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Don't be afraid to dream big

By Dhiraj Shetty
February 02, 2004 12:56 IST
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After China, ours must be the country with the most number of dreamers. Most of our billion plus people, like those in China, dare not dream of anything more than a better future. Perhaps, the result of years of poverty and self-doubts.

A handful do dream of bigger things but only one in a billion actually manage to achieve them. If it came to that, Kalpana Chawla would have to be that one (in a billion).

While most adventurous people dream of nothing more than becoming rich or a movie star or a business magnate, this girl from Karnal in Haryana dreamt of going to space.

That she actually managed to do it, and more than once, puts her life story in the realm of fairy tales.

Who knew of her before she went to space for the first time? Perhaps, a handful of people, including her family.

But when she died on February 1, 2003, almost the entire nation was overcome by grief.

Just the few days before, the same people had been enthusiastically lining up to wish her a happy journey and a pleasant stay in space.

When she went to space for the first time in 1997, India had not understood the full impact of her achievement. She was treated as nothing more than just another successful NRI, except that instead of minting millions in Silicon Valley, she was flying to space.

No great shakes for a nation of people living in the firm belief that they were born with the sole purpose of attaining death after a life spent entirely in toiling to keep head above water. For all they cared, she may have been just another member of the jet-set crowd.

But by the time she was to undertake that exercise for the second time, in 2003, many Indians had begun to look beyond the daily struggle to exist, thanks to the achievements of those of their compatriots who had braved the odds, including poverty, to emerge successful on the world stage.

Some had made a mark in business, some in sports, some had won beauty pageants, while the Information Technology industry thought Indians were the best, if the not THE best, in the business.

Here, it must be said that there have been achievers earlier too but they had either remained in the background or their achievements were never sufficiently highlighted.

When Indians began making a mark on the world stage, the spotlight was turned on the country and its people suddenly saw themselves in a new light. The nation experienced a surge in pride and people identified Kalpana as one of their role models, someone they could look up to.

If an ordinary girl from a small town in the patriarchal state of Haryana could do fly to space, why can't we? is what was playing in the minds of several youngsters.

Kalpana Chawla: Full coverage

Ever since the industrial revolution of the mid-eighteenth century, science has been the refuge of the middle class all over the world. But Kalpana seemed to have made the drab subject appear trendy among modern day Indian youth, not just something they took up to just to ensure a regular job and a comfortable life.

Now they have begun to look at careers that were unheard of before -- astronaut, microbiologist, astrophysicist, research in molecular science and, like I said, some that we are yet to hear of.

Kalpana cannot be entirely responsible for this broadening of the horizons but who will deny that she reminded each of those who heard of her of that dormant desire to pursue one's dreams, one's ambitions, which the majority had discarded or suppressed to ensure a regular job and a steady income or to be a homemaker?

Who will deny that she raised our hopes, reminded us of the belief that we held in our youth, that we can do whatever we wish to if we set our mind to it?

It was to score a political point that Rakesh Sharma was sent to space on a Soviet craft but the Indian government was not aware of Kalpana Chawla until she was selected for her first space mission.

Kalpana made it on her own, after overcoming several hurdles, with the support of her family and well-wishers, not for India but solely to fulfil her desire to fly to space. That's as pure and personal as one can get.

When a personal desire is fulfilled, it is not everyone who goes about sharing their good fortune with the others, especially those who want to follow in their footsteps.

But Kalpana met a lot of people, especially students, and made them feel as if they had a share in her success and welcomed them to bask in the glow of her achievements. Students of her old school in Karnal were the biggest beneficiaries of her love and affection.

She encouraged youngsters to think big and even tried to personally help some of them to fulfil their dreams.

So the spontaneous outpouring of grief at her untimely death was no surprise. The void her death has left will be difficult to fill.

Kalpana will be the brightest star to light up the Indian skies for a long time to come, or at least till one of those she inspired will outshine her.

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Dhiraj Shetty