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Sunday, 2 February, 2003, 14:12 GMT
India mourns loss of astronaut
People in Karnal town pay tribute
Ms Chawla "was considered a national heroine in India"
The loss of the space Shuttle Columbia and its crew has cast a pall of gloom across India.

And nowhere is the sense of loss more acute than in the northern town of Karnal where Kalpana Chawla, one of the seven astronauts on board, was born.

She wanted to show the world that even for a small-town Indian girl, the sky wasn't the limit

Vijay Sotia, relative
Hundreds of residents poured into the local school Ms Chawla had attended as a child to pray, laying flowers and bowing before the astronaut's photograph.

Earlier, friends and relatives had gathered at the house where she had been born to celebrate her return from the mission.

But as the news of the tragedy hit home, joy turned to grief and a stream of people shocked by the turn of events rushed to the house to convey their condolences.

Relatives at the Chawla home in India pay tribute
Ms Chawla's family are coming to terms with their loss
"She used to stand on the verandah and look at stars for hours when she was a kid," relative Vijay Sethia told Reuters news agency.

The BBC's Adam Mynott says Ms Chawla was considered a national heroine in India and there will be an enormous sense of grief and loss.

Prime minister's message

India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent a message of condolence to United States President George W Bush.

"For us in India, the fact that one of them was an Indian-born woman adds a special poignancy to the tragedy," his statement said.

Magazine cover featuring Kalpana Chawla
Chawla was recently hailed as one of India's brightest stars

Ms Chawla, who first flew on the shuttle six years ago, was a source of national pride.

"The first Indian woman to reach out for the stars" is how she was described in one newspaper article.

Her face appeared on the front cover of the national magazine India Today two weeks ago.

In a list celebrating heroes and heroines who left India to work and live abroad, Ms Chawla's name was at the top.

Family's distress

Sunday's national newspapers all carried front-page photos of her, highlighting a national sense of loss.

School children at a memorial ceremony in Delhi
Ms Chawla was a source of inspiration for many

"She wanted to show the world that even for a small-town Indian girl, the sky wasn't the limit," Vijay Sotia, a relative, told the AFP news agency. "We still haven't come out of our shock."

Although the people of India will feel a profound sense of loss at the death of one of their brightest lights, Ms Chawla was indeed - as India Today described her - a global Indian.

She herself recently said that, although she took great pride in her roots, she did not feel Indian in space.

"When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system," she said.

Ms Chawla's parents, two sisters and sister-in-law had all travelled to the US to watch the flight, a family friend said outside the home of her brother, Sanjay, in New Delhi.

Sanjay Chawla himself learnt of the disaster as he was watching the news report on television.

Speaking later, he said: "Whenever you are involved in such tasks, one should be prepared for such things... If it could happen to others, it could happen to you as well. This time it has happened to us."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Adam Mynott
"Her death has left millions of Indians with a sense of loss"
George Fernandes, Indian Defence Minister
"It is a great tragedy"

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02 Feb 03 | South Asia
01 Feb 03 | Americas
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