"I cannot believe that a man, who has been to space and has been honoured by both the Russian and Indian governments, sat with me for 45 minutes. I am truly blessed."
3 April 1985.
Wing commander Rakesh Sharma was celebrating the first anniversary of the historic event he was a part of. A year before, on 2 April 1984, he flew aboard the Soyuz T-11 Rocket launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome to become the first Indian in space.
When Indira Gandhi asked the astronaut how India looked from space, Sharma promptly said, “I can say with no hesitation, saare jahaan se accha,” glorifying the song even further.
The voyage lasted seven days, 21 hours, and 40 minutes.
When Sharma and his team landed on Earth, he had already etched himself as a hero and an inspiration to thousands of Indians.
Among his innumerable fans was a class 3 dropout in Ahmedabad. Enthusiastic about astronomy, Kishan Singh Chauhan had to give up on his dreams of education due to severe financial constraints at home.
When Sharma put India’s name on the list of the countries to send a person to outer space, Chauhan could not stop himself from writing to his idol.
A year after the launch, the humble paanwala wrote to Sharma, congratulating him on the historic feat.
“Though I have studied only till Class 3, I was interested in astronomy,” Chauhan tells the Ahmedabad Mirror. He adds, “I knew about Neil Armstrong and Vikram Sarabhai. Then I heard of an Indian who made a successful space trip. I decided to write to Rakesh Sharma… I would write down my message in Gujarati and a retired professor would compose it in English. I used to post the cards on March 31 so that it reached him on April 3.”
The first letter he sent out wasn’t posted to Sharma’s residential address. The Ahmedabad man had no idea about Sharma’s personal address of course and so, the letter was addressed to the head office of the Indian Air Force in Delhi, where the astronaut was a commissioned IAF officer.
Sharma received the letter right on time, congratulating him on his trip. At the time, he was receiving hundreds of letters, calls, and messages asking for interviews or congratulating him. Even with so much going on, he replied to Chauhan almost immediately, thanking him for his wishes and encouraging him to write more letters.
One can only imagine how joyful Chauhan was when he got the reply. Thus began a unique, wonderful friendship between two people who had never met.
Chauhan would write to Sharma thrice every year–on Sharma’s birthday (13 January), on the anniversary of the space launch (April 2), and the third on New Year’s Eve.
The Wing Commander made sure he replied to each letter.
He even mentioned this friendship in various interviews.
This penpal-ship continued till January 2009 when Sharma received a parcel from the Ahmedabad paanwala, with Sharma’s photo in it.
As is the norm, the parcel also contained the contact details of the sender. It was the landline number of a shop near Chauhan’s stall.
Sharma gave it a ring, and for the first time in 25 years, the two friends were speaking to each other.
Soon enough, Sharma had another surprise in store for Chauhan. In July 2010, he was visiting Ahmedabad with his friends. Right after landing in the city, he requested his friends to drive to the paan shop before even checking into their hotel.
He had noted Chauhan’s address and planned on giving him a surprise visit. There, at the doorstep of a humble paan shop, stood Sharma, the man who took India into space, with folded hands, introducing himself to a friend who had never failed to write to him on special occasions.
“When I landed at his shop, he failed to recognise me,” Sharma tells AM, adding, “My hairstyle has changed and so has my body. When I introduced myself, he was moved to tears.”
The union was celebrated by a hug, followed by a long chat. “I cannot believe that a man who has been to space and has been honoured by both the Russian and Indian governments, sat with me for 45 minutes. I am truly blessed,” an emotional Chauhan said.
Sharma, on his part, promised that this was not a one-time visit. He said he would be sure to meet his friend whenever he visited the city.
A true example of humility and respect, Sharma has shown that he can not only make the country proud but also cherish the love and admiration he receives.
Says Chauhan, “In this age when no one values friendship and love, Sharma sir came to meet a small fry like me. I feel as if my love drew him here.”
Read this story in Hindi.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)