India mourns woman with dreams

KARNAL (India): When she left here more than 20 years ago, it was not what small-town India expected from its young women. They were – and in most families still are – supposed to get married, have babies and settle into lives dictated by generations of tradition. 

But in one wealthy factory-owning family, the youngest daughter chose something different. Kalpana Chawla's choices took her from her hometown of Karnal to a doctorate in aerospace engineering, to a life in Texas – and to the weightlessness of space. 

On Saturday morning, Chawla, 41, was one of seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, scattering debris across hundreds of square kilometres. 

In Karnal, a drab industrial town where cars jockey for space on pitted asphalt streets with buffalo carts and bicycle rickshaws, Chawla had long been a hero. On Sunday, under a chilly, steel-gray sky, she was mourned like one. 

Dozens of people stopped by her childhood home, and hundreds gathered at her high school, Tagore Baal Niketan, to pray at a makeshift shrine. In the Hindu tradition, incense burned in front of her photograph, which was draped in garlands of marigolds. Later, more people came for prayers outside the town's administrative offices, where a shrine was set up in the parking lot. 

Most of Chawla's immediate family was in the United States for her planned Saturday landing.  

Chawla, who became an American citizen in the 1980s and had spent little time in Karnal in recent years, was still honoured as a daughter of her town. 

Her 1997 space flight, the first by an Indian-born woman, had made her a powerful symbol of achievement. 

“It was a very great loss for our county,'' said Vivek Nagpal, an 18-year-old graduate of the Tagore high school. “She proved that nothing is impossible.'' 

Much of Chawla's journey, though, was difficult. 

Technical mistakes Chawla made on the 1997 flight caused a satellite to tumble out of control, forcing other astronauts to retrieve it on a spacewalk. Nasa later acknowledged that crew instructions may not have been clear. 

“I stopped thinking about it after trying to figure out what are the lessons learned,'' she said later. “I figured it's time to really look at the future.'' 

The mishap did little to her image in India, where her career was closely followed in the media. 

In Karnal, Chawla's mottos – dream, persevere, succeed – have long been repeated like an inspirational creed. – AP  

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