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I want to start today by answering one particular question you had- How can a girl from a small town in Haryana dream of becoming an astronaut and going to space? How is that possible?
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Darkest Nights; Brightest Stars”. The story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The fourth winner of our December 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Navya Mastanaiah.
Shayra settled down excitedly. The next class was Science and she eagerly looked forward to it every day. Soon, Ms. Kalpana walked in, clad in her trademark starched cotton saree, her long black hair done up in an elegant bun and decorated with a fragrant string of jasmine. She put her books down on her desk and smiled at the eager class. She had an exciting assignment for them.
“As part of a program called Letters to an Astronaut, each of you will get the chance to write to the astronaut, Kalpana Chawla. The best letter will be selected to be sent to Ms. Chawla so she can reply.” Ms. Kalpana announced.
Just last year, Kalpana Chawla had become the first Indian woman to go to space as part of the six-man crew on board the space shuttle Columbia. Chawla’s achievement had been even more special for Shayra’s school, Tagore Bal Niketan, as Chawla herself had been a student of the school many years ago. The entire school had even listened to a special telecast of Chawla’s interview from Houston where she had uttered the famous lines “You are just your intelligence.”
Now, Shayra listened in rapt attention as her teacher described Chawla’s story. Ms. Kalpana had a unique gift for storytelling, often transforming boring science concepts into interesting stories. There was hardly a student in the entire school that did not like her. Ms. Kalpana had taken a special shine to Shayra- she had first met Shayra when she had started teaching science to the fourth grade and Shayra was merely nine years old. The youngster’s earnestness and diligence touched Ms.Kalpana’s heart right away.
“What will we write about, ma’am?” Ashok piped up.
“Anything! What it is like to be an astronaut, what it is like to travel in space, what it is like to go to America……you name it!” Ms. Kalpana replied.
“How will the best letter be selected, ma’am?” Anusha asked
“All of you will get a chance to write an essay about how Ms. Chawla inspires you. The best essay writer will get to write a letter.” Ms. Kalpana replied.
Shayra stopped listening after that and began imagining her essay. She raced home after school that day and began to pen her thoughts. That night, Shayra sat at her desk, writing away, as her father struggled to stick fluorescent stars on the low ceiling of her room. She had been pestering her father to purchase these stars for her for months and he had finally gotten them for her. Imran Malik worked as a mechanic at the nearby car factory. His days were long- too long to justify the meagre paycheck he received. Yet he persevered, if only to earn enough for his son and daughter to have a decent education. Even buying these fluorescent stars for Shayra had taken him months of scrimping and saving. But none of that worry showed on his face as he perched precariously on a rickety stool and stuck the last of the stars on the ceiling. “There! All done!” he jumped down and smiled at his thirteen year old daughter.
“Thank you, baba! Quick, turn off the light. I want to see how they sparkle!” Shayra said. Imran smiled and switched off the tube-light. Father and daughter stared entranced, at the ceiling, which now shone like the night sky. The twenty or so fluorescent stars pasted on the ceiling glowed proudly, almost transforming the ceiling into a celestial canvas.
“Thank you, baba! They look gorgeous!” sighed Shayra.
“You are welcome, laado….but why these stars? You could have asked for anything else for your birthday, but you wanted these stars…..”asked Imran, truly puzzled.
“I am going to become an astronaut, baba. Ms. Kalpana told us all about them- how they travel to space, how they do exciting things for the World, how rockets are built. It sounds so exciting, baba-I cannot wait to grow up and become one!” Shayra replied.
Imran glanced at his teenager in the dim light from the fluorescent stars above, her jaw jutting out in determination much like his did at times. His heart ached at her earnest dreams, knowing that in his current financial capacity, he could not even dream of fulfilling any of them. In that moment, he sent out a silent prayer to the Universe, desperately wishing for his teenager’s dream to come true.
“I am sure you will grow up to be a great big astronaut, Shayra. Let these stars guide you there and let them remind you, always, that on the darkest nights, the brightest stars shine forth…” Imran hugged his daughter, wiping away a small tear.
Shayra wrote late into the night and only finished as the first rays of sunlight hit her room. The deadline to submit the essay was that Friday and the results would be announced on Monday. Shayra fidgeted all weekend, wondering if she had won. At school assembly on Monday, she was delighted when Ms. Kalpana called out her name. Her heart sang with joy as she walked up to the dias to be congratulated. Her mind was already formulating her first letter. As the school year progressed, Shayra finished writing her first letter with a little help from Ms. Kalpana. Shayra wrote a humungous ten-page letter describing her life and peppering Ms. Chawla with questions about space and NASA and what-not. Finally the letter was done and posted.
Two months later, Ms. Kalpana handed a light green courier packet to Shayra.
Finally! Ms. Chawla had replied! Shayra read the letter eagerly.
Dear Shayra, thank you so much for writing in. It is a pleasure to know you and to know that such a bright girl is studying in my Alma Mater. You have asked so many questions that were I to sit down and answer all of them, it is going to take me months! So I’ll try to answer them in bits and pieces.
I want to answer that with an example. A couple of years ago, while training for our mission at NASA, I was assigned to fly along with an air-force pilot in a fighter jet. We were cruising along the coastline, heading back to the air-force base, when everything in the cockpit shorted out. Now I was seated behind the pilot and I didn’t know what had gone wrong, but I could sense he was stressed. I asked him what was wrong via the headset and he replied that there was some kind of electrical malfunction that had caused the lights in the cockpit to go out. Worse, we could not even contact the base because the malfunction had taken out our radio too. As we sat there, considering our options, we glanced down to find the most beautiful sight- a fluorescent green carpet right beneath us. It was the algae! You see, certain algae in the sea are bio-luminescent, meaning they shine in the dark. And right now, the algae were shining, illuminating the path back to the base for us. We managed to follow this path and made it safely back to the base.
You see, Shayra, we were panicking. With no lights and no radio, we were out of options. Yet, the Universe conspired to show us a way forward. If you work hard and you dream enough, even on the darkest nights, the brightest stars show up- just like that algae did for us!
So work hard and dream big, Shayra! Let the stars show you your way!
Shayra finished reading the letter and looked up at her teacher. She blinked away tears and smiled. Her teacher smiled back at her. Unspoken yet understood was the agreement between both to see Shayra excel.
Over the next couple of years, Shayra wrote regularly as part of the program. She always handed over her letter to Ms. Kalpana and always received a light green courier packet as a reply two months later. Throughout her school years, the letters acted as her inspiration, her invisible guardian angel. Five years later, when Kalpana Chawla’s death on the shuttle Columbia was reported, Shayra wept bitterly. It felt like she had lost a sister, a dear friend and mentor. Shayra clutched the last letter she had received from the slain astronaut, resolving doubly hard to become an astronaut, come what may!
… Twenty years later
“Please welcome on stage, the first woman to go on an ISRO manned mission, Dr. Shayra Malik!” Shayra strode onto stage to the sound of thunderous applause. She gazed out at her old school auditorium, filled to the brim with students and teachers. In the front row sat her parents and brother, smiling broadly. Next to them was Ms. Kalpana, dressed in a pastel pink starched cotton saree and sporting the biggest grin on her face.
“Thank you, headmaster. Thank you, everyone, for turning up today. It is a great privilege to represent this school and to be back here to accept this prestigious award. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the guardian angels I have had along the way- one of whom is sitting right here. Much like she teaches you tough science concepts every day, she taught me a long time ago that it was OK for this small-town girl to dream. She kept alive my dream of becoming an astronaut and showed me the way forward, even when I was convinced there was no way forward.
When I was a little girl, she convinced me to write letters to astronauts, as a way of inspiring me. I found out many years later that the letters never reached NASA- that the program was canceled after the first year. And yet, she never even breathed a word to me. Just kept on letting me write my letters and kept on giving me the “replies” to these letters. She probably never knew how I treasured each letter- how I slept with those letters under my pillow, dreaming of becoming an astronaut. In my darkest times, when I didn’t even have the money to study further, I looked to these letters for inspiration. I have even taken these letters up into space with me!
They say that on the darkest nights, the brightest stars shine. Today, it is only because of this bright star that I am able to stand in front of you, as a proud member of India’s astronaut core. So, please, join me in welcoming your amazing science teacher, Ms. Kalpana, on stage!”
Shayra finished with a big smile and glanced at her teacher. Ms. Kalpana looked shell-shocked at having her ruse discovered. Her surprised face dissolved into an impish grin as Shayra jumped off the stage and strode up to her. “You thought I didn’t know?” Shayra said with a smile, leaning forward to hug her.
Ms. Kalpana could only nod speechlessly, glowing in pride at her former student.
Navya Mastanaiah wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: YouTube
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