As part of a grieving global community I mourn equally the loss of the seven astronauts. But as a mother of three girls, I somehow feel as though in Kalpana Chawla, the ill-fated Columbia’s space scientist, I have lost an unknown daughter. The term that most closely describes what I feel for that incredible girl is saanjhi beti, a commonly shared daughter.
For years, as a parent of exclusively girls, I have known the close attachment to my sister’s son to whom we often refer in our robust Punjabi language as saanjha puttar or shared son. Raising my three girls, I have never felt the need for a son, but I have certainly longed for a fourth daughter. Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women series imprinted upon me early in my youth the romantic dream of marrying a “Larry”-like male and giving birth to four daughters. Larry’s approximate version materialized. But both the onset of age and embarrassment at adding indiscriminately to India’s growing population came in my way of attempting to realize the dream of having a quartet of daughters. Perhaps it was time to fill that unrealized aspiration. And how much better could one expect to do than reclaim Kalpana as that fourth daughter?
Houston and NASA were unknowns to our generation until suddenly, the Kennedy promise of landing a man on the moon came alive before our astounded eyes. Since that watershed moment when we watched Neil Armstrong on our television sets taking “a small step for him but a huge leap for mankind,” both space and space science have become more accessible, and more commonplace. Treating them now more like everyday occurrences, we don’t rush to see live pictures of space and its human travelers on our home televisions. Planet Earth offers too many other preoccupations and seductions to follow who went into space, for how long, and with what effects and benefits they provided collectively for humankind.
Disaster has a way of compelling attention. With the landing just 16 minutes away, when the space shuttle self-destructed in front of one’s eyes, the world seemed to come to a halt. Suddenly we felt the loss of not one, but seven family members. As we metaphorically gather their ashes, and pray for their souls, strangely Kalpana forces her presence into my psyche and jaded defunct womb as almost mine.
As daughters go, she was extraordinary. With none of the elite Indian school and college legacies behind her, growing up in a small town Karnal, Kalpana dared to dream big and lived out that dream, calling it a day by age 42. That is an age when many are still working to find themselves or their destinations. Even in her childhood, she talked “one day of going to the moon.” Predictably, those who heard her could hardly take her seriously. Karnal is light years away from admission to the select crew of the space shuttle, yet she traversed that distance in a short time, managing to find a berth in not one but two space missions.
Among Hindus the concept of rebirth is overpowering and adds hope that wherever Kalpana is, there are eager wombs waiting to be her carriers and nurturers. It is exhilarating and humbling to think she could be biologically, not only emotionally, ours. Every time I see her face flash by, I see a parent like me, visioning a future for her baby girl different from what I myself or my mother before me could imagine. Kalpana stretched the bar to beyond earthly spatial limits. Even while she was alive, in her hometown she had inspired a whole generation of school students struggling to learn the basics of physics. To encourage them to soar high like she did, she had arranged for two students from the school to visit NASA ever year. Older and wiser, she never failed to reach out to the awe-struck students and others who decked her past or inspire those who had set themselves to follow her path.
While she was up there scanning the stars, her successors at the Karnal high school worshipped and celebrated her model self as a human star. Now with bits of Columbia scattered all around, it is difficult to imagine her journey has ended and she lies like a shining star resplendent in the glory of isolation in space. Yet breaching that vast distance, I know Kalpana carries bits of us mothers inside her, as the saanjhi daughter of a shared motherhood.
Neera Sohoni is a freelance writer and author, and shares her residence between the SF Bay Area and New Delhi, India.