In a Nation Divided Over Politics, How ISRO’s Chandrayaan Brought Us Together

POV

In a Nation Divided Over Politics, How ISRO’s Chandrayaan Brought Us Together

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Life was eventful for those of us growing up in ’80s India. In 1982, we showed the world what a swell job we could do of hosting the Asian Games. We also watched the events on the first-ever coloured television sets in our homes. Two years later, the nation watched in awe as our Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conversed with Rakesh Sharma, our first and only cosmonaut in space. The visuals of Wing Commander Sharma, surrounded by the crew from Soviet Union, was an image that would be etched in our minds and hearts forever. He was a hero, a legend, and as Gandhi, who sat in a makeshift studio with a hand-drawn illustration of a chariot flying over the clouds and the flags of the two countries next to her, read out from a paper – we did not have teleprompters at that time – we absorbed every word that was said. “I hope your mission will inspire the youth to be courageous and make our country space conscious…”

I was nine years old, watching the big moment unfold on a tiny Sonodyne screen on Doordarshan in our Kolkata home. And like any curious child, my mind was filled with questions which I kept throwing at my baba.     

Thirty-five years later, I relived the moment with my six-year-old daughter. She is not allowed late nights, but yesterday was an exception. Eager-eyed we were waiting for Chandrayaan 2 to make a safe landing on the south pole of the moon. 

Decades later a lot has changed and a lot hasn’t. There was no grainy DD transmission, but a laptop screen around which she huddled with her father. She definitely is more curious than I was at her age, having watched videos of various space missions – including our own successful Mangalyaan. But she was as excited about watching ISRO’s mission as I was when I watched Rakesh Sharma smiling back at millions of wonderstruck Indians. It had all the makings of a life event.  

Long agonising minutes after the initial euphoria told us that the moment would not arrive – that Vikram, the Moon Lander and Pragyaan, the Explorer had simply lost contact.

Manjunath Kiran / Getty Images

Today was no different. Yet it was a difficult morning trying to come to terms with. Long agonising minutes after the initial euphoria told us that the moment would not arrive – that Vikram, the Moon Lander and Pragyaan, the Explorer had simply lost contact. A heartbroken ISRO Chief K Sivan’s voice cracked up as he announced, “The communication from the Lander was lost.”

But the Chandrayaan heartbreak was not to be nursed by the ISRO scientists alone. We were in it together. At 2.30 am, a generally cynical India, looking to snap out of an exhausting week, was brimming with positivity. 

Sharing pictures of ISRO scientists carrying parts of the satellite on a bullock cart, @IndiaHistorypic wrote on Twitter, “In 1981 ISRO Scientists Used to Carry India’s First Communication APPLE Satellite On Bullock Cart. And Today Chandrayaan 2 Landing  Missed by a Whisker. In Next Attempt We Will Succeed and Succeed We Will. For @ISRO Impossible Is Nothing.”

But the Chandrayaan heartbreak was not to be nursed by the ISRO scientists alone. We were in it together.

@mainbhiengineer said, “Chandrayaan 2 landing might have failed but so many common people watching and talking about Indian space mission at 2 AM isn’t less than being on Moon.”

Chandrayaan’s success then is not all about Vikram, the Lander, or Pragyan the Explorer. It is about a billion Indians and the singular dream for the future that, despite our differences, we continue to share. 

Chandrayaan’s success is about the fact that it has managed to bring the spotlight back on scientific inquiry, engineering skills, on empirical research, knowledge and hard work. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said of Chandrayaan, “There are no failures in science, only experiments and efforts.”

In a country where leaders peddle cow urine’s curative properties and talk about evil-eye effects, where we marry toads to appease the rain gods and the Indian Science Congress has become a gathering where logic goes to die, this is a big positive. The beautiful irony is that India for once was fiercely googling and talking about “rough breaks” and “fine breaks” and payloads and a Vikram that was different from the Vikram-Betal lore of yore. 

Chandrayaan, like cricket and PV Sindhu, brought us together in jubilation. It proved to be a great unifier. At a time when we are divided by politics, ravaged by floods, and crushed by the economy on a freefall, the moon mission is the dash of positivity we so badly need. For those minutes most Indians with access to the internet and smartphones forgot what they had been bickering over — the isolation of Kashmir, which of their neighbours was left out by the NRC — and kept their eyes on the screens, hoping for a scientific and engineering miracle. We prayed to our different gods perhaps, but asked for the same thing. Let there be a landing. 

The “failure” of Chandrayaan 2’s most anticipated mission, is a gentle reminder of the power of the people and their optimism. 

Chandrayaan, like cricket and PV Sindhu, brought us together in jubilation. It proved to be a great unifier.

India has been scoring abysmally on several indexes. We have been repeatedly accused of violating human rights, lynching our own, committing atrocities in the name of caste, gagging courageous journalism that exposes systemic failures, putting fewer and fewer women at our workplaces, and not doing enough to save the environment. It is at this nadir in our global narrative that Chandrayaan gives us a modicum of dignity. The world watched as we stayed up all night to create history, and not rewriting it to suit any political ideology. 

Last night, my daughter, who was done waiting for Vikram to appear, began to play a game of snakes and ladders. When it was time to break the news to her, that there will be no landing, she quipped, “This is just like snakes and ladders. You have to keep trying. I love India.” 

I hit rewind to April 2, 1984. The PM asked Rakesh Sharma the question we all wanted to ask: “What does India look like from space?”

You could sense the pride and joy in his voice as Sharma said, “Saare Jahaan Se Accha…” I remember my little heart growing big with pride.

Today, I don’t know if we could rightly be called “Saare Jahan Se Accha,” but when rise above and look around, perhaps we can better see just how small our differences are in the grand scheme of the universe. Thank you ISRO, you brought us together again in hope, prayer, and pride. Mission accomplished. 

Comments