“As your bight an’ tiny spaaak
Lights the tavelle in the daak,
T’ough I know not wat you aaa,
Twinkle, twinkle, little staa.”

Little Pallavi finished reciting the poem she was practicing for her kindergarten interview, on a sultry Sunday noon. She was to attend an interview, conducted by the St. Francis’ School of Primary Education, one of the most sought-after schools, in the north-western suburbs of Mumbai.

“That’s very good, Pallavi,” her father smiled, taking the tea cup handed by Pallavi’s mother, “You love the star song, don’t you? You shall love your new school too.”

Pallavi smiled, a familiar twinkle in her eyes. She had watched the school grounds in wide eyed amazement, the week before. It was way grander than her preschool.

Pallavi was a gifted kid. An early speaker with an inquisitive mind, she was quick in grasping her milieu. Her father, a lecturer of Physics, with Mumbai University, had noted her keenness and had begun channelling her intellect early on. So little Pallavi grew up hearing stories of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. Her mother introduced her to classic epics.

“We shall be delighted to have her with us, Sir!” the Principal said, after Pallavi’s interview. And so began Pallavi’s journey with the books, her friends, she would cherish all her life.

***

The Sunday Times flashed a headline in the city section: Mumbai girl wins national science competition held in Nehru Science Centre. Thirteen-year-old Pallavi had bagged yet another laurel.

“So, how shall we celebrate?” her mother enquired. “Oh! We can visit the planetarium again” Pallavi suggested.

It was her favourite haunt. She would lose herself gazing at the starlit roof. The secrets held by celestial orbs, holding one another and moving in predetermined paths filled her with a wonder, and longing, she couldn’t explain or contain. She knew most of the constellations and could easily discern some planets on a clear night, a rarity in cloudy, polluted skies of the city. Her father would often take her on night treks, on new moon nights, for a good view.

However, these trips became less frequent as Pallavi got busier with her studies. Her parents shifted their attention to her younger brother, Akash. In her spare time, Pallavi would construct planetary models for him.

On one such visits to the science centre, Pallavi learned of International Astronomy (junior) Programme organised by the centre. Three students would be selected in this nationwide programme, to represent India at the International Astronomy (Junior) Olympiad. Pallavi turned to her mother in excitement, who smiled grimly and said, “Let’s see what father says.”

At home, Pallavi eagerly awaited her father’s arrival. She was done with school work, and helping her mother with dinner, when he arrived.

“How was your day?” Pallavi enquired tentatively. “The usual. Did you enjoy your trip? Anything new there?” Pallavi smiled and gushed out “It was great… You know Baba, they are having an astronomy programme at the centre, where they train students for this International Astronomy Olympiad.” Then looking at her mother, she added, quietly, “We were wondering if I could join.”

“It’s great dear, but you have your boards coming up next year…”

“So, this is my only chance for the junior level. I know I can do this”

“Pallavi, I don’t have any doubts of you qualifying, but you are old enough to understand the economics of our house. The course fees are manageable, but I’m not sure of the centre sponsoring your trip to the Olympiad, and it isn’t possible for us to afford it.”

Pallavi nodded silently, trying her best to hold her tears. Her father drew her close saying, “What was it, that your favourite rocket man had said about dreams, Pallavi?

“That which has been imaged will surely and certainly be manifested.”

“And the one of the little shots…”

“A big shot is a little shot who keeps on shooting, so keep trying.” 

“That’s my little shot! We have a long way to go.”

***

Pallavi sat pondering over her preference form, to be filled out for admissions into engineering colleges. For a merit topper, she was spoilt for choicest options. But her heart kept tugging her towards the pure sciences, just like her father. She was expected by her teachers to join premier engineering institutes of the country, each with well segregated courses; electronics, computer sciences, IT, mechanics being the most popular. Aeronautical engineering courses were offered by fewer institutions.

Though she knew what she wanted in the depths of her heart, the advice from her seniors were all far shot. Good secure job, good pay, settling down were the words she heard most often. Her mother’s voice being one of them, “You have to be realistic Pallavi, we can’t lose our footing to soaring aspirations, lest we end up falling flat on our faces.”

But her father’s silence, bothered her more than her mother’s dampening response. He was aware of her ambition, but also of the tediously long and expensive journey that lay ahead.

He, however, refused to dwell on the difficulties. The physicist in him, would always look out for the most elegant solution to every problem life, posed.

“I have looked through most curricula offered in our country, and I feel you should strengthen your foundation in pure science.”

His wife stared aghast. “But she’s cert for any top engineering college, why settle for anything less?” she argued.

“She can do both,” he replied.

“Have you thought how long it would take? She’ll lose out on opportunities when batches younger than her get out.”

“She can do both at the same time,” he smiled.

Pallavi looked up, “Do you have a secret time machine, we don’t know of, Baba?”

He laughed, “No, but there’s the BITS!”

So, of all the brilliant possibilities lined up for Pallavi, Birla Institute of Technological Sciences, took the preference as it offered dual degrees. In case of Pallavi it was Bachelors’ degree in Mechanical Engineering and Master’s in Physics.

***

It was in her last semester, that destiny dealt Pallavi a double whammy. Her father who was now a respected professor, was suspended for being flippant in his response to the new Dean’s address, that spoke of rich Indian heritage in science as documented in mythology. An apology letter was demanded of him, which he politely refused, which cost him his job. A month later he suffered from a stroke that left him paralysed from the left side.

Pallavi was away during these episodes, but she felt the gravity of the situation at home, from miles away. Akash was just appearing for his boards and had his whole education ahead of him. She took it upon herself to look for possible job opportunities both in campus placements and outside. The circumstances and her regard for her family’s well-being, had driven her aspirations out of her mind. She had already taken up teaching in night college.

One evening she received a letter from her father in a white envelope one side of which read ‘Per aspera ad astra.’ She opened it to find an application to the Technical University of Munich, Germany. It was offering her a full scholarship

***

Ms. Pallavi Sawant.

32, N. L. Complex,

Dahisar East,

Mumbai.

3rd June 2010.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am a twenty-four-year graduate of the Birla Institute of Technological Sciences, India, in the field Mechanical engineering and a Master of Science, Physics.

I write, with the hope of meeting your expectations as a possible candidate in the astronomical research programme offered by your institution.

As a student, I have been proficient in theoretical and technical aspects of a subject, that I consider the divine language of creation.

As a person, I have been brought up to appreciate the invisible forces that hold together and expand our universe. I believe they hold more magic than any other illusion, our limited observation can behold. This narrows my focus for future studies to astronomical research, particularly pertaining to survivable systems for extreme environments.

I believe the knowledge and experience offered by your prestigious institute, can fuel the fire of the wings of my imagination.

I have attached with this letter of motivation, my credentials, publications and recommendations kindly bestowed upon me by my able mentors, for your kind reference.

Sincerely,

Ms. Pallavi Sawant.

***

T minus 10… 9… 8… 7… 6… Ignition sequence starts… 1… Ignition … and we have lift off!

Pallavi closed her eyes, as the words of her favourite rocket man echoed in her ears, “That which has been imaged will surely and certainly be manifested. You can rely, young man, upon this ageless promise as surely as you can rely upon the eternally unbroken promise of sunrise…”  She wondered, if this was what being born felt like.

Below, stood a proud man, feeling the heat of the exhaust from Voyager-25, on his face, dearly wanting to raise both his hands in blessing, but could only feebly move his left one.

***

Glossary:

Per aspera ad astra: (Latin) “through hardships to the stars”

Rocket man: Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

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Written by Sai Surve-Rane

Sai Surve-Rane is a periodontist and a mother with unspent literary energies.