The roar of traffic at Chembur Naka, R C Marg, opposite the landmark Jain Mandir never ceased. On a sultry, sticky Wednesday morning, with the April sun showering its rays on suffering Mumbaikars, there seemed to be a little breeze of deference and awe. That was for NASA astronaut US-based Sunita Williams, all set to visit the working women’s hostel managed by the Indian Council on Social Welfare (ICSW).
Green Carpet Welcome
A green carpet was rolled out for her and huge placards announcing her arrival drew hordes of curious onlookers to the venue. ‘Suni’ as she is called by her fellow astronauts in the US is in India, (she has already been to Delhi and Kolkata) arrived at 12 pm, to an audience of hordes of school children, ladies who live in the hostel, a phalanx of media photographers, supporters, organisers and a heavy police presence.
Mobile cameras flash
Drums beat as the astronaut walked in, looking a little overwhelmed at the crowd. She was flanked by a human chain on both sides, keeping her secure, while the waiting people went berserk, aiming numerous mobile cameras. Schoolchildren as little as 7 or 8, were rushing around with Sunita’s photo hoping for an autograph from the astronaut. In his welcome address, the Secretary General of the ICSW, N K Bhupeshbabu, prompted repeated applause as he spoke about Sunita’s sterling achievements and accolades.
To the sky
Bhupeshbabu said, “Sunita is especially interested in women's empowerment and projects for underprivileged women and children. She is the woman who has taken the name of our country to the sky.” Bhupeshbabu’s celestial address was followed by a short history of the ICSW and then, he added, “We are planning a number of scholarships for needy students and to adopt a backward village in Maharashtra, in the name of Sunita Williams.” This drew the loudest applause. It ended with a mention of how Sunita carried the Bhagvad Gita and an idol of Lord Ganesh into space.
Flower power hour
Sunita lit a traditional lamp and a slew of people clambered on to give her flowers. So many were these that at one time, one thought that the wiry Sunita would keel over with the weight of all those what we call during functions like these, ‘floral tributes’. While all this was happening, press photographers and assorted persons were still on a marathon picture spree refusing to move from the front of the dais, despite repeated requests. Sunita was partially hidden for persons in the back row, because of the people taking pictures upfront.
Sunita was invited to speak and if one could not see her, one could at least hear the astronaut. Sunita said, “It is really warm right now and there are a lot of people here to see me and I really appreciate that. I am very honoured to be here. I also appreciate the things being done here (ICSW) to make women a productive part of society. I have talked to a lot of women; last month in the US it was Women's History Month I was in Washington to talk to women.
I can see women in the workforce over here, nice and strong, there are a greater percentage here (in India) than in the US. My career has been a lot of fun and I am so humbled actually that so many people know what I do. I want to present a memento here (she gives a memento), which is about what we do in space and the space walks; it has all the other crew members of the space station. It also symbolises our international co-operation and I am so looking towards India’s participation in our space programmes.”
Bad hair days
Sunita looked at all the children milling around from across different schools in the vicinity, many of them stating they want to go to ‘antaraksh’ literally with stars in their eyes, and said, “I am so excited to meet kids -- interactive, imaginative and so motivated and I love to encourage them about their dreams to go into space.” She laughed as she said, “It is funny how Lord Ganesh always comes up here, when people talk about what I took to space.”
Sunita looked at the numerous women gathered to hear her speak and said, a trifle wistfully one thought, “I guess we all connect in some way. At one time, I had really long hair like so many of you here, I identify with many of the ladies here. Then, I chopped my hair because you did not want it floating around in space, I look forward to all of you creating the future in the near future,” she ended even as organisers asked her if she knew Hindi.
“I know some words,” said Sunita, “like namaste, and yes, I know ‘samosa,’” she said to laughs. Even as photographers were still shouting, “madam, madam” for her to look their way for pictures, Sunita was whisked away again with heavy security. She could not meet the children hankering for autographs or TV reporters who had to pack away their mikes.
Mummy not allow
Media professionals, denied an interaction because of the heavy rush shrugged and decided it is part of the game. Kids, who were initially disappointed, demonstrated the resilience of childhood as they started to chase their friends and cavort around the tree-lined space, with unsigned pictures of Sunita in their hands.
Two little girls from Chembur High School, Dikshika G (9) and Saavli G (8) grinned toothily when asked if they want to go to space. “Yes, we do,” they said in Marathi and then, Saavli added a little warily, “but my mummy will not allow me.” Maybe astronaut Sunita Williams, inspiration to so many little girls like Saavli could talk to ‘mummy’ about that.
Did you know?
>> Astronauts brush their teeth they way we do, but they have to swallow the toothpaste.
>> The International Space Station is getting crowded.
>> Urine is recycled into water in space.
>> In space, the food does not have to have crumbs as crumbs can float around.
>> There is liquid salt and liquid pepper in space.
>> Peanut butter and honey is the ideal space food.
>> A gravity-less atmosphere makes one’s body weak so astronauts exercise for a certain amount everyday.
>> Astronauts can work on their computers and receive email but they cannot surf the web in space.
US astronaut Marsha Ivins had spoken about the above points when on a visit to Mumbai earlier.