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India Astronaut Was Hero To Immigrant Americans

by Sandip Roy

Many Abroad Viewed Colombia Shuttle As Military Threat
(PNS) -- The greatest tribute to astronaut Kalpana Chawla came not from her colleagues, her teachers or even the president. It came from a radio newscaster who said that the shuttle Columbia was lost and all seven astronauts, six Americans and one Israeli, were feared dead.

Listening to the crackling radio through a sleepy haze, I wasn't even sure if Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-American woman in space, was among them. In death, she lost her hyphen and became simply an American.

In life, Kalpana Chawla was a hero in the Indian-American community. I have no idea whether she relished her role as the poster child of the diasporan dream. She seemed gracious about it, showing up at Indian-American functions and parades and putting herself out there as a role model. Like many immigrants, Indian-Americans tend to equate "making it" with money or influence. It's the standard we judge our heroes by. We lionize entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. We admire the highest-ranking Indian-American in the corridors of Washington. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, hotelier Sant Chatwal, self-help guru Deepak Chopra -- all our heroes earn millions and hold sway over millions.

But Kalpana Chawla was the old-fashioned kind of hero we dreamed about on still summer nights in India. When the electricity went out, as it did almost every other night, and the rooms got stiflingly hot in the smoky glow of the oil lamps, we'd lie out on the terrace. We'd stare at the patch of sky framed by the dark rectangles of buildings all around, and try to find the ploughs and lions and bears that lit the heavens above us. And we would dream about worlds far away and spaceships and life on Mars.

When Kalpana Chawla first rocketed into space in 1997, she too recalled how, as a young girl in Haryana, she would spend summer nights wishing she had a telescope to look at the stars she could see from her courtyard. At that time, India had not yet sent anyone to space. Removed from the great space race between the superpowers, we had to be content with our weather and television satellites, which were useful but not very romantic. When Captain Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian in space in 1984, piggybacking on a Soviet program, the whole country was electrified.

Cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma was an Indian. Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, though she grew up in India, was an American citizen on a NASA mission. Yet she remained a hero to both the Indian-American community and her old homeland. In a special issue celebrating the Indian diaspora in early 2003, India Today profiled prime ministers, technocrats, Nobel Prize winners and industrial tycoons. But for the cover they chose Kalpana Chawla, in her orange uniform. Half cut off by the edge of the cover, you can see the badge on her arm -- the American stars and stripes.

As the press coverage her death received in India proved, to Indians Kalpana Chawla remained an Indian, irrespective of what passport she carried. If some wondered why she had to leave India and become an American citizen to realize her dream, they held their peace.

I never knew Kalpana Chawla. But in her death I see the celebration of the immigrant dream. Though a nation of immigrants, America always seems to be wrestling with the notion of multiculturalism. Politicians and academics squabble and argue about the right temperature for the American melting pot. We have Asian-American month and Latino month so everyone gets their moment in the sun. Then we complain we are ignored for the rest of the year.

We talk about divided loyalties, wondering how you can be American if you still think of yourself as Chinese.

Kalpana Chawla showed us how. She went to space for NASA, to do U.S. experiments, not for the glory of India. Her loyalty lay firmly with the country whose citizenship she claimed. She never denied her roots -- but that was her past. She gave it her respect, but not her allegiance.

She knew she was a hero to millions of Indians and Indian Americans. She arranged for students from her old school in India to come visit NASA and even hosted them at her home. She knew well that Indians, whether in India or America, had a special place in their hearts for her.

She gave that place her respect, but never used it to further any agenda. When some blamed her for a botched experiment on her first flight, she didn't cry racism, call Indian-American dailies or hold a press conference. She just went on doing her job.

And in that job, on that spacecraft orbiting Earth, she was just an American astronaut, like her teammates. The radio newscaster recognized that. In the end, as she fell to Earth, she was simply "Chawla, Kalpana" -- just another American sandwiched between "Brown, David" and "Clark, Laurel."

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Albion Monitor February 7, 2003 (

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