Touch the Sky and Beyond

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FICCI FLO, Chennai in association with AGNI & MMA organized a discussion on the theme, “Touch the Sky & Beyond…” on 15 September 2023 at MMA Management Center, Chennai. Thedistinguished speakers who participated were: Ms Jennifer Arul – Media Personality; Ms Dr Srimathy Kesan-Founder and CEO Space Kidz India and Ms Muthamilselvi Narayanan – Japanese Interpreter, Trainer (Freelancer) & Everest Summiter. The discussions were moderated by Sqn Ldr Unni Nair (Retd) –Chief Facilitator,Excel Group.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: Ms. Jennifer, it’s been a very long journey for you in the media. When you look back, what is your take on your career?

Ms Jennifer Arul: The first review I ever got in the media was from a critic who said that I had a pseudo Oxonian accent. The media today has changed a great deal. Journalists nowadays have to be extremely careful about what they say and the results of their words. When I was very active in the media, it was a joy for me, because at NDTV, we said exactly what we wanted to say, irrespective of the topic. I remember once during election coverage, I was in a session sitting with Prannoy Roy and the then election commissioner, T. N. Seshan, in the studio. On the counting of votes, Seshan said that whatever was happening in Chennai, was happening at the center in Delhi too. I said, “I’m really sorry, Sir, but that’s not happening. I’m right here.” I remember that my boss, Pranoy Roy, said, “We need to believe her.” I think that is the greatest honour that you can get as a journalist. If somebody says that they believe what you say, that is credibility.

Nowadays, as we watch TV, we ask ourselves, “Are we hearing the truth? Or should we look somewhere underneath for the truth?” That’s pathetic, and it hurts me a lot. As a viewer, you should question what you hear and see on the screen or read in the newspapers.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: We want to talk about the incident with British Airways. You always displayed courage whether you were in the media or elsewhere. It probably came from the upbringing that you had. Can you share with us the British Airways incident?

Ms Jennifer Arul: I did what I was supposed to do. All of us have some moments in our lives that are terrifying. We often don’t go back to them and just want to put them in the past. I did have my moments – four minutes of horror, just horror. I was very young at that time. I was an air hostess with British Airways. Many, many years ago, we had a terrible accident outside of London Airport. The airplane took off, and the engine dropped off. The whole plane was already burning. The fire continued in the wings. By some miracle from above, it was able to land. As the wheels touched the tarmac of Heathrow Airport, all three engines exploded.

I remember as if it was yesterday. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. There was a British guy alongside me, and we were trying to save people. People were screaming, and there was total panic. We were able to save 119 people in 120 seconds. A lot of people on that plane were trying to get their luggage from the overhead rack. I was a young woman, and I don’t know where I got the courage from. I kept saying, “Don’t take your bag. Leave it, leave it.” There was one man who said, “Shut up.” I looked at him and shouted, “Sir, don’t touch your bag.” He put it back. Saving so many people in such a short time was something unbelievable.

As I think of it, my flesh creeps. The engine had fallen. There was fire streaming in. The plastic windows were melting. None of the crew gave us instructions to evacuate or to do anything with the passengers. We did not know what we were going to do. But with this other British guy who was with me, it became an instinctive thing. We did what we were trained to do. Our training clicked in just like that. We were able to guide the people who started climbing over the seats. It was just panic. The whole plane was dark. Five of the people on board died that day. My friend, a British girl, was trying to rescue a child, and she died. At the end of it, we were given awards for bravery. Even now, I hate flying, and yet, I have spent most of my life in airplanes, whether it was for my work, holidays, or whatever it was.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: I was in air traffic control. I have seen planes exploding on the runway when I was on the watch. Like you said, the training kicks in. The second time, I did my skydiving, it was an emergency. I have no clue as to how I was so calm and did the right things. What do you have to say to the people who are in the media now? These days, we see only horrifying news. We don’t see anything good happening.

Ms Jennifer Arul : You’re right. These days, unfortunately, everything is about murder, rape, air crash, or some politician getting up to some trick somewhere else. It’s just terrible. But that’s what sells. That’s where the money comes in. Those are the channels that get a lot of ads. This is a huge problem.

The day Americans went into Afghanistan, the whole news bulletin was about the invasion of Afghanistan. As the last story, Pranoy Roy turned and said, “I have now a very interesting little story from our reporter who’s down in Tirunelveli.” That was me. I was in Tirunelveli, and I found a story of a beautiful little school there. It had a little shop called the “honesty shop.” The children in that school went to that sweet shop. They took sweets out of a bottle. Nobody manned the shop, yet the children put one rupee or two rupees there. They never ever cheated. Those children never took more than they should take. Dr. Roy said, “After all that horror of Afghanistan, we have this beautiful story, which shows that there is some good left in this world.”

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: You had a chance to meet with so many people. How was your experience of meeting Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw?

Ms Jennifer Arul: He was a darling, an absolute darling. It took me nine months to get him to agree to the interview. I spent the whole day interviewing him in his home in Kothagiri. When we went back to the hotel we were staying in, one of our young sound engineers tried to impress his young wife who was with us on the shoot and had pressed the wrong button on the tape recorder and had erased my entire interview. For the first time in my life, I behaved unprofessionally. I cried on the phone to Field Marshal Manekshaw begging of him. And he said, “Okay. I know what it means. Come to my home tomorrow at four o’clock in the morning; I’m leaving for Coimbatore at six o’clock. I will give you the interview.” That is the most amazing thing somebody could do for you.

I went to his home at four o’clock in the morning. That gentleman put on his uniform, came down to his hotel room, and gave me the bulk of that interview. From Doordarshan’s point of view, it was an interview that had received the most number of views. Manekshaw was the most wonderful person. He was one man who said there will be a CDS one day in our country. He predicted it and it has happened.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: As a media person, how do you see India being looked at by other nations? Is there a change?

Ms Jennifer Arul: Definitely, there is a change. I belong now to an international organization called The Media Project that’s based out of Los Angeles. Based on the Manipur situation, they ask me, “Is it true that your media is controlled?” I can only say that the media is trying to cover it as best they can. We are not being viewed as a very honest media. It’s not for a lack of people who want to tell the truth. That’s what makes it really sad.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: What is your advice for the students who aspire for a media career?

Ms Jennifer Arul: Media is not a smooth sailing thing. It’s a tough, demanding profession to be in. You’ve got to have a passion for it. If you don’t have the passion, you might as well stay at home. A lot of people who come for interviews think that media people get the best seats on the plane, in the theaters, and the restaurants. The media profession is not about that. It is about the stories you bring to people. That’s the main thing. If you have the passion to be a journalist, then you’re going to be good at it. If you’re just doing it for fun, then it’s not for you.

I had lots of very good moments in the media. I would say the best moment was probably doing an interview with Jayalalitha. When we got the interview, she asked me very pointedly, “What questions are you going to ask me?” I said, “Ms. Jayalalitha, nothing that you won’t be able to answer.” Flattery gets you somewhere. She said, “All right. That’s fine. Go ahead.”

I had the privilege of interviewing Prince Edward on the royal yacht Britannia, which was in our harbour here. His secretary met me the previous day and asked, “What are you going to ask the Prince?” I said, “I will ask him anything I wish, but tell him I am not interested in Prince Charles and Diana’s love affairs. I am not interested in their marriage. I am here as a professional, and I cannot disclose to you what I am going to ask.” I have never disclosed to anybody what I was going to ask them in my career. I have always said, “I will ask you only something that you’re familiar with and comfortable with.” Simple as that and nothing else.

The problem is that the media is not unified. There’s so much competition in the media about who gets their story first. Will television get it first? Will the radio get it, or will the newspaper get it first? This has become a big problem.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: Now, let us move on to Dr. Srimathi Kesan, Founder-CEO of Space Kidz India. Was the NCC responsible for taking you from art subjects into the field of rockets?

Ms Srimathy: Yes, it did. I was married off at 18. In fact, General K V Krishna recommended that I must get into the armed forces. But my father handed over my wedding invite on the same day. We moved to Chennai for my wedding. I was a paratrooper, enjoying the beauty of the sky as I dived. I kept talking to the moon that someday I would be going to be there. That took me there, and today I’m here talking about sending satellites.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: Take us through your Gulab Jamun satellite.

Ms Srimathy: The gulab jamun-sized satellite that we named KalamSat went up on a NASA rocket and it’s back here. It all started with a gulab jamun. In 2015, we wanted to get into the space industry where private space players were not accepted. It was predominantly the government agency –the ISRO, and even ISRO had only about two or three launches in a year. A huge rocket costs 750 to 800 crores. Imagine anyone agreeing to send a gulab jamun-sized satellite into such a big rocket, and if anything conks, that’s it. That’s the reason they did not encourage private players or students to be a part of it.

But then I took that bold step of bringing in and building a team. We gave a beautiful presentation to a top scientist. He was so impressed by the presentation, and he said, “Can I meet your team?” I said, “Of course. You can meet my team.” My team was 9th, 11th, and 12th-grade students. He was shocked. He looked at me and said, “It’s nice. But what do you think about the space industry? It’s good that you’re doing something like this, but don’t do it anymore. Send these children back to school and college. Let them finish their graduation and post-graduation, and then come back here. We will be supportive, and we can do something in the space industry.”

The instincts within me said, ‘no taking back, no pulling back.’ We tweaked our concept. Instead of sending a satellite in a rocket, we sent it in a balloon. That was super successful. We got a lot of accolades. We wanted to celebrate the success of sending our first satellite. The children started banging the table and said, “We want gulab jamun now.” My lead scientist Shahrukh looked at the gulab jamun and started admiring it. I was so irritated and told him, “I made the sweet. Can you just eat it, rather than describing it?” He said, “No Ma’am. Instead of building a huge satellite, can we build a gulab jamun-sized satellite?” Our pockets were very tight. We needed one or two lakh dollars to launch a satellite, and it costs more to build one.

We thought about it. A 3.5 or 4 centimeter-sized, 100-gram satellite will be called a Femto category satellite. I agreed that’s a good idea but wondered who would take us on board. It required a lot of testing. We threw it to the universe. That’s when the universe conspired. Within the next three days, NASA announced a competition. About 80,000 people from across the globe participated, and we were chosen. The Director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium went gaga over the fact that it was built by Indian children. He called me and asked, “Dr. Kesan, are you sure there’s nobody behind this?” When I said, “There’s nobody, no scientists behind this. It’s only the children with us,” he was so thrilled.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: You also did a phenomenal thing of bringing a team of 750 girls from 75 villages. Can you speak about that?

Ms Srimathy: On the eve of the 75th Anniversary of Indian Independence, we wanted to pay tribute to our nation. What else would it be other than doing something with rural India in STEM? That’s a great myth till today. So I thought that this is one place where we definitely need to elevate the status of girls. We got 75 payloads built by 75 rural schools spread across Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari and involving every State and Union Territory. We named it AzadiSat.

Everything was going well until I became sick and went into the ICU. I was on the ventilator, and our dreams were almost crashing. I had sent the proposal to ISRO director, and he called me when I was in the ICU. It was very difficult to talk with the mask on. He sensed it and said, “What, am I hearing some hospital noise? Where are you?” I told him that I was in the ICU on the ventilator. He said, “Damn. Put the phone down. What are you talking about? Just come out of the hospital, and then we can do this.”

That dream became a reality. After about two weeks, I was out of the hospital and started talking to all the schools. What was painful was that some schools were skeptical about involving girls in such projects and said that girls study only to be married off. Many schools which were interested did not have any internet facility and laptops. We had to send laptops and dongles to them. Those principals were in tears when the project really materialized.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: What is your next aim?

Ms Srimathy: Four of our satellites are now in orbits. They were all built by students between 18 and 24 years of age. We have a powerful future. I’ve been given the ambassador status to the top three research space centers – NASA, European Space Agency and the Moscow GCTC. I always feel why we spend so much going there when we have so much in abundance here. I seek the help of so many people to build a space research park, a miniature version of NASA in India. I met the Honorable Prime Minister and many Chief Ministers. Everybody gets so excited about the project, but subsequently things fall apart, and they forget. Our ultimate vision is to build a space research park here, where the last child of the country gets a hands-on experience of space. Our next mission is to go to the moon. We will have rural children working on that project.

Ms Jennifer Arul : As a woman, have you faced any sort of discrimination within your sphere of activity?

Ms Srimathy: Until this date, I’m the only Indian woman who’s running an organization like this. The Prime Minister quoted my name in ‘Mann ki Baat.’ Yet, when there is a panel discussion on space, I see only men figuring there. Maybe because, I’m not a space engineer. What we have done and achieved is multifold.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: I was a member of the Airforce Adventure group, and my skydiving guru was the director. At that time, an Air Force team went on a mission to Everest, and we lost the team leader. From the team’s accounts, I know how it feels to summit and how arduous it is. Now, let’s hear from Muthamilselvi Narayanan the story of her conquering Mount Everest. She also holds records for climbing down a mountain in The Himachal blindfolded and that too, taking her daughter with her.

Ms Muthamilselvi: I am from Virudhunagar. My dad had a hotel in Chennai. So we settled in Chennai. I set the world record for climbing down a mountain blindfolded, in support of women’s cause. I also tried to emulate Veera Mangai (The Bold Woman) Velu Nachiar, hearing about her story and the fact that her tableaux was denied a display in the Republic Day parade. I rode like Velu Nachiar on horseback, shooting arrows and scored 87 points, which was a record. I had set  records, but each was for some specific cause. Now I wanted to achieve something for myself, and that is how the Everest thing happened. I am a Japanese interpreter. By nature, I like challenges and choose the most difficult tasks. I derive joy in accomplishing such challenging tasks.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: Tell us about your most challenging moments in the Everest expedition.

Ms Muthamilselvi: When I was trekking in the Himalayas, my guide and I reached Camp 4. The other co-climbers were going ahead. It was -45 degrees Celsius, and there was heavy wind. My guide is a very good person. On that day, because of his hard work, he became very tired and suggested that we should abort the mission and climb down. I didn’t agree with his view and insisted that we must reach the summit. He rested for two hours, and I stayed put with him. I started crying as my oxygen limit was running out. I had promised the Tamil Nadu government that I would return successfully after reaching the summit, as the first woman from Tamil Nadu. Just as I was thinking, a group dropped a dead girl in front of me. That was so demoralizing. Yet, I kept up my spirits and together with my guide, reached the summit in the noon. I was the first person to summit in the afternoon and return safely. Normally, they summit only in the night hours.

Another incident that I recall is during my ascent; we had a stopover in Camp 2. There, as I put on my head torch and looked around in the night, I saw a hundred odd dead bodies. Some of them might be 7 or 8 years old. My heart started racing. I was worried about my children and doubted if I would return. One of my teammates, an inspector from Maharashtra, ran out of oxygen. I gave him oxygen from my reserve and saved him. Within an hour, my oxygen ran out. Now, another person helped me. Shortly thereafter, he went into a coma. One more person became snow-blinded.

When I reached the summit, I was dismayed by the depth of the mountain that I had to climb down. I had just one hour oxygen reserve, but my guide had told me that it would take at least two hours to climb down. Yet, I took a risk, with the satisfaction of reaching the summit, and by the time I reached Camp 2, my oxygen ran out. I put on my rope, enabled the safety lock, and sat down. I knew I would die. But, at the least, my body would be taken home. At that time, a 19-year-old boy from Mexico, by the name of Andrew, who was coming down, saw my condition and vowed that he would save me. He gave me his oxygen, and after 15 minutes, he swooned and fell down. We started sharing our oxygen in turns and somehow rushed our way back.

Sqn Ldr Unni Nair: What are your success secrets, and what are some of your future plans?

Ms Muthamilselvi: I have a clear goal of who I want to be, and I am obsessed with achieving that goal. I am so focused. My children look up to me as a brave woman. Never give up is my mantra. I recently climbed Kilimanjaro in 5 days, though it was planned for seven days. It was very strenuous. I developed chest pain and severe vomiting. After the summit, we were advised to rest, but within one day, I descended. As for my plans, I want to scale one peak a month in each of the 7 continents. I have already completed three continents. Next on the list are Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Aconcagua in Argentina, and Antarctica.

(3700 words)