in 68 years.) For decades, a huge untaxable, untraceable segment of the Indian economy was composed of deals made in undeclared cash. Such deals will now have to be declared. People will be taxed on their real incomes and such transparency can only be good in the long run for the country, they said.

As did my aunt who is visiting here. She has enough change in her purse to pay for a bus ticket home from the airport. There might not be enough for a snack on the way. There will not be enough for groceries. Maybe she will lunch with better-stocked relatives. Maybe she will tighten her belt for a while, for the greater good.

I have known little want and no deprivation in my 37 years. I expected my relatives to protest and angry crowds to storm the streets of India. I expected more than the sporadic Twitter outcry. In a country of more than a billion people, I expected more reports of robberies, scams and violent outrage.

I did not expect stoicism. I did not expect the continued grace of the majority, waiting day after day as ATMs ran dry, queues grew longer outside banks and bank tellers ran out of new notes.

"The price of vegetables has fallen," said one relative. "Sellers are taking whatever money we can give them."

I naively thought this was the bright side of a dark patch. She pointed out such small grocers live hand to mouth. It is her duty to make up their losses in brand-new notes once the cash is in her hands.

A few days later, my friend stood in line for four hours for 2,000 rupees. It went to pay her domestic help and the dhobi who launders the clothes. She and her husband are buying groceries at supermarkets with debit cards.

I am humbled by their sense of responsibility. I was similarly awed in 2008, reading reports of farmers in China who let their fields dry so that irrigation water would go to Beijing during the Olympic Games. They suffered so that their country would not lose face before the world - so that their guests would not be inconvenienced.

I am still absorbing lessons from this past fortnight. I have seen first-hand that the average citizen of Asia has an amazing capacity to forego his own interests for the collective good. The average citizen of Asia can and will find his footing again when the ground is pulled from under his feet.

I am an average citizen of Asia. How should I then respond in times of uncertainty?

History is made in uncertain times, in such interesting times. The last time history was made with a moon this close to the Earth, it was 1948.

My father's mother was a refugee. At the stroke of an official pen, her country had been partitioned into India and Pakistan.

When her home in Lahore, now in Pakistan, was threatened by rioters, she fled with only her daughter and the clothes on her back.

She and my grandfather settled in a town in India, much further south, where his brother worked.

Before she died, I learnt that in that fateful year, my grandmother might have chosen to move to Singapore instead.

Another branch of the family lived here. They were close - it was a cousin from that family who ensured my grandparents met and married.

In 1965, when Singapore was separated from Malaysia, those relatives also tightened their belts and endured.

I have heard that the human spirit flowers in adversity. I am seeing it put out new buds right now, as the world is pulled relentlessly into an unpredictable, even frightening, future.

Cousins and friends from America remain divided after the US presidential election. Some say the election of Mr Trump is the end of their country. Some believe that the weight of power will mature the President-elect's views and behaviour.

Those in Singapore and India are equally divided over whether or not the President-elect will be good for their local economy.

All sides are united in one belief: Each of us has a part to play in this future. Flame wars that raged on chat groups and social media are being replaced with calls to be calm, watchful and ready to serve in whatever capacity the future may require.

Some await economic reform. Others are working on back-up plans to tide them through a feared recession.

Some in America plan to volunteer with civil rights groups. Others in Asia are coming down hard on posts within the group that smack of any bigotry. "There is enough hatred in the world," one said.

We listened.

We looked on the bright side. We shared photos of the supermoon from wherever we were in the world. India. America. Singapore. Even Kenya, where they are anticipating trouble during the general elections next year.

Not everyone had the chance or equipment to photograph the supermoon. Those who didn't know will have another chance in 2034, when the lunar orb will loom equally close.

That gives us all plenty of time to prepare our equipment - possibly upgrade it - and be ready when history is made again.

History is made once in a blue moon. If we watch and wait for the right moment, we will also have the chance to shine in the dark.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'And how the moon shone when it got dark'. Print Edition | Subscribe