Monday, January 31, 2011

Eight years ago today.

          February 1 2003 was a Saturday. ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM) who was a journalist with the Mumbai edition of The Times of India (TOI) left office as usual around 8 p.m. and walked towards the bus stop at Hutatma Chowk to take a bus home.

          Around 9 p.m. BMM reached home and Usha, BMM's wife, said that she had just received a telephone call from her friend, Roshan, who was watching TV, that space shuttle Columbia with Kalpana Chawla and six others on board had lost contact with the mission control centre at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. Usha also recalled Roshan telling her that all attempts to contact Columbia by the mission control had failed. It was clear at that moment that the worst had happened to Columbia.

         BMM grabbed a quick dinner and rushed back to office. Resident editor, Dina Vakil, immediately asked BMM to collect the max info through its sources and contribute to the coverage of the Columbia tragedy focussing mainly of course on Kalpana Chawla. BMM had done a number of reports about Kalpana and managed to access the exclusive interview with Kalpana which it had done in December 1997. This was published in the following day's edition of the TOI.

         When BMM reached home around 1 a.m. on Sunday February 2 Usha said that our daughter, Rimanika, was deeply affected by the death of Kalpana and she broke down, crying uncontrollably for a long time. Rimu learnt about the disaster only around 10 p.m. on Feb 1 because she was spending the evening with her friend.

         BMM recalls that in May 1995 Usha and BMM were at the Johnson Space Centre on a tour. When BMM inquired about Kalpana, the young tour guide, smiled, blinked and admitted that she had not heard about her!  Nothing really surprising. However, she requested BMM to give her name in writing saying that she would come back once the interview was firmed up. Yes, she honoured her committment and sure it was firmed up. But when? The very day Usha and BMM were heading from Lexington near Boston to New York's JFK International Airport to catch the return Air India flight to Mumbai.

         But the opportunity finally arrived in December 1997, a month after Kalpana's maiden voyage in the Columbia, BMM managed to get a tele interview with Kalpana. Prior to the interview there was a lot of correspondence with the Nasa public relations office. The interview was fixed and Nasa officials calculated the time and said it would be only for 10 minutes starting at 1 a.m. (IST)!  It was a Thursday.

         The TOI telephone operater who was on night duty had to be requested to stay back to provide the connection to Houston. BMM reached office around 12.45 a.m. and asked the operator for the connection. The night shift editorial team were wondering why BMM had returned to office so late!   In two minutes the telephone rang in the small room in which BMM worked. BMM picked up the receiver. The voice at the other end said: ``Hi. This is Kalpana Chawla!''

         BMM introduced itself and after a brief exchange of pleasantries the interview started. Kalpana most politely and patiently answered all the questions including about the fact that there were complaints about her performance. What was supposed to be a 10-minute interview lasted for nearly an hour.

        The next day which was a Friday, BMM filed the interview and submitted it to Dina for her evaluation. She called me and said it was extremely boring because she could not understand anything!!!  Despite the fact that she found it boring she splashed it on the front page of TOI the next day which was a Saturday. The interview made a splash when top space scientists from all over India were attending an Aeronautical Society of India meeting at what was then Hotel Juhu Centaur. The scientists said that they liked the interview very much.

         Years later when BMM was in New Delhi with Usha and Rimu along with Usha's brother, Ramki, from Singapore to attend a ceremony where BMM's dad received the Padma Vibhsuhan. BMM was staying at the Asiad village and knew that Kalpana's family--her mom--were staying somewhere nearby.It  inquired with the driver who asked BMM to wait and returned in a minute. He asked BMM to accompany him, and took it to the next block of flats and rang the door bell. Yes, it was Kalpana's house. Though BMM had gone without advance info, everyone at home was most polite. BMM took her mom's autograph on all the books BMM had purchased about Kalpana.
         After a few days, we visited her sister, Sunita Chowdhary, at her flat in New Delhi and took a no of pics. Sunita gave a number of CD's about her celebrated sister. That time there was a plan that BMM would do a bio of Kalpana, but it never materialised. 

         Nehru Planetarium had organised a meeting with the family members of the ill fated crew members of Columbia which BMM covered for the TOI. But, for reasons unknown Kalpana's husband was not present.

         This is story of BMM and Kalpana.

          Now BMM is attempting to get a fiction written by a space buff Danial Guiteras called ``Launch On Need,'' which is about the Columbia disaster.

          BMM is heading for Strand Book Stall,


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