Karnal, Feb. 2: An otherwise bustling trading centre on the Grand Trunk Road, this Haryana town was wrapped in an eerie silence. Instead of buntings and banners, portraits of a vibrant young woman with flowing black hair in a space suit hung outside many shops and houses. The celebrations lined up last evening had morphed into prayer meetings.
Karnal was mourning its favourite daughter — a woman who dared to dream and with her success put the tiny town firmly on the world map. Kalpana Chawla, the Nasa astronaut who crashed to her death on board the blazing Columbia shuttle yesterday, had lifted off on her mission to reach the stars from here.
“Logon ko nahi, khud ko kaabu karna mushkil hai,” said an overwhelmed constable Nafe Singh while giving directions to the Tagore Bal Niketan school, where Kalpana’s story started. “Karnal ab anaath ho gaya hai.”
At the Tagore Bal Niketan, tears flowed unchecked. Sanpreet Kaur and Smridhi Arora, two students who had met Kalpana at Nasa on her invitation, stood with photographs of their Kalpana didi and the six other astronauts who perished.
At a condolence meeting there, hundreds of people from all walks of life trickled in till late in the afternoon to join Kalpana’s alma mater in offering prayers. “This is not just another occasion when people have gathered to pay homage. We are here because we want our children to know how important dreams are,” said Amit Behl, a Karnal resident.
Sanpreet and Smridhi had been looking forward to their role model’s visit to the school after her mission. “She had taken pains to see that we remained comfortable during our stay there (the US) and learnt as much as we could to pass on the knowledge to others in the school. It is difficult to believe she will never visit the school again,” wept Smridhi. “The President is the second person since Independence to tell us that we should dream big. Kalpana didi was the first,” cried Sanpreet.
Kalpana’s classmate from nursery to high school, Manju Singh, was inconsolable. “Kalpana had a premonition. She never mentioned her fears before this mission directly. But she had begun baring her soul to those she was close to,” she said.
In grief, Kalpana’s acquaintances sought solace in reminiscences. Narinder Singh, Kalpana’s neighbour, recounted the days when he used to drive her father around the town. “She used to constantly nag us with questions we simply could not answer. We knew she had interest in science but had no idea that she would reach so far,” he said.
“Had she remained in India, she would have become just another scientist working in appalling conditions,” he added.
But she didn’t remain just another scientist, and the state has pulled out all stops to honour Kalpana Chawla, the achiever. The district administration held a prayer meeting attended, among others, by Haryana chief secretary A.N. Mathur and Cabinet ministers.
The Haryana government decided to observe a two-day state mourning from today. The national flag will be flown at half-mast on all buildings and there will be no official entertainment. All government offices, boards and corporations, authorities, undertakings, schools and colleges will remain closed tomorrow.
The government announced an award and scholarships in Kalpana’s memory. Chief minister Om Prakash Chautala said a “Kalpana Chawla Memorial Gold Medal” will be given to the girl topper of the Class 10 examination. Five monthly commemorative scholarships of Rs 2,000 each would be awarded for four years to the best girl students in all the 31 engineering colleges in the state.
One of the women’s polytechnics at Ambala, Faridabad or Sirsa would be named after Kalpana to inspire future generations, Chautala added.
The chief minister called upon the Centre to confer a befitting award on the first Indian woman astronaut in view of her exemplary courage and significant achievements. A special meeting of the state Cabinet would be convened shortly to forward the proposal to Delhi.
The Punjab Engineering College, where Kalpana had studied aeronautics, will hold a condolence meeting tomorrow. Kalpana, who didn’t forget her roots even as she soared higher than most, had last visited her alma mater in April 2002 and interacted with the students.
Punjab Governor Lt Gen. (retd) J.F.R. Jacob announced in Chandigarh a “Kalpana Chawla Memorial Award” — Rs 25,000, a medal and a certificate — to be given to the best student of aeronautical sciences at the college to inspire future generations in Kalpana’s footsteps.
But the most touching tributes were paid by common men at the street corners of Karnal as they discussed what could have happened to cruelly cut short the life of “their Kalpana”. Kalpanaji hamare garv thi. Main 1995 se Karnal mein hoon. Kalpanaji ko jaanta nahi tha. Bus unke bare mein sunta tha, school ke bacchon se. Achha lagta tha ke ek Hindustani itna aage pahoonch gaya hai,” said rickshaw driver Ramesh, who has settled here from Bihar.