As a 10-year-old, Prakash Reddy remembers the evening of October 1961 when his trade unionist parents took him to Shivaji Park to have a glimpse of Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first man in space.
“He was wearing his uniform and was handsome, humble and friendly. And the atmosphere on the ground was magnetic,” recalled Reddy, 60, secretary of the Communist Party of India in Mumbai. “This was a different kind of achievement by a communist state for mankind and the whole world.”
Six months after Soviet Union’s Gagarin completed an orbit of the Earth in the Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961, the Indian government invited him for a four-city trip — Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad.
In Mumbai, Gagarin was welcomed by a huge crowd which clapped for him when he walked in and he is known to have also clapped along. For close to 40 minutes, he spoke in Russian, which was translated to English by an interpreter, about his outer space experience and the space programme.
He stayed on in Mumbai for a dinner party that was thrown for him by a local eye surgeon at the Al Jabreya Court at Marine Drive.
On Tuesday, as the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first human journey into outer space undertaken by the cosmonaut, Reddy told HT how Gagarin’s visit touched a chord with the city’s working class who were in the 1960s greatly influenced by the Soviet Union’s communist ideology.
“After the Soviet Union fought against the imperialists during the Cold War, Indians were aware of everything that Soviet Union did under the communist ideology which was then a household name,” said Reddy. “Yuri broke the myth that achievements come only from the imperialist nations such as America or England. It was a great inspiration for Indians.”
For Mayank Vahia, astrophysicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Gagarin’s space trip symbolises oneness of the Earth.
“Even though Russia and the US had fought, the space trip brought in the awesomeness of the unity of universe, that the globe is one and beyond physical boundaries,” said Vahia. “It is a bigger milestone than the landing on the moon because it broke man’s mental blockage to the dangers of space.”