Kalpana Chawla is a household name in India, and a first-name at that. When the space shuttle Columbia crashed this month, the headlines here were all full of "Kalpana," as if there were no need to identify any further the forty-one-year-old astronaut with a doctorate in aerospace engineering. Indians were justly proud of her accomplishments, and felt a vicarious sense of achievement with each new phase of her career.

A woman in space! Coming as she did from the cow-belt area of Haryana (a state known for farming and agriculture, where women typically spend much of their free time slapping cow dung into patties for burning as cooking fuel), Kalpana’s meteoric rise to the heights of astronaut became the stuff of legend. "Study hard!" parents told their children. "See what Kalpana didi did!"

Didi is Hindi for "elder sister." It is a term of both affection and respect, and the implication of using it for a woman not actually your real sister is a voluntary assumption of the duties assigned to the younger members of a family. Kalpana was didi to a whole generation here in India, a role model-both actually and symbolically as one for whom the stars were literally the limit-for youngsters struggling to make a place for themselves in the world.

Indians are raised on big dreams. "Bollywood" movies are an industry like no other here: the biggest escape there is for people with no money, no education, no future, and no hope. In the films, poor boys make it big, honesty pays, and true love wins out over caste and corruption. Kalpana Chawla was the real-life embodiment of all that Bollywood presents as attainable: the small-town girl who moves to America (she attended the University of Texas at Arlington and got her doctorate from the University of Colorado after graduating with an engineering degree from Punjab Engineering College in 1982), realizes her loftiest ambitions, and retains a love for the motherland. She joined NASA in 1994, and at her request, since 1998 two students from her high school have been invited to take part in a NASA-sponsored institute each summer in Houston. It is no wonder that people here held her up to their children, held her out as evidence that good can indeed triumph over despair.

The fact is, though, India has no astronauts of its own. Kalpana Chawla had to leave this country to achieve her greatness, and many of the young people that I have spoken to here are bitter about it. Anand Chopra, a nineteen-year-old student about to leave for higher studies in the United States, believes that India did little for Kalpana. "Now that she’s made something of herself, suddenly, we claim her as one of our own," he says. "If she had stayed in India, she would have been a nobody in some government institution, pushing papers and worrying about where her next grant was going to come from. It’s hypocritical."

Anand’s father, however, a research scientist who did his Ph.D. in the United States and returned to India to work, sees things differently. "OK, we couldn’t give her the facilities to become an astronaut here. But even in a tiny, two-bit town in Haryana, she got a science education good enough to allow her to compete at an international level. It’s not a small thing."

Most ordinary people here agree. There is no point pretending. India has limited resources, and providing education of the level required of astronauts when millions of people still cannot read or write would be a waste of precious money and resources. But there is no shortage of dreams. Kalpana’s flight to the stars and almost back has been an inspiration to millions who refer to her tenderly as one of their own and who hold her up to their children as an example to emulate and to follow. Her untimely death was a blow to this nation of dreamers. But ultimately, people here will see her life as one worth learning from and imitating. The courage to risk everything is what she had in abundance: the belief in the possibility of a life beyond this pedestrian one-a life, indeed, in the stars. [end]

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2003-02-28 issue: View Contents
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