Banarsi Lal Chawla is the father of four: Sanjay, Sunita, Deepa, and Kalpana Chawla. In this conversation, he talks about Kalpana, and walks us through her journey, and his part in it.
An Obsession with Airplanes
There’s a Flying Club in Karnal, where pilot trainings take place. And during these trainings, sometimes the pilots or instructors happened to fly over our house.
Kalpana was 3 or 4 years of age when she saw an airplane flying over our house in Karnal, and asked me when I came back home from work, “Papa, how do airplanes fly?” I said, “I don’t know.” Then she asked, “Can I look at those airplanes?” I told her I’d try.
In those days, I had a shop in town, where I crafted iron trunks and such. About two- four months before she asked me about the airplanes, a couple of men came to my shop in a jeep, and asked to meet me. They asked me if I would be willing to work for them. And I told them I would definitely help, if I were capable enough. Something was wrong with their plane, they said. I laughed and told them I’d never even seen a plane before, how was I supposed to work on it? Nevertheless, I told them I’d try. They asked me to come along, so they’d show me the plane, but I told them I was already working on something, and would only be able to come once the project was over. So they came to fetch me a couple of hours later. Once I reached the flying club, they pointed towards the plane, and told me that the door of their plane wasn’t working properly. Every time this would happen, they would have to call someone from Safderjung in Delhi, and often, it ended up taking up to three months to sort out the problem, due to which the pilots in training would suffer. It took me a few hours to fix it, but I got it done. Upon realizing this, the captain was very impressed, and asked me for a bill, but I refused to take payment. He then came with me to drop me at my shop in the jeep, and handed me his card.
I recalled this instance when Kalpana asked me that question; I called up the captain, and asked him if it was possible that she could see the airplanes, and he was happy to oblige. The next day, I took Kalpana and Romy (her older brother) to the flying club. She kept asking questions about the functions of the airplane, and the captain was very excited. He offered to give us a ride on the plane and we flew all over Karnal.
That was the point when she got obsessed with airplanes. She’d sketch them on papers, or make cut outs- even in school when she had spare time. This obsession eventually led her to realize she wanted to study aeronautical engineering. For her pre-engineering, she went to Dayal Singh College for the first year, and DAV College for the second year. After that, she applied to Punjab Engineering College, where two professors interviewed her- one of whom, Prof. K.K. Garg, recently made a video, “Learning from Kalpana”.
Anyhow, her two professors told her that this subject had no future in India, and that it was futile for her to pick this subject. They tried to convince her, instead, to pursue mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and the sort. KC, however, was determined. In the two-hour-long interview, she refused to budge, and finally got her way. But while studying this subject, she realized her professors had been right. Aeronautical engineering had no scope in India; it did, however, have scope in America. So she applied to three universities, out of which two of them accepted her application. By then, I’d become quite a large scale industrialist. I had absolutely no time. I had 24 sales offices in the country, and there could’ve been times when I traveled between four different cities on the same day. So when KC graduated from PEC, she was simply waiting to meet me, to tell me that she’d been accepted, and to ask for my permission to go abroad. She returned to Karnal after completing college in PEC. But I had no time. And the times that I did come to Karnal, I’d reach home around 10 or 11pm, exhausted, and she told herself that she’d just talk to me the next day, each time.
It’d been a month since she’d been trying to meet me and talk to me, when one day at night I was about to leave Karnal again, and she hurriedly came out to the car and asked me when I’d be back. I told her I hoped to be back in a month, and she said, “Okay, papa. We’ll talk when you’re back.”
For a month, she was patient. But as soon as that month got over, she started getting angry at her mother, and eventually, on 3rd August, she told her mother she’d go to Chandigarh. She refused to stay at home. So she went back and asked the faculty of her college for a job.
I returned on 26th or 27th of August, and asked her mother where Montu was, as soon as I reached. She told me KC had gone to Chandigarh. It was about 10pm, so I’d already asked the driver to go home, and there was no way for me to travel to Chandigarh. I sent someone from my office to his house, and asked the driver to come in the morning at 8am. The next morning, I left for Chandigarh. Upon my arrival, I went to the Principal’s office, and asked him to take me where KC was. His friend was sitting next to him, and he asked his friend, “Do you know who he is? He’s Mr. Chawla. He has money, but that is all”. He asked me to sit, but I simply asked him to take me to KC.
When we reached her class, she was teaching, with her back facing our side. The Principal told me that only a few minutes were left, so we stood in the corridor, waiting for her.
When we returned to the class, Kalpana stepped out and ran towards me. She hugged me, crying, and told me, “Papa, you ruined my career. You have no time. I don’t know how you managed to come here, even.” I asked her how I’d done that, and she said, “Where’s the time? You don’t have time for me.” I hugged her, and tried to calm her. I asked again, “Tell me, please, how’d I ruin your career?” She let go of me, ran to fetch a paper, and came back quickly. She handed her admission call letter to me. That was 28th August, and the last date for admission was 31st August. In her call letter, they’d mentioned that they were only allotting the subject to her keeping her career in mind, as they didn’t usually allot it to foreigners. I wept- and when she realized that, she suppressed her anger. She said, “Let it go, papa. Whatever had to happen, happened. You’ve ruined my career now. I’ll go next year, and I wont even ask you for money.” She started crying again. I realized that there were still 3 days to 31st August. I said, “Why would you go next year? Why not this year?” She said, “I don’t have a passport, or a visa. I’m not even mentally prepared.” I said, “Everything else is my headache. All you need to do is mentally prepare yourself.” When she heard that, she realized I meant it, and given my stature at that point of time, I would’ve been able to arrange it, too. She replied within seconds, “Yes, papa. I’m prepared.”
So I took her to the Principal, and asked him if there was any condition for him to relieve Kalpana of her duties. He said that all he needed was a resignation letter. So I asked him for a sheet of paper, and handed it to Kalpana; she started writing it. Right before she was about to sign it, she asked me, “Papa, you won’t take me to Karnal, will you?” I told her, “No, I’ll go to drop you to America tomorrow morning.”
I called up the DC of Chandigarh, who was a friend, using the phone from the principal’s office. I told him Kalpana needed a passport, and he asked me to come right away- he would help. His office was on the first floor of the building, and on the ground floor itself, was the passport office. We reached and found out that he’d kept all the documents prepared, and all we needed to do was fill out the forms and sign. He told me we needed the DGP’s signatures as well, who thought of me as an elder brother. So I rang his office, and told him I needed his signatures, and he came hurriedly. Once all the documents were ready, we headed down to the passport office and gave them the documents. Upon realizing that I was with the DC and the DGP, the head of the office speeded up the process. So we headed over to the DGP’s home and waited.
While we were having lunch, someone from the passport office came and delivered the passport to us; we left for Karnal. Upon our arrival, her mother came rushing outside, happily exclaiming, “Kalpana’s here!” I told her, “She hasn’t arrived; she’s leaving. I’m going to drop her to America tomorrow.”
Romy, her elder brother, came out at this point, and offered to go instead. So the three of us went to Delhi Romy, Kalpana, and myself. Right before their airplane was about to take off for the States, when the pilot was checking everything, he found a fault in the aircraft. We waited for a few hours, and at 5am, they declared that the airplane wasn’t working, and asked all passengers to deboard, and had them stay at Oberoi Continental Hotel. When I reached there, Montu saw me and asked, “Papa, what will you do now?” I told her “Even God can’t stop your admission. Give me your all your forms”.
I rushed to my sales office in Delhi, and called a friend in America. I gave him all the details and references, and asked him to get the admission done, if possible. So he told me I needn’t to worry, and that he’d go personally and get it done, and would inform me as soon as possible. By the time I headed back to Oberoi, they told me that all the passengers had been escorted back to the airport, as the fault had been rectified. When I reached the airport, I saw the airplane taking off; I returned to Karnal.
When Kalpana and Romy reached there, someone had come from the university to pick them up- my friend had requested the principal that they arrange for something; and Kalpana said to Romy, “Papa’s magic works here too.”
She didn’t look back after that.
When she went in the second term, there were about 80- 90 experiments that had to be tried.
There was a scientist, Dr. Angel, who was a professor in the Colorado University; his experiment was MIST, and this experiment was due to be tried on day 12, out of the 16 day mission. Kalpana wasn’t there for this mission- she’d worked for 16 hours before this, and was resting; her colleagues tried for 12 hours to make it work, but for some reason, the machine wasn’t working. Doctor Angel was extremely sad, because after 12 hours of exhaustive work, they’d declared that the machine didn’t work, and their duty was over. Dr. Angel was found talking to his colleague and saying, “The failure of this experiment has caused the entire universe to be affected.”
At this point, Kalpana found out that the experiment scheduled for the day had failed, and heard Dr. Angel’s comments that followed. So she called him up from space and asked him if she could give it a try. He was ecstatic. She understood the sketches he’d made, and started working on it. It took 5.5 hours, but the experiment finally started working, and Dr. Angel got the results he’d wanted. He was dancing- as were his colleagues. The environment was euphoric. He told his colleagues he’d come to meet her and thank her personally when she would land, four days later.
Upon realizing that the spaceship had crashed, Dr. Angel shut the door, and refused to step out of the house for a month. Finally, on 28th, he came out and wrote a letter to Kalpana.
He came to meet me in Karnal, and delivered the letter by hand.
28 minutes before her crash, she sent across a message to her college students, and it’s currently exhibited in PEC.
“I have KC’s spirit in me”
They came to meet me- that young girl with her mother, along with the media. They went straight to the school first, where Kalpana used to study, and she didn’t recognize anything. Then they came to see me- about 7-8 people. The lady from the media was very clever. She pointed at me and asked the girl twice or thrice, “Recognize him. Who is he?” Upon getting no response, the lady got irritated. The girl got annoyed too, and left. Then they fed the girl toffees and chocolates and came back, and tried to ask her again, “Who is he?” But of course, how could she have known? So I asked her kindly, “What is your name? How did you come here?” She didn’t answer that, either.
Her parents were laborers. I told them, “Get her here, we’ll educate her.”
The next day, the newspaper read, “Kalpana’s father refused to meet them”. So I called the lady and scolded her. She profusely apologized. But they didn’t retract that story.
This one time, she got really late in meeting me, and I got annoyed. She said she had had work. Upon inquiring what work she had, she told me she had to get her sandal repaired. I told her, “These days, people don’t even get TVs repaired anymore. Is a new shoe that expensive? I haven’t even seen a repair shop around. How much did you pay him?” She said, “Papa, there is one shop, about 20 miles away. I’d given him my shoe to repair, I’d gone to pick it up.” She said she paid him $12. I asked her how much a new shoe cost. “$10”. I told her, “I don’t understand your mathematics.” She told me, “Nobody goes to him to get shoes repaired, and he stays hungry. I gave him $12 today, he wont be hungry. And now I have a repaired shoe, which will last another four years. On buying a new shoe, we’d have killed another animal.”
All she had in her room were books. She used to sleep on the floor, and had no furniture. When we used to go to meet her, we used to tell her jokingly, “You’re a miser.”
All the money she made was either spent on her own tuition or to help others study.
When she was about to leave, we reached very late. All of us combined hardly had 45 minutes to talk to her. Our flight reached 36 hours late- there was fog in Delhi. By then, the time to meet her had gone, but she’d told her we were going to come, so they arranged something especially for us. But for that, they’d called a panel of doctors. If we were found to be fit, we would get to meet her. So all of us got tested, and luckily all of us got through- but we got very little time to talk. So a few days later, NASA arranged for her to have a video conference with us while she was in space, for which we went to the control room. When she joined the call, I jokingly said, “We’re old people, Montu. You couldn’t have sent a plane over to us? You could’ve done that much.” She started laughing, and said, “Can I show you something?” She took out a photograph from her pocket and showed it to us. It was a picture of her mother and me.
When she’d gone, I asked NASA to show me her office. Her laptop lay open on her desk in the center. There was a toy airplane kept sneakily on the side. On the other side, there was another picture of her mum and me.
NASA’s chief, O'Keefe, gave a lecture on 7th May, the year she died. He spoke very little about the topic. Everything else was about Kalpana.
Once a man came to meet me- he’d taken an international flight to Delhi, and then a cab to Karnal. He told me, “Kalpana taught me.” “Where are you from?” “South Africa” I laughed. “Kalpana reached South Africa?” He said, “She had a lecture in our university. Once college got over, I tried to find her to talk to her, but I couldn’t find her. Once I did, I told her, "I can’t do whatever you’ve suggested in your lecture”. She sorted my issue out in very simple words: “Now it’s my problem, not your problem”. She kept sending me money, helped me complete my education. I got a job, I earn well. I miss her, but she isn’t here. Who do I tell? So I’ve come to meet you.“
For the duration of her flight, we stayed at her home. She’d kept a note next to her table that said, "While you’re here, you have to do my work. You have to feed the birds.” And there were many feeders next to the window, each labeled with numbers. And she’d mentioned which feed needed to be kept on which date, in which feeder. “Don’t let the birds die”, she’d written.