Mallika Sarabhai talks about father and scientist Vikram Sarabhai

Updated: Sep 17, 2019, 07:35 IST | Hemal Ashar | Mumbai

Mallika Sarabhai goes beyond Dr Vikram Sarabhai's celebrated space scientist achievements to give us a glimpse of the man and father

Mallika Sarabhai at the conference and tribute to her father at Nehru Science Centre yesterday. Pic/Ashish Raje
Mallika Sarabhai at the conference and tribute to her father at Nehru Science Centre yesterday. Pic/Ashish Raje

India's Chandrayaan 2 moon moment was all about so-near-yet-so-far, but speakers at a 'National Conference on India in Space and Nuclear Energy' at the Nehru Science Centre at Mahalaxmi on Monday were categorical about it not being a failure adding, "this is a historic year for India in Science."

The venue of the meet was well-lit, but the real incandescence came from the bright minds in the audience. The who's who of Science packed the national conference, which was held as a tribute to mark the birth centenary of the father of India's space programme, Dr Vikram Sarabhai.

School days

Mallika Sarabhai, Dr Vikram Sarabhai's daughter, renowned classical dancer and Padma Bhushan awardee was one of the speakers to give the inaugural address at the conference.

Sarabhai said, "I am overwhelmed by the love displayed for Papa. I remember I was five years old in Montessori then, it was my first day at school. We were told to sit in a circle and draw a face. I drew it but put the ears in the wrong place. A boy sitting next to me said to me in Gujarati, 'gadhedi che tu' (you are a donkey). I went home and told papa I am not going back to school. He sat me down and asked me: Mallika who are you? I said I am a little girl. Exactly, he said. You must feel sorry for a boy who cannot make out the difference between a little girl and a donkey."

As the audience listened rapt, Mallika said I learnt that, "Insults and humiliation are a sign of weakness in the other person not you, my father taught me with that reasoning."

Knife fight

Sarabhai, who is as deft with words as she is with her Bharatanatyam dance steps held her audience in thrall as she relayed another anecdote. "It was the 1970s and I was in school. Two older boys in school fought over whose girlfriend I was, and one of them actually knifed the other! I was nobody's girlfriend, I was 11 years old," recalled Sarabhai to her vastly amused listeners.

"Despite my protestations, my father was called to school. The principal happened to be my bua [father's sister] Leenaben! When my father emerged from the cabin, he was smiling from ear to ear. He told me, 'I never imagined I would have to have this conversation so early'. My father added, you are being blamed, though you are not at fault. People will say, somehow you must have egged these two boys on. Remember there are two kinds of people in this world. The first are those that live within the status quo. They never question and live comfortably within the roles delineated by society.

The second are those that live life their way, they are those who follow their truth. I have lived like the second group. These two decisions have defined my life."

Renaissance men

Plenty of adjectives flew around the hall from distinguished men of Science. They recalled the heavyweights of India's space, energy programmes describing Dr Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha as dreamers, visionaries and Renaissance men. Most compelling though were the human touches behind the accolades.

Vikram Sarabhai was 'Vikram kaka' to Professor S M Chitre, Homi Bhabha was a leader, "who made and surrounded himself with other leaders, not the type who thought only he could lead," said Dr R Chidambaram.

Because it was Science mixed with the personal, Mallika Sarabhai's sign-off, "I am Papa's biological daughter, but you are his family who keep his dream alive," touched a chord as the daylong conference and tribute rolled on.

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