Why India loves Sunita Williams

BlogHer Original Post

Recently, I noticed a peculiar pattern while conversing with my parents in India. Our chats over the phone (and emails) almost always began or ended with a mention of space shuttle Atlantis and Sunita Williams, the NASA astronaut aboard the spacecraft, who was returning to Earth after a six-month stint at the International Space Station. The number of mentions (and the urgency in their voices) peaked as computers failed at the space station, and the spacecraft's return was delayed. Once those glitches were fixed, Florida's inhospitable weather kept Atlantis from landing again and again, and my parents worried more and more. When it was becoming obvious that Atlantis would have to land at California's Edwards Air Force Base, my parents were curious: “Is the weather in California okay?”

Now, my parents, like many Indians (including me) are in awe of anybody who's taking a walk in space and looking down on Earth. But knowing well my parents' reading and Internet surfing habits, it was obvious that their reaction was a reflection of the general mood in the country. And that, no doubt, was being set by the media and what they were covering.

The Atlantis coverage in India can only be rivalled by America's predicament over the most appropriate punishment for the erring Paris Hilton. Or for that matter the recent frenzy in India over Bollywood's so-called royal wedding of superstars Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan.

The Atlantis returned to Earth safely on June 22, and India celebrated.

The coverage throughout was incessant. Every major newspaper (The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Hindu and DNA, to name a few English-language publications) and television channels (NDTV, CNN-IBN, ZEE, etc) followed Williams and the Atlantis relentlessly. Online news portal Rediff.com had a special section dedicated to her journey back home aboard the spacecraft.

Families remained glued to the television and school children prayed for her. Check out these pictures Sepia Mutiny put together.


What's interesting, however, is that most stories about the Atlantis weave around one astronaut on board: Sunita Williams.

No doubt Williams deserves a good deal of our attention. On June 16, the mission specialist beat astronaut Shannon Lucid’s spaceflight record of 188 days, four hours set in 1996, setting a new record for the longest spaceflight by a woman. Williams also became the record-holder for most hours outside a spacecraft by a female.

But India's obsession with 'Suni' seems to stem less from the enormity of her and the crew's achievements and more from her first name, Sunita, that undeniably connects her to India. Sunita's father was Indian-born, and she has relatives in the western border state of Gujarat, India.

Now that makes her Indian enough for an entire nation to claim and celebrate her achievement as its own.

Williams feat follows that of Indian-born American astronaut Kalpana Chawla who died on her way back to earth when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on February 1, 2003. I recall sitting in a New Delhi newsroom and watching the disaster on television. I recall a strange sinking feeling as I wondered about the journey Chawla made from the neighboring state of Punjab to NASA, and then to space, and never came back. Indians mourned the loss of their daughter from Punjab. They didn't want another inspiration with Indian roots to meet the same fate.

What is it about us Indians? Why can we not stop basking in reflected glory? Why do we feel so inclined to claim anyone with an Indian “connection”, however tenuous, as our own? Are we so desperately in need of world recognition?

Or maybe, we just don't have enough of our own to idolize. Maybe we lack enough role models.

No, wait, maybe it's opportunities that we lack. As smart a woman as I may be, I probably will have to leave behind my land of spices and travel to the U.S. and get picked by NASA, if I harbor any dreams of walking in space. So we have to let go our ego about Indians turning to the U.S. to suceed and just take comfort in the thought that given the right opportunities, we too can excel.

The scenario gets more complicated when the achievers themselves want to claim their Indian roots. As Sunita Williams said:

I am half Indian and have got a - I am sure - group of Indian people who are looking forward to seeing this second person of Indian origin flying up in space. So, it is nice to know that everybody brings along with them a group of people from all over the world to get interested in space. (CNN-IBN)

Or as her jubilant father Deepak Pandya remarked:

I will not call her Miss Universe. I will call her India's daughter.

She also recorded this video from the spacecraft for her fans in India soon after she was conferred the India Abroad Publisher's Award for Excellence for 2006 in New York City on March 23.

Maybe our roots run too deep. Maybe we truly believe in the ancient Indian ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (loosely translated, “The whole world is my family”).

Or maybe we have a problem. Tavleen Singh writes about “Our Sunita Complex” in The Indian Express:

Sunita Williams brought out the worst in us. Through no fault of hers, she reminded us of how very Third World and second rate we are and how desperate for recognition from the West...Our inferiority complex manifests itself most sickeningly every time someone with one drop of Indian blood gets recognition in the West. Sunita Williams is not Indian. She is as American as apple pie but we claimed her...Sunita’s is not a mediocre achievement, it is a real achievement, but to think of it as an Indian achievement is not just absurd but embarrassing. She has done her country proud and that country is the United States of America. Not India.

CNN-IBN had a marathon debate about how 'Indian' Suni's achievement really is and why we should care or not.

This debate is more than necessary. But I hope we don't lose sight of the remarkable women that Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla are. If Indian women (and men) find an American with Indian roots worth going gaga over, so be it. If these women have inspired several millions of girls and boys to dream big, Hallelujah!

But like the Tavleen Singhs of India, I am waiting for such remarkable opportunities to show up in India: the day when these ambitious boys and girls don't necessarily have to pray (and work hard) for NASA to spot them. Maybe ISRO (the Indian Space Research Organisation) will some day take some of us for a walk in space? Amen to that.

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