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Sunita Williams at Sabarmati

September 21, 2007 1753 IST
Video and Text: Raja Sen

The Sabarmati Ashram is a place of immense peace and tranquility, Mahatma Gandhi's bastion of hope and self-awareness serving as a poignant reminder of the times that were, and the passive revolution's effect on the Indian freedom struggle. Today, the Gandhian quiet is shattered by jingoistic cries of 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan' and thanks to the special guest 'Jai Vigyaan.'

The crowd in front of the stage comprises mainly of schoolkids, a tidy bunch contendedly braving Ahmedabad's glaring afternoon sun and helpfully passing around little bottles and clear plastic pouches of water. All around them, packed tightly into white-chair phalanxes sit the local gentry, old ladies straining heavily bifocal'd eyes to catch a glimpse of the empty stage, youngsters with cheerleader-style signs, and curious men.

Sunita Willams is expected any minute, and the anticipation seems fervent yet tightly-reined, as if this congregation of Gujarat: The Next Generation wants to show off a commendable restraint and sense of proportion. A gentleman with a tremendous passion for unsubtle political allegory is lecturing the bachchas about the divinity of Gandhiism and the ills of certain parties who don't subscribe to it. The sun is shining bright, and all seems well with the world or at least with an exclusively Congress one.

Members of the aforementioned party assemble onto the stage, merrily rubbing starched white kurta shoulders as they wait for the NASA lady. A woman in a bright green ethnic ensemble, made up to the hilt, takes the stage. She looks a far cry from the casual Sunita in the poster, but gamely acknowledges the desperate crowd's rapturous cheer with a beauty-pageant wave. Even as the kids break into grins, the cold shoulder she gets from the white Congress contingent -- and the zoom button on the camcorder -- show she isn't the astronaut we've all gathered here to see.

Sunita Williams' arrival is marked by cameramen running backwards in front of an approaching white car that pulls up two feet from the stage. Dressed in a scarlet tee-shirt and blue jeans, Sunita walks up with her father, the gentle Dr Deepak Pandya -- and the press goes wild. A free-for-all erupts at the foot of the stage as still photographers (quite the inadvertent oxymoron, you do realize) and television cameramen jostle violently for a photo-op.

Also read: 'It's not my fault I was born a Brahmin'

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