It was bad enough that George W. Bush could not correctly pronounce Kalpana Chawla’s name when he addressed the nation after the American spaceshuttle, Columbia, crashed on Saturday. So, it was just as well that the South AsianJournalists’ Association put out the correct pronunciation of Chawla’s name on its website on the very day of the shuttle crash. “PRONUNCIATION: KULL-pah-na CHAO-la (“kull” rhymes with “hull”...“pah” rhymes with “pa”...“CHAO” rhymes with “ciao”)”, SAJA pointedly informed those who consulted its website. SAJA — a professional networking group of 800-plus journalists of south Asian origin in the United States of America and Canada — did not refer to the mispronounciation of the Indian name by Bush, possibly because Americans are now used to this sort of thing from their president. But the SAJA website noted that “journalists and senior government officials have been mispronouncing the name” of the Indian-American astronaut. It added for good measure, “MEANING OF HER NAME: among the meanings in Hindi — a dream, fantasy, something that is almost impossible to attain”.
The presidential mispronounciation, no doubt unintended, did nothing to stem the tide of grief across America which poured out as news spread that Chawla and her six fellow crew members in the shuttle did not survive its crash. It caused no real harm. But not so with a story which the Associated Press put out within hours of the disintegration of the spacecraft. That story — a brief look at the six Americans and Israel’s first astronaut aboard the ill-fated space shuttle — devoted two paragraphs each to the commander, Rick Husband, and the Israeli pilot, Ilan Ramon, and one paragraph to each of the five other astronauts.
All that AP had to say in that story was as follows: “Kalpana Chawla, 41, emigrated to US from India in the Eighties and became an astronaut in 1994. On her only other spaceflight, in 1997, she made mistakes that sent a science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts had to go on spacewalk to capture it”.
Was this a time to find fault with someone who had met a heroic death, even if the allegation were true' That was the kind of story which had the potential to sow seeds of doubt in the mind of readers that maybe, just maybe, this third-world astronaut had done something wrong again, and because of that, Columbia is gone!
The fact is that Chawla’s “mistake” on her maiden flight, which was widely reported at that time has since been discounted. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration exonerated her fully after a thorough investigation into the incident. The consensus was that her mistake occurred because instructions to the crew may not have been clear. That was why NASA kept Chawla on in the astronaut program. After all the brouhaha was over, when Chawla went to her alma mater, the University of Texas, she told the university newspaper: “Some of the senior people, the very senior astronauts, shook my hand and said, ‘K.C., you did a great job. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.’”
Reading the AP story, the conviction grew that when it comes to Indian achievers abroad, India has to do a lot more to trumpet them. Not just diplomatically, but in every possible way. In her death, Chawla did more to raise India in the American and world consciousness than anything since the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government proudly took the country into the nuclear club in 1998. For three days running, India has been dotted all over the pages of American newspapers. And has figured at hourly intervals on television screens across America.
The quality of the Indian Institutes of Technology are now famously acknowledged in the US. But who in America would have paused to think about the quality of basic science education in Indian schools — not all schools, of course — if Chawla’s death had not brought to light a conversation between her and T.P. Sreenivasan, India’s ambassador to Austria, who represented India at Cape Canaveral during the lift-off of the Indian American’s first space-flight in 1997'
Vajpayee was one of the first leaders to be alerted about the Columbia tragedy. How he came to know about the mishap about 15 minutes after mission control in Cape Canaveral lost contact with the space shuttle is another story, which must be reserved for a later occasion. But the prime minister tried to put a call through to Bush as soon as it became clear from NASA’s video-tracking of the spacecraft that it had disintegrated. Vajpayee could not get through to Bush because the US Secret Service did not allow the president to fly to the White House from Camp David — where he was spending the weekend — in the light of the Columbia crash. They were not sure at that stage if terrorism was involved or if the US skies were safe for the president.
The White House motorcade was winding its way through the narrow, undivided roads of the Cacoctin mountains when Vajpayee placed his calls to Bush. By the time Bush got to the White House it was too late in the night in New Delhi for Vajpayee to be able to talk to the president.
On Sunday morning, American newspapers and television stations from coast to coast reported that Vladimir Putin had conveyed his condolences to Bush. So did Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Jean Chretien of Canada, among others. Even Cuba’s condolences and Fidel Castro’s decision to fly his nation’s flag at half-mast at its United Nations mission in New York — the only location in America where Cuba’s flag is officially allowed to flutter — was widely reported. But not a word about India, although, by that time Vajpayee, who could not speak to Bush for reasons of logistics, had sent him a letter.
So had the president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Those in the White House who have seen Kalam’s letter to Bush are all praise for Kalam, with whom America has never had any interaction. “As a member of the space community”, Kalam wrote, “and also as the President of India, I feel deeply pained to learn about the great loss...It all started with the courage of the brave human beings, starting from persons including the Wright brothers, who gave marvels in aerospace exploration harnessing it for the benefit for all humanity”, he added.
The reference to the Wright brothers was particularly touching for Americans who are preparing to celebrate the centenary of their flight. Coming from someone with Kalam’s background, what he was writing had a very special significance on last Saturday. And yet, all that effort was plainly lost on America. Monday’s newspapers dismissed in passing that Vajpayee, along with Pervez Musharraf and several other heads of state, had spoken to Bush.
The inability to be upfront and have a public persona even when circumstances warrant and favour such action points to a serious shortcoming within the Indian government: the inability to coordinate its actions or disseminate information worldwide. Such a handicap is not confined to crisis or emergency situations as during the last weekend. The problem is chronic and deep. On Saturday, for instance, Reuters circulated a report filed by its Moscow correspondent which said that Chawla was the first India-born astronaut ever. Irate Indian Americans wrote to Reuters to say that the report was incorrect.
Why is it that the flight aboard the Soviet Soyuz-T11 spacecraft of the Indian air force squadron leader, Rakesh Sharma, in April 1984 is not even a matter of record to be accessed easily' When the Reuters report on Saturday stirred up a controversy, this columnist went to the website of the Indian Space Research Organization. Despite the best efforts, no information could be found on Sharma’s maiden flight. On one web-page, about landmarks in the Indian space programme, there is a listing against the year 1984: the first Indian made his space flight that year. But no name nor any detail whatsoever about that historic flight.
Most countries, including the US, make heroes of their astronauts, but not India. When Sharma was asked by Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, to describe what India looked like from outer space, he replied: “Saare Jahan se Accha!” But can a country which treats its heroes thus, really live up to Sharma’s words to Indira Gandhi'