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Gujarat overwhelms Sunita Williams

By Raja Sen in Ahmedabad
Last updated on: September 21, 2007 09:32 IST
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Sunita at the Sabarmati Ashram
Sunita pays respect for cousin Haren Pandya

One day in Gujarat, and Sunita Williams could not have been more overwhelmed. Phew.

The Sabarmati Ashram is a place of immense peace and tranquility, Mahatma Gandhi's bastion of hope and self-awareness serving as a poignant reminder of the times that were, and the passive revolution's effect on the Indian freedom struggle.

Today, the Gandhian quiet is shattered by jingoistic cries of 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan' and -- thanks to the special guest -- 'Jai Vigyaan.'

The crowd in front of the stage comprises mainly of school kids, a tidy bunch braving Ahmedabad's glaring afternoon sun and helpfully passing around little bottles and clear plastic pouches of water. All around them, packed tightly into white-chair phalanxes sit the local gentry, old ladies straining heavily bifocal-ed eyes to catch a glimpse of the empty stage, youngsters with cheerleader-style signs, and curious men.

Sunita Williams is expected any minute, and the anticipation seems fervent yet tightly-reined, as if this congregation of Gujarat: The Next Generation wants to show off a commendable restraint and sense of proportion.

A gentleman with a tremendous passion for unsubtle political allegory is lecturing the bachchas about Gandhian divinity and the ills of certain parties who don't subscribe to it.

The sun is shining bright, and all seems well with the world -- or at least with an exclusively Congress one.

Members of the aforementioned party assemble onto the stage, merrily rubbing starched white kurta shoulders as they wait for the NASA lady. A woman in a bright green ethnic ensemble, made up to the hilt, takes the stage. She looks a far cry from the casual Sunita in the poster, but gamely acknowledges the desperate crowd's rapturous cheer with a beauty-pageant wave.

Even as the kids break into grins, the cold shoulder she gets from the white Congress contingent -- and the zoom button on the camcorder -- show she isn't the astronaut we've all gathered here to see.

Sunita Williams' arrival is marked by cameramen running backwards in front of an approaching white car that pulls up two feet from the stage. Dressed in a scarlet tee-shirt and blue jeans, Sunita walks up with her father, the gentle Dr Deepak Pandya -- and the press goes wild. A free-for-all erupts at the foot of the stage as still photographers (quite the inadvertent oxymoron, you do realise) and television cameramen jostle violently for a photo-op.

Viciously ejected from the melee by a policeman who considered my tripod a weapon, I climb a tree and hang on for dear life while my lens barely catches Sunita wave -- the real tem this time -- to a sea of young hands. Meanwhile, the well-baked Gujarati janta has thrown the formerly mentioned discipline to the winds, and is now up in autograph-wanting arms, clamoring for a piece of Williams. Finally comes the speech. I tighten my grip, now perched on a shaky chair -- honestly, very little solid ground is available to any of us -- and Sunita speaks to the kids.

She gives the crowd a five-minute talk, punctuated by long pauses. Not just for her Gujarati interpreter, but, like you'd imagine Bono would have to, she has to keep stopping for deafening applause. Yes, Sunita's rock star-like reception has been fantastical, a logistical nightmare as fans have completely latched on to her star. Wow.

Fast forward to a couple of hours later, and Sunita is expected at Nehru Nagar to commemorate the statue of her late cousin, Haren Pandya. This time -- as the speakers play inappropriate, vaguely 'patriotic' songs like It happens only in India and the Sarfarosh theme -- the crowd is everywhere, spilling precariously out of nearby rooftops and covering the road so completely that only one thin-lane of traffic (instead of three) is available. So sardine-like is the scenario that Williams has had to abort at least two attempts at entering the venue, her car forced to circle round and round till the crowd settles.

It doesn't, and the police finally squeeze her through for a rushed couple of seconds, as she garlands the statue, waves to the throng, and vanishes in an exhausted huff.

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Raja Sen in Ahmedabad