Eighty-six-year-old Banarasi Lal Chawla vividly recalls the day when he was strewing the ashes of his daughter Kalpana Chawla in the hills of Zion National Park in the US.
Unexpectedly, he encountered an American woman sobbing uncontrollably as she also grieved the death of the Indian-American astronaut who was onboard space shuttle Columbia when it exploded while returning to the Earth.
“Such was the love people had for her, from Karnal to California, and only after her death I got to know the numerous lives she had touched and inspired. Kalpana was not just my daughter, she was India’s daughter and America’s daughter,” he said.
Using cinematic recreations, along with interviews with her parents and close friends, the life of Kalpana Chawla has come alive in a 45-minute bilingual (English and Hindi) documentary produced by National Geographic as part of its Mega Icons TV series, which was screened at a film festival in Mumbai on Thursday, Nat Geo officials said.
“I want the entire world to benefit from the works done by Kalpana. She inspired people during her lifetime, from school children in her alma mater Tagore Baal Niketan school at Karnal to college students in her universities or the places where she delivered lectures. The film will inspire future generations to dream big,” Chawla said.
Chawla was the first woman of Indian-origin to fly to space, and in her will, she had said that after her demise her ashes be either scattered over the Himalayas or the Zion National Park in Utah.
Born in Karnal in 1962, she was one of the seven crew members who died in the disaster in 2003 when Columbia disintegrated during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“I was in Houston back then at her home awaiting her return from her space expedition. But instead I learned that I had lost my dear daughter. She was fascinated by planes aircraft from her childhood…She always dreamt of the stars and somehow I feel she dissolved into the stars that day,” Chawla told PTI in an interview.
The proud father said Kalpana’s fascination for flying objects began when she was just three and saw a plane from the home’s terrace.
“She insisted on seeing a plane from a close distance and that time we had the Karnal Flying Club a few kilometres away, so I contacted a senior officer there whom I had met a few months ago and he invited us to visit the Club.
“I rode a bicycle from my home and Kalpana sat in front of it and my son at the back and I took them to the club. And even before I had parked my cycle, she had run to the aircraft that she saw and kept circling it and later asked all curious questions to the officer about it — ‘How does it fly?’ ‘How does it work?’,” he recalled.
The captain later offered her, my son and me a spin in the plane to see Karnal from above and “I still haven’t forgotten the joy on Kalpana’s face”.
“That day I knew she was born to fly and be among the stars. Stars were her companions. In fact, she was so fascinated with space that after being selected to NASA, she used to say in a lighter vein that one day she would be kidnapped in outer space,” the emotionally overwhelmed father said.
Chawla recently met with an accident and suffered injuries in his spine and arms, but says talking about his daughter keeps him fit.
“I am very weak and feeble now, with age and with accident-related injuries, but whenever I speak about her I feel there is some invisible force that gives me strength. My daughter never made me feel weak; she made me proud before and I am still a proud father,” he said.
Chawla also recalled the time after the Columbia disaster when then US President George W Bush invited him to the White House.
“I went through the corridors and rooms without any security around me and when I reached the Oval Office and stood at the door President Bush himself opened the door and welcomed me in. He held me by arms and said, ‘Dad, please come in’. Tears rolled down my eyes and he (Bush) also started weeping. The US missed Kalpana as much as India did,” he reminisced.
For her achievements, the US Congress posthumously awarded her the Congressional Space Medal of Honour and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) posthumously awarded her the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
Chawla said Kalpana’s life was such that “everywhere I went, girls came to me and called me their ‘father’. I became a father to all these girls, all thanks to their love for Kalpana”.
“Once, I was travelling in a train a few years ago and three young men were my co-passengers. They learned that I was from Karnal and then asked if I knew Kalpana’s family and I said ‘yes’. Ultimately, I revealed I was her father and two men from the berth above jumped to the floor of the train. And sat beside my feet.
“They were engineers returning from some assignment. One of them told me that his daughter had stopped eating after learning of her death. She inspired girls to dream and she will continue to inspire them to reach for the stars,” Chawla said.