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Seeking out Kalpana

Kalpana Chawla, the sole Indian woman astronaut, lived for her dreams and realized them too.

india Updated: May 31, 2003 11:00 IST

Kalpana Chawla
A Life
Anil Padmanabhan
Penguin India
2003
Biography
Pages: 94
Price: Rs 125
Paperback
ISBN: 0-14-333586-3

Kalpana Chawla, the sole Indian woman astronaut, lived for her dreams and realized them too. Born in a conservative Punjabi household in small town Karnal, the gritty girl had never for a moment considered the word ‘failure’. That we all know and did so too, when the dimunitive girl with the dazzling smile lost her life along with six others in a tragic accident, when space shuttle Columbia exploded over Utah, USA on February 1, last.

And the world mourned the untimely demise. Most paid tributes in the best manner they knew how, but for some others, it was time again to draw mileage from the incident, as is often the wont. Anil Padmanabhan’s (Chief of Bureau, India Today, New York) decided to give an insider’s look into the life and times of Kalpana Chawla and wrote a biography of the late astronaut.

A noble effort, which somehow disappeared as the book progressed for what has finally appeared is a rush job – a classic case of armchair reportage. Clearly, the book was brought out in a rush – almost as if the publishers and the author were keen on the subject before people lost interest in it – unfortunate but probably true.

The family (both Kalpana’s parents, siblings and her husband Jean-Pierre) would, for obvious reasons, have been in no fit state to recount her life’s anecdotes, so the book depends upon accounts given by old school friends, teachers and US based friends. NASA, US’ premier space agency where Chawla spent most of her working life could have shared some interesting insights but it didn’t put anything on the table officially for want of revealing more than it didn’t.

Padmanabhan talks to ‘old-timers’ at NASA for contemporary NASA environs. Obviously, NASA likes to keep secrets including what was the final snag that resulted in the crash. Kalpana Chawla – a life offers nothing more than what one has already gathered from available press material, and constantly reiterates only one aspect of the young lady’s life – that she possessed tenacity to pursue and realize her goals.

A quality that is obvious anyway, for there aren’t any shortcuts to stars (literally and figuratively) without perseverance. A life like hers would have inspired at any point in time, so more time and effort would have been very welcome to present a more objective work, besides providing a more holistic view of Chawla’s personality.

Remember, rarely do persevering souls succeed without ambition and aggressiveness by their side. And that’s as much a part of their personality as the other qualities, which define them. It would have helped to concentrate on highlighting those aspects too. They would have made the work more honest and from the heart, rather than for the sake of it.