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The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph in New Delhi
February 02, 2004
After national prayers for the Columbia crew last February in the United States, a college student from Hawaii approached Kalpana Chawla's family.
She came because a chance meeting with Kalpana during her school days had changed her life.
"I had come on a trip to NASA having made up my mind to give up science in higher studies," she told the family. "During a meeting I happened to sit next to Kalpana. The conversation we had for half an hour changed my life forever and I decided to continue to study science," she added.
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Such stories are routine now. Men, women, and children from all over the world often write such words to the family, says Kalpana's elder sister, Sunita Chaudhry.
"Kalpana was very unique," she says. "Now, when we look back we realise that from childhood she was really special. Do you know how different she was from other girls?"
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Kalpana would "rebel under your nose without you ever realising it", she recalls, slightly lifting the veil from their lives. "She would get her way without hurting you. You would hardly ever see her angry."
She once scribbled on a poster showing two faces of the moon and asked Sunita: "Why don't you visit? It is just next door."
Sunita says she "recently discovered a card with a rocket drawn by her [Kalpana] as a child, inspiring her friend to go to space".
Another card, sent from the US some two decades ago when she was a student there, says, 'I keep telling JP [her husband J P Harrison] that one day a spaceship is going to kidnap me.'
That was Kalpana.
She almost equally divided her life between India and the US; The astronaut lived in the two countries for 20 years, five months and a few days each.
But she would never say she belonged to one country.
In 1997 she refused to travel with secretary of state Madeline Albright to India because she wanted nothing to do with politics.
For Kalpana, who loved to wander for hours in the wilderness, it was clear that she belonged to the universe, and she finally settled down among the stars.
Columbia was just "made for her", according to Sunita. The shuttle flew its first mission the year Kalpana went to the US; the shuttle project, after the Apollo mission and moon landing, took off the year Kalpana was born.
Unlike other girls Kalpana never pierced her ears and never wore jewellery. "I once took a gift for her in 1997 -- a very thin gold bangle -- thinking that perhaps she would wear it. When I gave it to her she made these big eyes and asked, 'Oh, you actually thought I would wear it?'"
In fact, the woman who would one day capture the imagination of the whole world did not have enough money to go to a parlour even six years after coming to the US. "She kept cutting her own hair till she got her first job... She said she didn't have $20 to pay," Sunita reminisces.
She was also not very bothered about her clothes. Sunita says when the family met Kalpana two days before her second visit to space, she was wearing a jacket from her Chandigarh days, "more than 20 years old". "If you see all the photographs, you will notice a particular sweater that she had been wearing for 12 years. But she still looked so gorgeous."
During the same meeting, says Sunita, "she told me she had left some books for me to read... she had left instructions about birding spots in Houston, etc for the 15-16 days she would be away."
The family spoke to her twice while she was in space. "We were fooling around for the first few seconds. Then she suddenly became very serious and addressed our mom in Punjabi, and turned to JP and told him that she was going to talk to mom in Punjabi and then would translate it for him.
"Kalpana told our mom that the other day, when the sun was setting, she was looking out of the window. She said, 'I saw my reflection in the window and I could see my eyes and the retinas of my eyes... I could see the whole earth in the retinas.'
"In the second hook-up, after saying hello when she came online she really looked gorgeous in a T-shirt. Looking bright, she did a few summersaults to show us zero gravity. Then she asked mom, 'Mamu, shall I show you something?' We could just see her doing something, but for a few seconds we didn't know what she was actually doing. Then out came a picture of mom and dad from 35 years ago, when she was a kid. She is sitting in their lap. She had taken that picture with her. Then she took out a picture of her and JP and showed it to him. Then she took out a picture of us three sisters, and she said, 'You are all with me.'"