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To Infinity and Beyond—A Fireside Chat with Rakesh Sharma

It was the third day of April 1984. Television in India was not as advanced as it is now—with Doordarshan being the sole channel on the national network. On that auspicious day, millions of Indian eyes were glued to the magic cube, for something unprecedented had just taken place. A thirty-five-year-old fighter pilot had embarked on a quest that would define his life—a quest to outer space. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma had become the first Indian to travel to space.

Thirty-three years later, back on Earth, the Indian cosmonaut met and greeted hundreds of young and sharp minds at Fortune Inn Valley View hotel, Manipal. A part of the auspicious Diamond Jubilee celebrations, A Fireside Chat, presented by Indian Oil Propel, with Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma was truly something to look forward to. This event was ideated and organised by The Think Tank, a club which was also responsible for having conducted A Fireside Chat with Dilip Chhabria last year. The very name of Rakesh Sharma made certain that the hall was filled to the brim, with the event being graced by the presence of the esteemed dignitaries of Manipal University, including Dr G.K. Prabhu.

Image courtesy: The Photography Club, Manipal

Divided into three segments, with well-placed breaks in between, it was an unforgettable evening for many. Be it an amateur astronomer or someone who is simply awed by the achievements of Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, the event had something to offer for everybody present in the hall. Armed with his witty sense of humour, the former Indian Air Force pilot spoke about his well-documented life, while simultaneously adding a fresh perspective to it.

Despite having been awarded the Ashok Chakra and the Hero of the Soviet Union, the legacy of Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma comes from simple beginnings. Though he barely had any support when he chose to join the precarious life of the Armed Forces, he was the only pilot from his squadron to operate on state-of-the-art fighter planes during the Pakistan War.

Image courtesy: The Photography Club, Manipal

The silence in the audience seemed to ring loudly, as everyone was lost in the magnitude of what Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma had achieved. As he moved on to enunciate his experiences in Star City (a part of Moscow, the erstwhile Soviet Union), one could recount their parents mentioning the same story with great pride. He proudly proclaimed that while in the Soviet Union, he played tennis with the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin. Before the audience could conclude that there could be no better achievement, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma quickly added that he learnt Russian from a man who knew no English.

Muffled laughter gave way to awe at the mention of his venture into space and how beautiful India had looked. That very venture prompted his famous reply to Indira Gandhi’s question of India looked from outer space—Saare Jahan Se Acha (More beautiful than the rest of the world). Irrespective of his international exposure and the confluence of several cultures in space, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma has earned the title of the first man in space to have done yoga. He also proudly introduced Indian food to his fellow cosmonauts in space—a display of nationalistic fervour most of us will not be able to indulge in.

Image courtesy: Hamara Congress

The final segment of A Fireside Chat was to be taken lightheartedly, with the Master of Ceremony showcasing some of the most popular Google searches about Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma. Those searches comprised a range of questions from “Did Rakesh Sharma eat in space?” to “Is Rakesh Sharma alive?”. To keep the interactive spirit alive in the hall, there was a round of questions from the audience to Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, ranging from technical to hypothetical. Maybe colonising Mars will be a reality, after all.

Introspection served as the need of the hour, as Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma pointed out how to build our nation and improve. The moment young minds are challenged, will there be any scope for improvement? In conclusion, he replicated his deep-seeded desires to return to space, but only as a tourist, to absorb the beauty of space. As A Fireside Chat came to an end, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma left the stage to a standing ovation, a minor testament to the respect he truly deserves.

Featured image design: Kushagra Rastogi

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