Sriharikota, the barrier island off the Bay of Bengal coast, in Andhra Pradesh is famous across India and the world. Its claim to fame is the Satish Dhawan Space Centre from where the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launches its satellites. The PSLV and GSLV are almost household names, thanks to ISOR and Sriharikota. This scenic location was chosen by ISRO because of its proximity to the equator which gives extra centripetal force from the rotation of Earth.
Jan 10, 2007
“5…..4….3…2..1 and lift-off” the familiar countdown booms from the loudspeaker. All the teams that had been working over the last couple of years on the project watched as the rocket lifted off mustering enough energy to defy Newton’s discovery. A few minutes of tense silence ensued before the much-awaited words were spoken by the mission director “the launch is a success…good work everyone”.
Ravi Narayanan, director of ISRO Telemetry Tracking and Command Network or ISTRAC, in short, stretched his legs and rubbed his eyes. His ageing body was stressed due to the past few sleepless weeks but, RN as he is referred to within ISRO, wouldn’t have it any other way. The mission was the priority. Rockets were his one and only love.
Rockets had fascinated Ravi right from a young age when he was first exposed to the concept of outer space. He knew then that while his feet were firmly on the ground, he was going to fly around in the world of rockets. He gathered as much information on rocket and space missions from his school library and his science teachers. While his friends had pictures of famous sports personalities and actors stuck on their room walls, Ravi had drawings of rockets and the moon in his room. But his favorite one was a newspaper clipping of Apollo 11 on the moon.
Ravi never wanted to be an astronaut and there is an interesting backstory to it. He was ten years old and was watching a street play on Mahabharata. He was fascinated by the character of Krishna, played by Chandradharan, the most famous actor in the troupe. He was amused by the scenarios he created, the strategies he deployed, and the way he played everyone. When he discussed this with his English teacher at school, his teacher remarked “Ah, Krishna was a king, but his true skills lay in being a kingmaker.” This stuck with Ravi and that was when he decided, “An astronaut may fly in the rocket and have great views of the earth. Yes, he may be the king. But it is the mission team on the ground who are the kingmakers. I want to be a kingmaker”.
Fifteen years later, Ravi was a junior scientist at ISO and was thrilled that his passion became his work. He put his heart and soul into his duties, was soon being noticed and rising the ranks.
When his parents were looking to get him married, Ravi didn’t have time to come and meet prospective brides. He was clear that he didn’t want to come and reject any girl and hurt her feelings.
“If you keep doing like this, you won’t get married da, Ravi” his dad started one Friday morning as he was leaving to work.
“The way you broach the topic itself makes him not answer in the affirmative” his mom interjected before he could answer.
“I am telling the truth” his dad retorted
“You keep quiet, I shall speak to him” his mom with as much finality as possible.
Ravi was smiling within himself at this tete-a-tete going on. He knew this good cop-bad cop charade his parents have been doing for years to get something done by him. He heard them whispering in the kitchen a few minutes back plotting the morning strategy to get him hitched.
“We won’t be with you forever. We would be like the boosters that separate from the rocket during stage 1. You need a wife to carry on pushing you forward towards your orbit.” his dad tried to bring in rocket analogies to win his argument. Not bad, Ravi thought.
“Ravi, we know you left the choice to us. We have the pictures of the girls here where the horoscope has matched. Please look at them” His mother handed him a set of pictures.
Ravi was in no mood to look at the pictures. Rather he just picked up the paper with the meticulous table his dad had made with the details of the prospective brides. Ravi lazily glanced at the list and one name caught his attention. He circled that name and gave it back to his parent saying, “I want to marry her”.
His parents were surprised “You didn’t even look at the picture. How did you select her?” they asked in unison.
Ravi smiled and said, “Her dad’s name is Prasanna Srinivasan and her name is Lakshmi Vidhya. The initials make PSLV. What more sign do I need?”. He waved them bye and left for work.
“In the entire world and outer space included, no one could use such a logic for selecting his wife.”, his dad was surprised beyond belief.
“He agreed to the wedding, that’s all matters.” his mom said with glee.
During his early years at ISRO, he was in awe of the legend Dr. Kalam. He always admired Dr. Kalam from afar and tried to be in as many meetings and lectures that Dr. Kalam was handling. When he got a chance to work direct under him on a critical mission he lapped it up. The way Ravi’s mind worked and the passion he displayed caught Dr. Kalam’s attention and soon he was having direct chats and discussions with him.
During one such interaction Ravi remarked “Dr. Kalam, even when I sleep, I want to dream of launching rockets to the moon, mars, and beyond. What do you dream, sir?”
Dr. Kalam laughed and remarked, “Dreams are not those that we see when we are sleeping. They are those that do not let us sleep”.
What a profound statement, Ravi thought. Little did he know, this was going to be one of the most quoted saying of Dr. Kalam in the years to come.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and here he was as Director of ISTRAC. He was 45 years old and rumored to be the next mission director. The launch was in control and proceeding well. Ravi knew he had earned a well-deserved rest and left the command center after giving instructions to his team. “Happy Birthday, RN.” his team said in unison. “Yeah yeah, thank you all.” said a visibly embarrassed Ravi who hated celebrating his birthday. He hadn’t celebrated it in a long time and wasn’t going to start now. His family, friends, and colleagues knew better than to ask Ravi to celebrate his birthday.
He went to his car and decided he would go for a short drive before going to his quarters. He reversed the car from his parking slot, exited the gate, and hit the road. Ten minutes into the drive, he was relaxing as usual with the sound of the engine revving competing with his favorite songs playing from the music system.
He took a right turn and instantly knew from all his telemetry experience, that the signals his brain was sending were of panic and fear. A truck was bearing down upon him and before he could take any evasive maneuvers, the truck hit the car head-on. Ravi saw a blinding light, felt severe pain, and then all was dark.
Jan 10, 2022
Akhil was all smiles as he ran towards his grandpa that morning. Ravi beamed with pride as he saw Akhil’s smiling face. They meant the world to each other. They did everything together from morning prayers to playing games to eating meals to sleeping at night. Ravi also dropped Akhil at school and picked him back. They loved each other’s company much to the envy of Vidya, Ravi’s wife. She was always jealous that Akhil adored his grandpa more.
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to dearest grandpa” Akhil was singing in his shrill voice. “Thank you, my dearest Akhil,” said Ravi and scooped Akhil in his arms. They started smiling and playing with each other.
“Why did it have to be like this? What wrong did we do? How many ever years pass, can’t reconcile to it.” lamented Vidya. She was with Vignesh and Sumathi, her son and daughter-in-law at the dining table, watching the scene unfold in the drawing room.
“Grandpa! Sing the happy birthday song along with me.” Akhil demanded.
“How do I sing for my birthday?” remarked Ravi.
“Just sing ‘happy birthday to me..happy birthday to me….” Akhil replied innocently.
“ok da kanna, happy birthday to me…” sang Ravi.
Vignesh remarked, “A man who didn’t celebrate his birthday for 45 years and is singing the birthday song to himself. Should we smile or cry at this?”.
Jan 10, 2007
Though Ravi had driven for 10 minutes, he hadn’t gotten far as he was driving around the surrounding streets. The sound of metal impacting against metal was loud enough to bring a crowd to the spot. Someone called an ambulance, another person informed the police and there was a call to the space center on seeing the ISRO on-duty sticker on the partially crushed windshield. Police reached the spot and called fire personnel as they knew they had to cut the car columns to take Ravi out. Ravi had a deep cut to the head and was unconscious. He had one broken leg and hand. He was bleeding profusely from the head and the fractured parts.
The collective opinion of the emergency personnel was that he was lucky to be alive. He was carefully pulled out of the car and loaded to the ambulance which rushed to the hospital with its siren piercing the quiet of the night. At the hospital, he was rushed to the ICU where a team of doctors and nurses got into action.
“Pulse at 55 and dropping.” said the nurse.
“Push 2 ml Adrenaline.” said the ICU doc 1.
“He needs to be intubated, get me the tubing kit.” said ICU doc 2.
The CCU was in a buzz attending to its latest critical patient. The space center was quite famous in the area and ISRO personnel were much respected in the area. A lot of doctors and nurses had family members working at ISRO. So for them, this patient was extra critical to be saved.
They noticed his left-hand fingers were clenched. Even when unconscious he was holding on to something quite tight. The doctors pried open the fingers and took what he was clutching and took it out to his family who were waiting outside. Vidya was all tears and was being held by her shoulder by Vignesh who had a deeply concerned expression on his face.
“The patient had this in his hand.” said the nurse. Vidya recognized it as the miniature rocket model that always hung from the rear-view mirror of the car. In the microseconds before the crash, Ravi had plucked it from the mirror and clutched it in his hand. Vidya looked into Vignesh’s eyes and realized he had come to the same conclusion as well. She broke into a sob and Vignesh hugged her tighter as tears rolled down his cheeks.
“What are you saying? This can be true” Vignesh said shocked at hearing what the doctor said. “My dad can’t have lost his memory. It’s not true, tell me, it’s not true.”. Vidya was too shocked to speak. Her mouth was open but no words came out.
“I am sorry, but it is what it is. Yes, it can be a shocker, but on the brighter side, despite such an accident, his other bodily functions are perfectly normal and he would be discharged soon.”
“Would he regain his memory, doctor?” Vignesh asked.
“With time he might. These are tricky cases. We have seen patients who gain their memory back even after years. We can’t say exactly. Science has advanced quite a bit. We would do our treatments. You also continue to keep him in good spirits at home. Keep a happy environment. Don’t keep triggering thoughts about the accident or force him to think back about the accident or the life before it.” replied the doctor.
2007 – 2022
15 years passed by and no improvement was observed in Ravi’s memory. His past life seems to have been wiped out. He got to know Vidya and Vignesh from various pictures and understood their relationship with them. Slowly he was introduced to his other family members and friends. Ravi made several desperate attempts to remember his past but to no avail. The shocker came when they got him home after almost 3 months at the hospital of which 2 months he spent unconscious. Ravi entered his room and looked at the miniature rocket model, that had been taken from his hand, which Vidya had carefully placed by the bedside stand.
Ravi called out to her “Vidya, could you come here please.”
She walked in with anticipation as this was an attempt to jog his memory. She saw him looking deeply at the rocket model with a smile. She couldn’t contain her excitement until she heard him say “I think some kid who was playing missed the toy here. Please give it back”.
A shocked Vidya looked at him. The rocket man has forgotten rockets. She rushed out of the room, not wanting to cry in front of him.
Years passed by. They moved back to Chennai, their hometown. Vignesh got married to Sumathi and Akhil was born. Akhil was 6 years old now.
Jan 10, 2022
“Where are we going to celebrate Grandpa’s birthday? I want to go to the fun city at EA mall.” Akhil demanded.
“Sure we can go, Akhil”, said Ravi.
“I want to bring my friends too. Weena Chandra and Prachu Anand are my best friends at school and I want to take them too” said Akhil.
“Yes Yes, we can take them too” interjected Sumathi. “But first we are going to school. Today you have math exam.”
“Why are moms like this, Grandpa? Today is your birthday, it is a happy day. Why she reminds me of maths exam.” Akhil asked in his childish pleading voice.
“Maths is very important Akhil. It is the base of all studies. If you do well in math, you can do well in any stream of studies.” Ravi was reasoning out with Akhil.
“But this is 3 tables is so confusing, Grandpa. 2 tables was easy. But 3 tables is soooo veryyyyy difficulttttttt” Akhil said in a drawled dramatic voice.
Ravi gave a hearty laugh and said “Tables are very easy, Akhil. You just need to apply your mind to it. It is not rocket science.”
“Maybe it is easy for you, but not for me.” said Akhil and waited for a response. But none was coming from Ravi.
Vignesh looked up from the newspaper. Vidya stopped chopping vegetables and turned around. Sumathi dropped the potato she was peeling and stared at her father-in-law.
Ravi was sitting straight. His eyes were glistening. This was the same glistening that Vidya had fallen for when they had gotten married. But it only came when he was speaking about rockets and outer space. She also knew from his look that his mind was working very fast. Years ago, during Vignesh’s wedding, one of Ravi’s superiors told her “When Ravi is in that mode where his look is that of his mind working fast, we all just stand back and watch as we know a magic is about to unfold.”.
She was wondering what had triggered the look today and why was his mind working fast. Years of false signals and failed hope had taught her not to expect too much. They had shown him pictures of his time at ISRO, and taken him to rocket launches, but to no effect. That part of his life seemed to have died in the car that day.
Ravi looked at Akhil and then turned to look at the dining table. He seemed different. He got up from his chair and with a spring in his step he walked towards the photograph on the wall. It was of him receiving the special commendation certificate from Dr. Kalam back in the late 1980s. He stared intently at the picture for a few seconds. He then picked up a medal from the curated box it was kept in. It read ISRO Performance Excellence Award 2002. He caressed the medal with his eyes closed.
He then looked at the other item in the box. It was a miniature rocket model that looked old. But it looked neat as if the house members didn’t let dust gather on it. He looked at it closely for a few minutes, toyed with it and then turned towards Vidya and Vignesh and said,
“Vignesh, hang this in my car rear-view mirror. That is where it usually would be right?”.
Tears of joy rolled down Vidya’s cheeks as she took this as a sign. Yes, her Rocket Man was back!
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!