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A success story that ended in tragedy

By Josy Joseph in Mumbai
February 02, 2003 00:13 IST
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For the Chawla family, it was yet another memorable trip to see their strong, determined Kalpana -- Kalpanadidi to her nieces and nephews -- take off for a second time into space.

It was a journey the family had been eagerly looking forward to for several months. Kalpana's flight had been rescheduled from mid-last year to January because of some technical snags.

So, early in January, Kalpana's father, mother, two elder sisters, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews took off for the US on an invitation from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

During my last visit to the south Delhi home of Kalpana, her brother Sanjay Chawla's son and daughter were excited about making the trip. I asked them what they wanted to be, and Megha said, "I want to be an astronaut like Kalpanadidi."

The first time she had returned from her trip to the US, Megha had been invited by her schoolteachers to brief her classmates about the experience.

The niece and nephew were with the rest of the family at the Kennedy Space Centre on Saturday morning, awaiting Kalpana's arrival. But hardly one-and-a-half hours before they were to receive Kalpana, the space shuttle Columbia exploded on re-entry, snatching the first Indian woman to go into space.

The family was proud of her, really proud of the peak that the daughter of a family that had reached Karnal in abject poverty during the bloody Partition days of 1947 had scaled. Kalpana's father, who had had a narrow escape in the riots, then restarted his life selling groundnuts at the Karnal railway station.

Sunita Chaudhary was very excited and proud whenever she spoke of her younger sister. Over phone calls and during our meetings, Sunita would tell me about the grit and determination of the girl from Karnal that took her into space.

After several hours of discussions and meetings with them, Kalpana's family gifted me a replica of the mission badge that she and her colleagues had designed for their first flight STS-87 in 1997. It finds pride of place in my showcase.

Sunita put her own personal tragedy on the backburner whenever she spoke of her sister. Sunita lost her husband, a naval pilot who crashed into the seas off Mumbai, several years ago.

The Chawla family has had some amazing success, and unimaginable tragedy. Kalpana's death is the latest of the latter.

Sunita had several stories to recollect about Kalpana. One was Kalpana's assertion that "I am a citizen of the world. I belong everywhere" whenever someone reminded her of her Indian roots.

Not that she wasn't proud of her Indian roots. At a pre-flight press conference in January, she cited J R D Tata's daring venture into aviation early last century among her inspirations. As she perished, Kalpana had with her a special flag designed by art students from around India, under the aegis of the National Science Centre. She had carried this flag, depicting the importance of education, to salute teachers like Nirmala Namboothiripad, who taught her science at the Tagore Public School in Karnal.

Before she was selected to be an astronaut, Kalpana and her husband, a British flight instructor of whom Kalpana's family was very fond, had visited India a couple of times. Strangely, even Kalpana's husband carried the scars of history. One of his parents, a Jew, had suffered through Hitler's persecution.

One of the missions of the Chawla family this time was to persuade Kalpana to visit India, where she has become an inspiration of sorts for millions of youngsters.

And Sunita had promised me that she would remind her sister of a pending interview for Abroad. In fact, we still have an email from Eileen Hawley, news chief, Johnson Space Centre, promising to push our request as soon as Kalpana returns to earth.

We would have liked to hear from Kalpana not just about her latest flight, but also the story of a little girl who was born to a family that migrated with not a penny in its palms 56 years ago from Pakistan. About her dreams, about how she overcame hurdles of family and society, how she set her mind to reach for the stars. And how she finally did it.

But, those stories will remain unspoken now.

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Josy Joseph in Mumbai