The Chawlas' odyssey - by Josy Joseph Back   Home  
On February 1, just 16 minutes before the Columbia Space Shuttle was to make its scheduled touchdown at the end of its 28th mission, it exploded over Texas, at a height of 200,000 feet.

Lost in that explosion were seven lives, including that of Kalpana Chawla, 41 -- a horrific end to a life that had had its genesis in horror of a quite different kind.

It was sultry, and dark, on an August evening in 1947 when Banarsi Lal Chawla, then 14, lay on a railway track, thirsty, hungry, unconscious, and bleeding.

Around him, open coal wagons echoed with the cries of children, most of whom were living the final hours of their lives.

Chawla remembers that day in August 1947, when a fifth of the world's population was convulsed by Partition and forced to flee their homes.

"People were packed into the open wagons from 8am like potatoes. Hardly had it moved a few kilometres than the train was stopped at Shahdra, on the outskirts of Lahore. While my family, including my mother, was sitting inside the wagon, I had to be content with a perch on top of a joint between two wagons. That is where I got a place."

As the warm morning made way for a blistering hot noon and faded to evening, people began a desperate search for water. Food, by then, was a luxury not even thought of. Chawla joined hundreds of other men, women and children lining up to sip the dirty water that had filled the pits near the track -- water from the rains the day before.

He then returned to his perch, and that is all he recalls. Around 10pm, his uncle found Chawla unconscious, precariously close to the wagon wheel -- he had fallen off his perch in his stupor.

His uncle took him to yet another pit, gave him more dirty water to drink, and washed the deep gash in the same water. Chawla returned to his perch, his feet dangling down the side of the wagon's cabled joint, and continued his vigil along with several hundred others.

As night progressed, a mob that had gathered began firing, with the intent of avenging itself for the killing of Muslims in India. One bullet whistled past Chawla, brushing his ears. That hiss, of death passing within inches, remains a landmark sound among the many that comprise the noisy, eventful, maverick life that Chawla went on to lead.

He was 14 then -- and it was not even his first brush with death.

A few days earlier, as news of the massacres of Hindus in Pakistani villages began pouring in, Chawla, his mother, two brothers, and a sister had moved to Choorkana Mandi from their village Shehupura. With his father away in Bikaner on work, it was left to Chawla to lead the family's exodus from their ancestral village.

Despite moving to the safety of his uncle's house in Choorkana Mandi, Chawla couldn't get over the thought of his cattle, which were left unattended in the village. So he coerced his uncle to accompany him to their village to rescue the cattle. En route, an acquaintance met them and warned of mass killings, and pleaded with them to go back.

Chawla's uncle sent the boy back and went forward on his own. He never returned.

"I was saved because I returned to town," Chawla recalls, with little show of visible emotion as he talks of a past that changed his life forever. Chawla's exodus from the dusty outskirts of Lahore into northern India where he rebuilt his life was to peak when his daughter Kalpana became an astronaut.

Chawla saw Kalpana's achievement as vindication, as the final sign that the wounds of Partition had healed.

Kalpana's story is incomplete without the story of her parents, especially that of Banarasi Lal Chawla, who landed in the wilderness of Karnal a few days after August 15.

Chawla's father had been awaiting his family for days at the Amritsar railway station. It was a hopeless wait, since a group of refugees from Lahore had told him that his children and brother had been killed. Later, he was told they were alive -- and he did not know what to believe.

On August 18, at about 2am, when the open coal wagons sidled into Amritsar carrying hundreds of refugees, many of them dead, Chawla was into his sixth day of waiting. The family, now reunited, took a train leaving for Delhi, then the ultimate destination for the millions of refugees fleeing Pakistan.

The Chawlas -- the extended family at this point numbered 20 -- did not go all the way, but preferred to hop off at Karnal in Haryana, some 130 kilometres from Old Delhi.

The family moved into the first available vacant building: a mosque approximately 15x18 feet, with no doors and just a dirty well in one corner. Chawla and his father set out to seek food.

Chawla recalls cleaning up the 60-foot well and searching for a job, while his father teamed up with a relative and set up a small shop. However, the strain told on the elder Chawla, who fell ill a few months after the family settled down in Karnal.

For Chawla junior, that was when life began in earnest.

He remembers his first job, as an attendant in a shop that sold chutney and such. "I was to carry the big chutney containers from the rear of the shop to the front when customers required it. On my first day on the job, a big jar fell from my hand and broke. I was fired."

When he talks of those days, he is emotionless -- it is almost as if, having seen it all, having endured it all, he can no longer be roused by mere memories.

His next job was as an assistant in what was then Karnal's only automobile workshop (the town, in fact, had only a couple of motor vehicles), on a lordly salary of Rs 10 a month.

He worked eight months without receiving a naya paisa. On the eve of Diwali, Chawla asked his employer for his salary. He remembers the disdain on the face of the man as he thrust a Rs 5 note into his hand. "I didn't take the money. I ran away crying," Chawla recalls.

Amidst such gratuitous cruelty came brief moments of respite -- a colleague in the garage, for instance, gave him Rs 5 to buy new clothes.

Chawla's restless mind hit upon an idea: to manufacture small and cheap metal boxes for storage. He started making three to four boxes each day, an endeavour that fetched him around 10 annas.

After some months, he gave up box-making and started selling soap. "I carried them on my head, and went around the locality, " Chawla recalls. But when that too failed to click, he shifted to selling groundnuts and, later, dates.

He wouldn't give up -- that was not in his nature. Chawla moved on to selling toffee at Karnal station, his customers the refugees who continued to pour in from across the border.

It was then that he finally found his niche -- Chawla went back to making boxes, this time for the hordes of refugees who had thronged Karnal with nothing to store the rations the government was distributing. He began selling five to 10 boxes a day, and the business boomed as shops too began demanding his wares.

Shortly thereafter, he married Sanjogta Kharbanda, the educated daughter of a doctor who, too, had fled the horrors of Partition. As the business prospered, the family expanded -- daughters Sunita and Deepa came first, then son Sanjay, then the baby of the family, Kalpana, in 1961.

Sunita remembers the box-manufacturing shop. "The shop was there till I was in class 8," Sunita, who went on to secure a master's degree from Punjab University with a gold medal, recalls.

Chawla tried his hand at running a textile shop in partnership, but that did not last long. The experience, however, helped him set up an exclusive showroom of Binny Textiles, which dominated India's retail textile market before Dhirubhai Ambani came on the scene with Reliance.

The Binny's showroom was a major success, and Chawla admits earning "much beyond my expectations". It was during this period that Chawla bought a secondhand scooter for himself -- a rarity in Karnal.

A tyre burst, one day -- and again, the seemingly innocuous incident was to prove a turning point in the saga of the Chawlas.

"I went to Punjab for a new tyre. But they said it was not available," Chawla recalls. He asked his younger brother, who was staying in Delhi, to get him one, but failed again. Finally, Chawla went to Delhi and began scouting the capital's markets for a new scooter tyre.

Near Gurdwara Rakabganj, Chawla finally found someone who could get him a new tyre, but on two conditions: he had to deposit the amount in advance, and wait for a few days. It was weeks before Chawla finally managed to procure the tyre he needed.

Most people, in such situations, would have fumed. Chawla, tempered by his trials, pondered the shortage of tyres in Indian markets, then dominated by foreign brands such as Goodyear and Dunlop.

"Immediately after returning to Karnal, I advertised for people with the technical knowhow of tyre manufacturing." Many applied, fully as many scoffed at his idea of setting up a tyre-manufacturing plant with self-designed machinery and told him only international companies could do it.

Chawla, however, found two young engineers willing to buy into his quixotic idea -- and that was the genesis of Super Tyres.

The new factory was located a few kilometres from Karnal, on the road to Delhi. "After about one and a half years, when the machines were being assembled, both the engineers left the job."

By then, Chawla had sunk all his money into the project, his children were growing up, and he was out of funds.

His younger brother came visiting from Delhi. "Your ship is sinking," the brother said. "When the ship sinks, the captain also goes with it," Chawla responded.

The younger brother returned, in tears, to Delhi -- then called his brother and told him to go ahead and not worry about the money. With his brother's support and his family's backing, Chawla pushed ahead. He hired new engineers, continued designing machinery, and refused to give up when the early prototypes failed.

Finally, in 1969, Chawla's machines began functioning.

Chawla believes his was the first company in Asia that produced tyres with "indigenous technology". Whatever the merit of that belief, Super Tyres began cutting into the market share of the majors.

Meanwhile, his children were growing up, and proving to be intelligent. In fact, Chawla saw nothing special about Kalpana, in that respect -- eldest daughter Sunita is a gold medallist from Punjab University.

Chawla by then was leading a hectic life, travelling extensively within India and outside, visiting his offices around India and attending tyre exhibitions in Europe and the US.

Son Sanjay joined the Karnal flying school, and Kalpana, engineering classes. Ironically, by then Chawla was so busy he was unaware his youngest daughter had opted for aeronautical engineering -- of no use to the owner of a flourishing tyre business. "I thought my son and Kalpana would join me in the business," Chawla recalls.

During a break from studies, Kalpana accompanied her brother to flight school, but the authorities demanded she get the written consent of her guardian. Chawla refused consent. As Sunita remembers it, Sanjay was to give Kalpana some valuable advice: "Everyone fights their own battles."

Chawla was in the US when Kalpana learnt that she had topped Punjab University in the engineering finals, and was offered a job in her own college. But she had already begun applying to several American universities, and was accepted by the University of Texas for a master's in aeronautical engineering.

Her father was away and in the male-dominated household, no one else could take a decision. So Kalpana went back to Punjab Engineering College and took up a teaching job.

"I returned after two months and reached Karnal late one evening," Chawla recalls. "Kalpana was supposed to be home, but she wasn't. I asked about her. She is in Chandigarh, I was told. And then, someone said, anyway why are you asking? You don't have time for her."

It triggered a family revolt, with his wife, whom Chawla calls “liberal and advanced” and the three elder children ganging up on behalf of their baby of the household.

"I asked them what she was doing in Chandigarh. They said, why don't you go and find out?"

Early next morning, on August 26, Chawla reached Kalpana's hostel in Chandigarh, but she wasn't there. So he went to the college to visit the principal, whom he knew.

"Chawla, you have only money, nothing else," the principal said, and told the astonished father about how brilliant Kalpana was, and that time was running out if she was to get into a US college.

Chawla and the principal walked over to where Kalpana was taking classes. "She was writing on the blackboard, with her back to the class. After a while, she turned, wiping the chalk dust off her hands, and as she turned, she saw me.

“She walked up to me in tears and said, Papa, you have destroyed my career. You never have time for me."

The date was August 26 -- and the last date for admission to Texas was the 31st of that month. Kalpana had no passport, no visa, no tickets, nothing.

Chawla cried, tears of genuine distress. And through his tears he asked his daughter, "Do you want to go to the US?"

"Yes. I will go on my own money," Kalpana replied.

"You can do that, but I can fund you, as well," Chawla said.

"Anyway, now I can only go next year," his dejected daughter said. "I have no passport, no visa, nothing."

If his life had taught him one thing, it was to never give up. Do you want to go this year, Chawla asked his daughter. Yes, Kalpana said.

"Then come with me," he said, telling her to resign from her job that instant.

Kalpana was reluctant, fearing that her father would force her to join Super Tyres. "She thought I was trying to trick her into coming back to Karnal, and once there, I wouldn't let her leave," Chawla recalls.

Pulling every string he knew, drawing on all his accumulated goodwill, Chawla got his daughter's passport the same day. A day later, the visa was organised. On August 28, Kalpana, accompanied by brother Sanjay, boarded a British Airways flight at midnight.

The story was to take another twist, when the flight was first delayed, then cancelled.

The Chawla family, which had gone to see Kalpana off, was in tears. But Chawla, even then, did not know the meaning of failure. He began calling friends in the US, and finally arranged for Kalpana to be admitted behind schedule -- in fact, the university even organised a pickup for Kalpana and her brother from the airport.

Shortly before Kalpana took off on her ill-fated last flight her father, now deeply into religion, philosophized about his youngest daughter's achievements.

"Good things happen in families where good people are born," he said.

He recalled how, when his father Lala Labhamal was around 45 years old and still struggling to establish himself after the trauma of Partition, he met a guru and became his disciple. He built a matth in Karnal and ran it till he was 85. He died in 1997 -- the same year that Kalpana took off on her maiden space sojourn.

Nirmal Kutiya continues to be run by his disciples, providing succour to Karnal's poor.

"My mother was old and weak, but she would work several hours with my father, preparing rotis for the poor," Chawla says. When she died, over 10,000 people -- many of whom had eaten the food she had so lovingly prepared -- turned up for her funeral.

The family tradition of serving society is now being carried on by Chawla's younger brother, Amrit Chand Chawla. The industrialist from Mumbai has left his factory to managers and spends his time in Karnal, where he runs a well-furnished old age home for some 160 people, and a school where around 2000 poor children are provided education and basic necessities free. He also provides some 700 poor families a monthly allowance to meet their needs.

Meanwhile, a second generation was growing up -- and taking inspiration from Kalpana's odyssey from Karnal to outer space. Megha, a standard five student, told this correspondent shortly before Kalpana took off on what was to be her last voyage, that she wanted to be an astronaut like her aunt.

Till the evening of Saturday, January 31, the story was pure Horatio Alger -- a man who survived untold horrors and went on to make a fortune; and his daughter who, against the odds, went on to make her name in one of the most challenging of careers.

Today, that daughter's life, her achievements, ended in a fireball that destroyed her spacecraft. And left behind, by that explosion, is an old man who, finally, finds a tragedy too great for even his innate stoicism to withstand.
Published in On February 1, 2003, Kalpana Chawla and six other astronauts on board the Columbia were killed when the space shuttle blew up on re-entry.