I remember it was 1975, I was new in school, and the preparations for the upcoming Parents' Day were on. For a geography project, a classroom was being changed into a miniature landscape. The idea was to trace the journey of a river from the mountains to the sea, where it forms a delta. Class 10 was involved mainly, but a couple of us eighth graders who hung around were allowed to do the groundwork (lug in soil, pebbles, and tree branches).
While everyone was busy making roads, hutments, lakes and fields, she suggested that the ceiling be turned into a night sky featuring the constellations. The teacher liked her idea. With friends, she stuck silvery stars painstakingly on black chart papers to replicate the cosmos. It now occurs to me that while we lesser mortals were engrossed in earthly pursuits, she aimed for the stars.
She wasn't the brightest in the class but more of an all-rounder, taking equal interest in athletics, academics, and cultural activities. She was petite and a little self-conscious about her height. I remember the tyre in her verandah from which she would hang in an attempt to grow taller, never knowing that she was destined to reach heights that only a few others could imagine.
After we finished school, I never saw her again. I went on to become a doctor, got married, and settled in a town nearby. Time and again, I would hear about her. Our old school principal loved to talk about her astronomical rise; and since my daughter had joined the same school, I knew all the details.
From the time she opted for aeronautical engineering at 17, her life was a single-minded pursuit of her goal to touch the stars. She became postgraduate in aerospace and mechanical engineering, followed it up with doctorate, and then began her stint at American space agency Nasa.
Selected as an astronaut candidate, she became the second Indian to fly into space on shuttle mission STS- 87 in 1997.
Her second flight was as mission specialist in the seven-member crew of STS-107 in January 2003. Mission over and just 16 minutes short of the scheduled landing on that February 1, she became one with the cosmos she loved.
I remember her more for her humility than her greatness. She became a US citizen but never forgot her roots. When her first mission was cleared, she contacted the school asking for a memento she could take into space. She wanted her alma mater to benefit from her good fortune and arranged an annual sponsorship for two students at Nasa. She ensured that when she reached for the stars, her feet remained on the ground.
Most successful expatriates underplay the role of their native country but she gave credit to every nook and cranny she passed-her school, her engineering college, and even the small, underequipped flight club of her town. This is what sets her apart-her magnanimous heart that knew that giving credit to others would not diminish her own achievements.
Even 12 years since her death in the Columbia space shuttle disaster, little has been done to commemorate her. A planetarium, a weather satellite, a girls' hostel, a few scholarships, and a yet-to-be-fully-operational medical college are a few attempts by the government. Considering the dearth of youth role models in our country, we should try harder to treasure the few we have and not depend on the state's half-baked projects.
India's highest civilian award is conferred "in recognition of exceptional service of the highest order". It has gone to non-Indians before and its eligibility criterion was expanded to include "any field of human endeavour".
Kalpana Chawla qualifies. Not that it matters. You don't need a Bharat Ratna to be one. firstname.lastname@example.org
(The writer is a gynaecologist at Gharaunda in Haryana)