While clearing out my daughter’s cupboard drawers I came across some newspaper cuttings which took me back in time. It was the year Kalpana Chawla died. My daughter was in Class 11, in the school the astronaut had studied in. During her meteoric rise, KC never missed an opportunity to give back to her alma mater. As a goodwill gesture she had arranged for two students from the school to participate in the annual summer camp organised by the International Space School Foundation in Houston. Students from 20 countries participated in it and officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hosted them in their homes. During the camp the participants got a chance to interact with astronauts and were treated to a conducted tour of the NASA facility.
Traditionally, students who got selected received a passing mention in the local newspapers. But that year was different. Kalpana Chawla’s death on the Columbia Space Shuttle had made her and NASA a household name. A few months later my daughter and her friend got selected for the Summer Space Camp. The stage was set and the audience primed. The drama that followed was sheer madness and explains why we get the news we deserve.
It started quite innocuously. A local newspaper carried the report of the girl’s selection to NASA, forgetting the detail that it was a summer camp for high school children. It would be a lie to say I did not puff up with pride when I heard that my daughter’s picture was in the papers. The news was picked up by a few more local papers, and by the next morning the story had become bigger. We excitedly bought all those newspapers and read about our daughter’s ‘lofty’ achievements. As more dailies joined in, the story became more incredible. Now my daughter was not only going to NASA but being trained to be an astronaut Kalpana di ke adhure sapne poore karne ke liye (to fulfill Kalpana di’s unfinished dreams). A few days later we learnt that she was going to the moon, no less. Whereas earlier we had been thrilled by the media attention, it was now becoming an embarrassment.
The electronic media joined the fray and the two teenagers were interviewed by various news channels. My daughter had been nervous during her first interview but gradually got used to the attention and handled questions like a pro. As the date of her departure approached she made it to some of the national dailies. Their news report was more matter of fact and not as effusive in praise, but the fact that it was on the front page was news enough! Proof that they too had joined the band that was playing to the gallery!
The hysteria continued. On the day of their departure we were told that our house was thronging with well-wishers and the telephone was ringing incessantly. This was far from the truth. People in our social circle knew it was just a summer camp so weren’t exactly ‘giddy with happiness’. After they left for Houston the hoopla subsided but as the return date approached a reporter asked me what we were planning for beti ji’s aavahan (daughter’s welcome). I noted the ‘ji’ with some concern and sheepishly told him we weren’t planning to go to the airport. He was astonished. How could we not welcome our celebrity daughter back? He told me some news channels were planning to interview her in the arrival lounge itself. This revelation caused a moral dilemma and once again reason lost. Worried that we would come across as uncaring parents we rushed to receive her. We were playing to the gallery too! Amid flashing cameras we hugged beti ji, provided the necessary sound bytes and brought her home. My husband wondered if we should throw a party in her honour — a suggestion I refused to consider.
The show was far from over. The ‘nation wanted to know’ about her training. One newspaper earnestly reported that the focus at the camp had been on practical skills and now the girls could go to Mars in a NASA space shuttle. To be fair, the statement was not totally baseless. That year the students’ project was titled ‘Mission to Mars’. But any sane person would know it was but make-believe. Sixteen-year-olds cannot become astronauts in a fortnight! While this report could be attributed to poor research, some others were propagated because they suited the mythical character that had been created. For instance, they wrote that my daughter aspired to become an aeronautical engineer when she had insisted she wanted to be a designer. Similarly they had reported that she danced on a ‘patriotic’ song at a cultural event just because it sounded good.
Like any such news story this one too died a natural death. For years since we would nostalgically recall our brush with fame. Dancing to a ‘patriotic song’ became our code for stretching the truth. I started reading reports of ‘rejoicing relatives’ and ‘ringing phones’ with a pinch of salt. Occasionally some patient of mine would ask if my daughter had returned from the moon, reminding me of the power of the media.
I now phoned my daughter and asked her if she wanted the newspaper cuttings. A happily married jewellery designer, she refused and, chuckling loudly, added that though she had trained for an expedition to Mars she would rather stay on earth.