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Rediff.com  » News » Bush, NRIs pray for astronauts

Bush, NRIs pray for astronauts

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC
February 03, 2003 19:49 IST
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United States President George W Bush and First Lady Laura Bush attended a prayer service for the seven astronauts, who died in the Columbia crash on February 1, at St John's Church near the White House on Sunday.

In the service Reverend Luis Leon said, "What happened yesterday…is the price we pay for exploration…"

While Bush bowed his head as a congregation member and read aloud the names of the seven astronauts, Leon prayed for their "spirit to be kept alive in all of us".

"We grieve because they represent the best in us, a part of which has died," Leon said. "God's heart is more heartbroken than our own, and I believe they are already resting."

Earlier Bush, in a five-minute telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had described Kalpana Chawla, the Indian American astronaut who died in the crash, as a "brave and courageous star born in your great country".

Meanwhile, hundreds of non-resident Indians flocked to temples in Maryland and Virginia to pray for the deceased astronauts, especially Kalpana.

Some of them also began a campaign to write to Indian President A P J Abdul Kalam to confer on Kalpana the Padma Bhushan.

The grief of visitors to the Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland, was palpable, as devotional songs were sung and prayers offered. The chief priest of the temple said that the seven were "on a final mission to heaven".

Indian Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, who attended the prayer service, said that while Kalpana's death was a terrible tragedy, her life was a celebration of India and the US.

"We must rejoice at the achievements of this Indian American woman, who made the two people of both these democracies so proud."

Mansingh said that he had spoken to Kalpana's father B L Chawla and appreciated his rise from a victim of the partition to a successful businessman. "Kalpana, like her father, epitomises what Indians have achieved in India and in America."

He said that the astronaut's life, which was lost in the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of humanity, "is an inspiration which exemplifies the spirit of the people who come from India".

Washington community activist Dr Sambhu Banik, who also spoke at the memorial, recalled having met Kalpana at the September 15, 2000, reception that was organised by the then US vice-president Al Gore for Vajpayee.

Banik said he was impressed with her modesty and friendly demeanour. "... When I complimented her for doing us proud by being the first Indian American in space... she was very humble and modest in her response," he said.

"Kalpana Chawla is no more but her legacy as the first woman astronaut of Indian descent will inspire generation after generation and her memory will shine forever like the Saptarshi [seven stars] in the northern horizon. She along with her six comrades will be permanently residing in heaven."

Dr Parthasarathy Pillai, former president of the National Federation of Indian American Association, also reminisced about his meeting with Kalpana last year at the White House during the Asian Pacific American Heritage celebrations. "What a pleasant and friendly person she was, so full of humility in spite of all what she had achieved," he said.

"She was a role model and the pride and joy of our community."

Banik said he had spoken to several people about writing to Kalam to award her a Padma Bhushan "and the response has been overwhelming with everyone saying that there is none more deserving for this honour than her".

At the Durga Temple in Virginia, similar sentiments were echoed. Professor Bishnu Poudel, who led the memorial service, said that the tragedy that took her life "is an unimaginable loss for all of us".

Another speaker, Dr Rajesh Kadian said, "Kalpana was the daughter of India and a citizen of the USA. She achieved both the Indian dream and the American dream."

He said she was the "first an Indian star and when she reached the skies, was also an American star".

Dr Suresh Gupta, a trustee of the temple said, "She was a part of our family, an NRI in a sense. She came here like all of us and she achieved a status, which none of us have achieved, going to space, not once but twice," he said.

"This young lady opened the doors for others, especially the women and inspired our youth and children. She may be no more but she will be remembered for all the generations to come."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC