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     From paper planes to Columbia

Friday 2nd Feb 2008, By Devirupa Mitra, IANS

Karnal (Haryana) : Under a giant poster of Kalpana Chawla with the words "the whole universe is my native place" scrawled across, students sat whispering to each other before falling silent at the entry of an elderly man with a stern visage.

Banarasi Lal Chawla had been to his youngest daughter Kalpana's alma mater - Tagore Bal Niketan Senior Secondary School - when she was a student over 20 years ago. On Friday he was the chief guest at a small function there to mark the day she died five years ago.

Her school and her college, Punjab Engineering College, had organised the event to keep alive the memory of the Indian American astronaut.

"She asked me once, have you gone on a plane? Are you scared of going on a plane? I didn't answer, but she laughed uproariously thinking that her teacher was afraid of flying," 74-year-old Daljit Madan, who was Kalpana's teacher for most of primary school, told IANS smiling.

Madan, who was also her immediate neighbour, remembered Kalpana as the tomboy who could only make paper airplanes during the school craft hour and throw them into the air.

Her life and death had been extraordinary.

Kalpana rose from her small town roots to take part in two space flights of US space agency NASA. It was during her second trip that the Columbia space shuttle she was in disintegrated into small fiery pieces and plunged into the earth, just 16 minutes before landing. She was 41.

In contrast to the effusive praise for Kalpana at the function, her father was self-effacing.

When an organiser said that if Sunita Williams could be given a Padma Bhushan, then Kalpana deserved a Bharat Ratna, her father said, "If you say this again, I will get upset with you".

The asceticism that seemed to mark him was also a trait in his daughter - the youngest born in 1961 after two sisters and a brother.

"She used to pay more for getting her shoes repaired in America, instead of buying a new shoe that would have cost less. Kalpana told me that it meant an extra income for a person, while a new shoe would have meant the death of an animal," Banarasi Lal, now in his late 70s, told IANS.

Her father lives in a single room in a charitable institute in Karnal run by his eldest brother that includes an old age home, a vocational institute and three schools, all of them completely free.

Sitting in his office, surrounded by old friends, Banarasi Lal recounted anecdote after anecdote about Kalpana - her love of trees, her spartan lifestyle that made her sleep on the ground and an intrinsic humility that kept her from talking about her sponsorships of several poor students.

"It's only after her death that I learnt about how she spent most of her money on helping others," he said.

Till date Kalpana's presence looms over the school - a poster in the library depicting her in her orange space suit, a small, framed poem on Kalpana in the principal's room and a paper stopper in the shape of a space rocket in the accounts office.

Banarasi Lal reminisced about the last videoconference that he had from NASA with Kalpana when she was on board the Columbia. At that time, he told her in Punjabi about his long journey to NASA from India which had been delayed by 36 hours due to fog.

"She just laughed and then she put her hand in her pocket and took out a photograph of me and my wife," he said

After her death, Banarasi Lal wanted to look at the office that his daughter had worked at in Nasa.

"I went in and saw a laptop open on the desk. On the side, there were small toy airplanes that she had played with. Then, on her right was a framed photograph of us," he said, his voice wavering but tinged with pride.


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