Impossible Journey

India's female astronaut

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.

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.