February 1, 2003 was a memorable day for every Indian who was watching the return of the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS -107 that disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. The disaster killed a seven-member crew including Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian to go to space. Sixteen years later, her proud father Banarasi Lal Chawla says his daughter was an angel who came to inspire many before she flew away to find her "space" among the stars.
Reliving those memories before his eyes through the documentary "Dreams That Touched The Sky", Chawla said "I think she came to this world with some blessing of the Almighty. She was different and she was special from her childhood. As a father, all I did was not to clip her wings. She wanted to fly, I just let her fly. She came, conquered and flew away after inspiring many lives. She was one of those girls who excelled in everything that she did, every job that she tried."
The documentary was screened at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival, and will be aired on National Geography channel.
According to her father, Kalpana, who hailed from the town of Karnal, was a nature lover since her childhood and her house was filled with plants. In fact, her last wish was to live in the mountains.
Chawla recalled: "We read the letter in which she mentioned that if she didn't come back, her ashes should be scattered on either the Himalayas or a mountain at the Zion National Park. when I went there with my wife, family and two close friends, her mother told me Mantu (Kalpana's nickname) had taken her to the place before."
What surprised Chawla and his wife was a girl who was sitting at the spot and crying. On being quizzed, the girl shared how Kalpana had helped her with her education.
"The girl was crying so hard that I felt bad. She said she is the mayor of Hawaii now. She wanted to study science and technology but, coming from a middle-class family, she never had the money though she was a good student. Kalpana kept sending her fees, to help her complete her education. She said she felt broken knowing Kalpana had left us," said Chawla.
Growing up with her two siblings, Kalpana was keen to fly since her childhood, and at the age of four took her first flight when her father took her to the Karnal Flying Club.
So, being an astronaut, was Kalpana a studious child? "She wasn't a naughty child but she was not overtly studious either. Kalpana was very curious, sincere and very focused. In school, she was not the first girl in class but she was very serious about her study. What her mother and I used to wonder is why she never flaunts her achievement. She won so many prestigious awards but never exhibited them in her house. When we went to her office and her room, all we saw were books, a photo frame with us (a photograph of her parents), and toy aeroplanes."
Kalpana received several awards, including Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously. There are streets, awards and medical colleges named after her. As a scientist, she has also been awarded by NASA.
"I think she was never 'overtly proud' of her achievement -- only engrossed in her goal to serve humanity. But I am not like her, I feel proud to be the father of Kalpana," smiled the 86-year-old man.
In a state like Haryana, where the voice of women is often curtailed by patriarchy, what would the proud father's advice to all the parents be?
"As a father I can say that the role of a parent should not be restricting children in the name of protecting them. Let them think and explore independently. As parents, we should just keep an eye that a child should not indulge in negative habits. Naya kadam uthaye to udne do, dhyan rakkho, koi galat kadam na uthaye. Then, see how every child can become an achiever," he said.