ISRO Hero Vikram Sarabhai, My Papa, Never Helped Me With Homework

“I miss papa. Every day. More so, as I see the state of hatred and violence all around us,” Mallika Sarabhai writes.

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ISRO Hero Vikram Sarabhai, My Papa, Never Helped Me With Homework
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(This story was first published on 4 September 2019. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of Dr Vikram Sarabhai)

“I grew up as papa’s daughter, not as Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s. He was papa.”

Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space research programme. 
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who would have been 100 on 12 August, was not just the ‘father of ISRO’, as most Indians identify him.

The space agency has become the subject of global scrutiny over the past few weeks, in the lead up to the much-awaited touchdown of India’s first moon lander, Vikram, on the south polar region of the moon on 7 September, between 1:30 am and 2:30 am.

As ISRO looks set to enter the history books, here is a closer look at its origins and the man considered as the Father of the Indian space program.

Sarabhai was a doting and hands-on father to Kartikeya and Mallika, who followed their parents’ footsteps to become India’s celebrated visionaries in their respective fields.

In this exclusive interview with The Quint’s Nishtha Gautam, Mallika Sarabhai – noted dancer and activist – opens a window into the Sarabhai household to introduce Vikram Sarabhai, the man.

Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives
Vikram Sarabhai with his children Kartikeya and Mallika
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

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Vikram Sarabhai- My Papa Who Did Not Help Me With Homework

I grew up as papa’s daughter, not as Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s. He was papa. With little time but loads of love and fun. He would whistle ‘Bridge On The River Kwai’ and have me marching around the carpet. At dinner, I would save the favourite piece of something for the last, and he would pop it into his mouth. When I was very young, Amma—illustrious classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai—travelled a lot and he less, so he would always have to be the one to report at school (to his older sister, my Principal) when I got into trouble. And it amused him no end.

The most irritating memory that I have of him is his refusal to help me with homework that I was stuck with. He would say, “Malli, take a deep breath. If this was beyond you, your teacher would not have assigned it to you”. And I would say, “Papa, I have taken lots of breaths and I still can’t get it”. He would then just smile and say, “It will come to you. Take some more breaths.”

Vikram Sarabhai, the education visionary. 
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

Papa and Other Family Members Laid the Foundation of My Socio-Political Consciousness

My political consciousness comes from my parents but also from other extraordinary people in both families. From people who spent their entire lives for serving India and Indians. My great aunt Anasuya Sarabhai, Lakshmi masi (Col Lakshmi Sahgal) of the INA, my aunt Mridula who stood by Sheikh Abdullah, and many more.

I was 12 and wrongly blamed for inciting two older boys in school to fight over me. Papa was called in, and found it amusing that a 12-year-old was already causing a ‘situation' inadvertently. He sat me down and told me that there were two kinds of people in the world. Those who followed rules set by society—right or wrong—and those who questioned and decided for themselves what was right and wrong. The latter kind followed their own conscience rather than the rules laid down by society.

A young Mallika with her father Vikram Sarabhai. 
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

He said that he and Amma belonged to the latter category and that I would need to decide whether to follow my conscience or the diktats of society. “You have to be prepared to be stoned if you do not follow what society expects, and if you follow your conscience”. I thought about it for a few days and then told him that I would need to follow my own conscience and not what others believed to be correct, if I thought it wrong.
And I have done so.

Mallika Sarabhai as a toddler with her mother Mrinalini Sarabhai and brother Kartikeya.
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

I First Hated Papa For His Relationship With Kamla Chowdhry, And Later Understood Him

Till I was 13, I hated him for his relationship with Kamla Chowdhry and the pain it caused my mother. I didn’t speak to him. I was often rude or curt. Then I started having conversations with him and our relationship deepened. I realised that he was doing what he thought was right—I still didn’t agree with it. That he, too, was deeply pained by the pain he was causing. I understood that he did love the two women very deeply. Now I realise that it is possible. Although, I still think you need to have the gumption and make a choice if either of them is unhappy. You can’t play it both ways.

The Sarabhai Family (L to R): Mallika, Mrinalini, Kartikeya and Vikram
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

It is very complex and difficult because so much more is involved: it’s not only about love, but also about family, suffering, priorities, and loyalties. There is still no clear-cut answer. I like to believe that if I were the other woman, I would have the courage to walk away and leave the family intact, if the man loved his wife and family. I would like to think that I could make that choice for the larger good.


I Lost My Papa & India Lost a Great Visionary When Vikram Sarabhai Died

I was in Bombay waiting for him to take Amma and me home for New Year’s eve when he died at the age of 52. He left so much unfinished! I truly believe he would have influenced our path as a nation differently had he been alive.

I miss him. Every day. More so, as I see the state of hatred and violence all around us. He was a wise man with no personal agenda, a man of vision. An idealist. He and Amma made us realise that to have the privilege of education and idealism that we have, means a duty and obligation to use that to right the wrongs. Because of that I use my voice and my art to talk of things that people would like to avoid.

Mrinalini Sarabhai with her children Mallika and Kartikeya.
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

What inspired papa was a deep belief in India and her people. He was inspired by India’s yearning to be self reliant and not dependent on other nations for our every need. He did not want us to be vulnerable to pressures that would make us take decisions that would harm the nation or our people. He had a great belief in people.

Papa And Amma Followed Different Paths To Make India A Better Place

Papa and Amma were two people using their chosen careers to make India a better place for all. Papa was a scientist who wished to use science to leapfrog India and Indians into the next century. Amma used the arts to highlight issues that plagued us.

Young Vikram Sarabhai 
Photo Courtesy: Darpana Archives

I trained in management and my brother in Physics and political science. And we both use what we do to try and make things better for all Indians. There is no conflict in our deep and abiding love and commitment to make the country and the world a more just and humane place. Our languages are different, but surely that is not a conflict. What my brother and I inherited was a sense of needing to do something for the less privileged, for the nation, in whatever way we can.


Vikram Sarabhai Would Have Been Deeply Pained Today

The words nationalism and patriotism have become ugly and crude and jingoistic. None of the family was ever any of that. I believe in true democracy and that to me means dissent and the room for it and for all ideas. When I decided to contest an election, it was a tribute to the democratic ideals that my family espoused. My father, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, would have been proud of me for doing that.

He was not politically motivated or involved but he would have been deeply pained at where we are today.

(Mallika Sarabhai is a Padma Bhushan awardee dancer and activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  ISRO   science   Padma Bhushan 

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