Sameer D Shaikh/Pune
On February 1, 2003, Indian-origin astronaut Kalpana Chawla and her nine colleagues at NASA were returning to Earth in from space. Suddenly her spacecraft caught fire. Kalpana and others died in the accident. A 12-year-old Karishma was watching this scene on her television set from her house in a small village in Baramati, Maharashtra.
For the first time, Karishma realized that 'we can go to space'. She wanted to become an astronaut like Kalpana Chawla. “Kalpana Chawla died, but she gave me and millions of girls the dream of becoming an astronaut. After this incident, I was obsessed with becoming an astronaut.”
The Moon had always fascinated Kalpana as the arrival of Eid was linked to it. She knew that there was a way to reach the moon. She says, “I first told my Abbu about my dream of becoming an astronaut. I started collecting information on this. My parents used to bring me literature and books on space. Back then there were no 'Astronauts Clubs' in Baramati. I came to know that there is an organization like 'The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA)' in Pune. I insisted on going to Pune with my parents.”
Shahrukh Khan in his film 'Om Shanti Om' says, 'Tum kisi chiz ko agar shiddat se chaho, to sari qayamat tumhe us se milane me lag jati hai… (If you want something passionately, then the entire universe goes into making it happen.)' Karishma was also passionate about becoming an astronaut and things kept happening in that direction. Vidya Pratisthan Institute, Baramati, had organized a five-day lecture series in which experts from all over spoke with the students.
Karishma’s Abbu Sallahuddin Inamdar told her that senior scientist Dr. Jayant Narlikar would be coming there. Karishma wanted to meet Dr. Narlikar and ask him a lot of questions.
Karishma Inamdar at work
On the day of the lecture, Karishma went to hear Dr Narlikar. She was excited, for the person whom she wanted to meet was visiting her village.
However, after the lecture, Dr. Narlikar was surrounded by people and the little girl could not make it. She says, "Dr. Narlikar was surrounded by elders. It was not possible to cross them and reach Dr. Narlikar. I stood aside a bit disappointed. Dr. Narlikar started leaving. Meanwhile, his eyes fell on me. I raised my hand. He stopped and said, 'If you have any questions, write it down on a piece of paper write your address below, and give it to me.'
“I immediately asked my father for a pen and paper and wrote a question about 'Black Hole' and my address and handed it to Dr. Narlikar. I had never thought that such a big scientist would accept a letter from a little girl.
“After three months, a letter addressed in my name was delivered. it was from Dr. Narlikar. I was on cloud nine. He answered my question about black holes in detail. There was something more important in the letter. It was his advice and guidance. He gave me some advice on how to pursue my passion for space. At that time Google was new. He explained to me that I could use Google to gather more information about space. I was overwhelmed by that letter. It gave me clear direction and also boosted my confidence,” says Karishma.
Karishma is the eldest child of her parents. She has a brother and a sister. Her primary and secondary education was in the Marathi medium. She completed her engineering degree in Electronics and Tele Communication. She was not there just to score marks in the examination; she wanted to acquire knowledge and apply it.
She kept a close eye on the Space Challenge Competition held at IIT Kharagpur. She says, “Many researchers and scientists used to present their research papers in this competition. It contained their email IDs. I used to write down those email IDs and ask questions to these researchers. I had an idea that researchers don't answer questions vague questions like, 'What do I need to do to become an astronaut?' Therefore my question was very specific. I loved reading about 'space junk' and finding solutions. So I would ask questions about it. These researchers also used to answer my questions in great detail. I gained unique knowledge from this conversation.”
Karishma presented her dissertation at IIT Kharagpur in the final year of engineering. She got admission into a master's degree and also a fellowship at the International Space University of France.
Karishma had never gone out of her village alone and now she was supposed to go out of the country for studies. She was also worried about the money that was required for her to go for higher studies. There was the pressure of settling down in a marriage.
Karishma didn't want the great opportunity to let go. In a letter she wrote to her father, 'Let me go abroad for higher education. Let my childhood dream come true. Not only I but all of us had seen this dream. It is only because of your support that I have been able to achieve this success. My dream is about to come true, this time also you stand with me. When I return after completing my studies from abroad, I will marry anybody you choose for me even without seeing his face!'
Her Abbu agreed but it was not easy to convince her mother. Karishma says, “I went and sat in front of my mother. I made her realize that we had very little time left to make a decision. I became very emotional. For three hours I was crying and explaining things to her. At last, her heart also melted. It took me two months to convince both of them but I did not lose courage.”
Karishma's father Sallahuddin Inamdar, who was a senior clerk in the private college, sold his land to raise money for his daughter’s education.
Karishma Inamdar addressing students on her website
Karishma says, “Even after selling the plot, the money was not enough Somehow. Baramati MP Supriya Sule and Sharad Pawar got this information. Sharad Pawarji took the initiative and provided me with financial assistance.”
Karishma says, “In France, I used to try to save money even while buying essential things. I always told myself that I had to work very hard. And make ‘our’ dream come true.”
After her studies, Karishma got the opportunity to work as a research assistant in the American space agency NASA.
She says, “I had two big job offers at the same time. One is NASA and the other is Germany's space research agency DLR. DLR is considered a very prestigious institution in space research. I looked at both offers and decided to join DLR. My friends were surprised by my decision. They felt that I should not miss the opportunity to join NASA. But the scope of the topic I wanted to research was more in 'DLR'. That's why I rejected NASA's proposal outright. However, due to a delay in submission of documents in DLR by my university, I could not get admission there and I had to join NASA.”
At NASA Karishma joined as a research assistant. She got the opportunity to do research with stalwarts about whom she had read only in books. She says, “My seniors never made me realize that I was new and still learning. They used to ask me my opinion during every research. This gave me a lot of confidence.”
Today, Karishma is working as a 'space roboticist'. She says, “As I started doing research, I realized that this is just the beginning and ‘Sky is also not the limit’. In filmi language, ‘Yeh to trailer hai, picture abhi baki hai…’ I want to fulfill my dream of becoming an astronaut. My efforts are continuing in that direction. I have completed the pilot training required for an astronaut. The next two or three years are very important for me. After that, Inshallah, my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut will come true.”
Karishma Inamdar in library
Karishma believes that her parents have played an important role in her success. Her father Salauddin Inamdar says, “Karishma had set her goal since seventh-eighth class. She was working very honestly. We parents are witnesses to this. So we were ready to risk everything to make her dream come true."
Karishma has become an inspiration for many. When she comes to her village Baramati, she is surrounded by children and youth. She guides thousands of students there.
She says, “As soon as they come to know that I have come to the village, many people come to meet me. I see more girls among those visiting me. When they say, 'I want to become a researcher like you', the sparkle in their eyes makes me happy. I am their favorite Didi. I am not a big researcher, but whenever I get a chance, I try to provide some guidance to the new generation.”
Karishma did not stop at just giving opinions. She started the Online Space Programme for the new generation of India. Along with some of her research colleagues, he has started the 'The Next Space Generation' initiative.
She says, “There are many organizations and activities abroad that foster children's curiosity about space, guiding and encouraging them from an early age. But there is a lack of such activities in India. For this reason, we created 'The Next Space Generation' program. It also has a proper website. Through this, we give information about space to children. We gave them a variety of activities regarding space exploration. This initiative of ours, which is being taken as a social responsibility, is getting an excellent response from boys and girls across the country.”
She says, “A stereotypical image of the Muslim community has been created. Often people think that a Muslim girl is imprisoned at home. We all need to get out of this stereotypical mentality. I come from a religious Muslim family background. I am religious myself. My family and I have studied religion deeply. Islam dictates that 'even if you have to go to China to get an education, go.' My family felt that it was a crime to prevent their daughter from pursuing higher education. So I think maybe his being religious made my path easier.”
Regarding this, Karishma's father says, "We never made any difference between boys and girls. My religion prevents discrimination. Rather, it commands us to impart good knowledge to children. So we tried to give a good upbringing to all three children.” Karishma's sister Benazir has completed her Master's in Engineering and works in Pune. While brother Jamir is pursuing his graduation.
When asked about girls' education, Karishma says, “Irrespective of the religion a girl belongs to, the challenges before her are the same. Therefore girls have to work harder. I also had to do it. Your success is the biggest answer to your critics. If you explain and persuade your family, you win half the battle. Therefore, girls should dream big and take continuous steps in that direction. Parents should also not judge their daughters by their traditional knowledge. This is like committing atrocities on them. They should give their daughters the open sky, then see how high they fly!”
Karishma's parents are very proud of their daughter's achievements. Her Abbu says, "There is a girl in our relationship who used to say, 'I want to pretend to be something like Karishma Didi.' She has recently become a judge. Inspired by Karishma, many such girls are pursuing higher education, dreaming big, and working hard to achieve them."
“Today, we are known as Karishma's parents. What could be a greater happiness for a parent than to be known by the name of their children?” Karishma's Abbu choked up while telling this.