"It looked far-fetched but is finally sinking in."
That is what Kalpana Chawla said after her selection as an astronaut in 1997. Her hometown Karnal still looks at the first woman astronaut of India as the 'headstrong' girl.
The news of Kalpana's death after space shuttle Columbia broke up echoes the same incredibility Kalpana's selection as an astronaut arose.
It looked far-fetched that her landing would go wrong, but now the feeling is sinking in.
At Tagore Bal Niketan, where Kalpana studied in her early years, every face is painted with grief. Children reverentially walk towards a garlanded portrait of Kalpana, bow and shower petals on the native who will never return.
"We were celebrating the occasion of her landing. All the students were here and minutes before her scheduled landing, we got the news of the tragedy," Deepak Majumdar, the fine arts teacher, said.
The singing, the drums stopped.
Since then it has been an unending queue of mourners.
Those who knew her are endlessly narrating their experiences with her. Despite her historic success, it seems Kalpana was still attached to Karnal, her birthplace, and made an effort to keep the links alive.
Kalpana Chawla's pictures adorn the school vice-president's office.
Before her first space flight in 1997, she had called the school principal and sought a souvenir to carry with her.
"So we designed a T-shirt saying - Kalpana we are proud of you," arts teacher Majumdar said adding the shirt showed some children looking up to Kalpana with the tricolour and some aeroplanes in the background.
The association proved frutiful when in 1998 Geoffrey Munes, the director of the International Space School Foundation at NASA asked Kalpana to suggest some Indian students for a summer programme.
She suggested Tagore Bal Niketan, whose senior staff describe Kalpana as 'a headstrong girl, who drew aeroplanes in drawing competitions and made models of the universe and constellations in geography projects'.
Since then NASA has been inviting two students each year for the summer programme, which has 35 participants from all over the world.
Sanpreet (17) and Namita (16), who were part of the students programme this year, fondly recall their 'Kalpana didi'.
"When we were at NASA, I was sick of eating American food. So one day, Kalpana didi took us home and cooked chole, aloo gobi and paranthas. On the way to her house, she told us how she came to America and became an astronaut," Sanpreet said.
Namita is nostalgic about the last time she met Kalpana. She had been impressed by Kalpana's warmth and humanism. When the 18-day course came to an end, the two girls called Kalpana.
"We wanted to see her before leaving. She happily agreed and talked to us for two hours. She repeatedly talked about Karnal and the school. She advised us to be honest and do whatever we want to," says Namita, a Class XI student.
After a degree in engineering, Namita wants to study space technology and follow in Kalpana's footsteps.
The two girls have written to President A P J Abdul Kalam to honour Kalpana with the Bharat Ratna.
"The mood in our school has changed completely. Now children are dreaming of doing something like Kalpana. Space exploration and technology is the theme of every exhibition in the school," says geography teacher Dharmendra.
For Karnal and her school, Kalpana's death is a major loss.
"Kalpana didi will live forever in our hearts," Sanpreet said as mourners continued to pour in to pay their respects.