Back to school, Back to Sriharikota

When one visits places where one grew up, we often find that everything has shrunk. Happens with teachers and class rooms. Happens with childhood homes and playgrounds. Happens with college hostels, common rooms and dining rooms. A short visit to Sriharikota last week made me realize that even in this respect, Sriharikota and ISRO are different.

I was visiting my school after 35 years. A few of us from the early batches of the school and a few of the, what we now call, young Turks went back to school to form the Alumni association.

Our bus from Bangalore left mainland at Sullurpeta and, right off the bat, I realized that Sriharikota was going to be different. Strangely, I got the first inkling that ISRO did not believe in the shrinking business when the vast expanse of Pullicat lake opened up. Guess it had something to do with the fact that I am from Bangalore, a megapolis where lakes disappear.

Pullicat lake in the early morning felt like something from another world, a rather misty world. I could see the well-remembered flocks of birds, many of them migratory. After 35 years, I was gently reminded that the Siberian cranes had been visiting more frequently than me.

The familiar lights

Sighting the lights of Sriharikota had always been special. In the morning there were no lights to see. However, the many memories of trips back from Sullurpeta fired up all the neurons required for the lights to come on. Night time trips. Weary bones. 17 Km long bus rides on a road built on the Andhra backwaters. Come to think of it, where do all the birds go at night?

Touch down at Sriharikota was emotionally confusing. There were some ten of us old boys coming from different parts of the country while one dude had sneaked in from the US and another restless dude from London. I suspect everyone felt a version of what I called emotionally confusing. I badly wanted to talk to mom about everything I was seeing. But, that is one thing that is over for me.

At the check post, Raghu joined us. It was great to see the young kids, our juniors, now driving stuff at ISRO. The young blood of the organization. Raghu got us to the guest house. Sunil had arranged the logistics. The short ride from the check post to the guest house was a torrent of memories. Our very own forest was still there. Timeless and unchanged as far as I could make out.

I could feel Rama’s house, some 200 mts away and KG’s house was near there too. And that was Kamal’s house. Chandra’s and Bathri’s. YS’s house was just behind LR’s and LR’s was where we used to play cricket with the lamppost as our stumps. Later in the evening I walked by the stumps, masquerading as a lamppost, and I swear it is still the same after 35 years.

My house. YS’s house was near mine. He had taken me to school the day I joined in my sixth standard. Ganesh was nearby too and he had our school Principal, R G Rathore, sharing a compound wall. What privilege. Sujatha used to be across the road from Ganesh.

Amit, Krishna and I had travelled together from Bangalore. One of the first things that we said to each other, after reaching our room in the Aryabhatta hostel, was that the distance between Phase-I and Phase-II seemed to have shrunk.

A place to sleep during launch campaigns

The hostel is something else. Three simple beds to a room. Hostel nearly empty when we were there. But I could easily conjure up images of a very different scene during a launch campaign. Every bed in every room would be allotted. The techs from every ISRO center would be cramming into these rooms. Folks returning after working 15-20 hours straight, collapsing onto the beds. Not difficult to imagine. 35 years back the CED (my parents worked there) was just building the hostel. Even in those days, the influx of staff from every ISRO center posed challenges during launches. We used to have folks stay with us. And yes, they would come home and collapse onto the beds, at all times of day and night.

A moment to gather my thoughts

I went to the hospital, place where I saw some of my friends for the last time. AB’s house was just a stone throw away. SR was from the other side of the colony. The hospital didn’t feel any smaller to me. At the end of the day, six feet and some is all it ever took.

Space Central School

Prakash, from the senior most class of SCS, came down from Tirupathi. A head full of dignified gray and brimming with ideas. Simha, our school captain was with us too. I remember him as the tall and handsome fast bowler, facing up to whom was my job as an opening batsman. Today, he no longer looks ten feet tall and I didn’t feel like a pygmy either. Oh captain my captain.

Murali (the founder of “Sriharikota Through My Eyes – STME” on Facebook) and Vinay, the young alumni, would mysteriously appear with a car in tow whenever he had to move. And they seemed know exactly where we would want to go, even before we did. Youngsters, but cut from the same cloth after all.

We drove to the school from the hostel. The lane where YVP used to live. Aparna too. Lalini close by. A loud scream from Prakash would have reached AB’s home, SR’s too, probably. Nalinikanth further down to the right. Each street seemed to have something to say to me. And, I was all ears. Mom would have wanted to hear all about it.

The school was as I remembered. The assembly area seemed to have shrunk. The Library felt impressive. The Principal’s office was just right. The Principal gave us so much time and regard. The staff rooms felt a bit desolate because all the teachers were in their classes. But the school by itself felt sprawling. Little courtyards between classrooms. Classrooms with huge windows. I recollect jumping out of the windows but not sure if that is a true recollection. Today, the windows have grills. I remember us having little independent tables and chairs. That has changed. The labs and the open spaces felt good even now.

The TT table in the open space in front of the Principal’s office is gone. So is the wood craft class. We had made photo frames and little suitcases there. We had messed around with wedges and joints and rexine and Fevicol and hammers and saws and planers and what not. I carry the mark on my left thumb from the day when I sawed it. No Life magazine in the library any more. The school in Phase-I is a different entity now. The brown hard board we messed up is history. And so, in a sense, are all of us and all the teachers who taught us. Could easily imagine our teachers turning the corner, and walking towards us with the same smile on their faces, same questioning look and the easily sensed affection. Could see the bunch of kids that we were, earnestly going about doing stuff that was so important. Nothing very different now, just that the kids are not us.

The football field left me a bit confused too. All the little grounds, masquerading as football fields in Bangalore have messed up my size perspective. The school ground is huge. Can’t believe that we used run up and down, up and down, up and down on that field, at noon, on hot, Andhra summers. The basketball court nearby has not changed size. Those grounds had provided solace to many a broken heart. I am sure they continue to do their bit even now.

Me and My “Old house”

Walked down to my “old house” in the evening. Wanted to knock and enter but decided against creating a situation. Ambu visited his “old house” at Phase-I and we heard about it at a chai shop in QCH! The sandy ground in front of our house is all overgrown with shrubs. I didn’t feel comfortable cutting across. Disheartening. Those sands where we were ROFL before people started doing it all over the internet.

Walked up to the Tennis courts. Desolate now. Peeped into Veera’s house. No Veera. Looked at the Phase-I ground behind the Tennis courts. I wanted to ask someone if the little twisters formed on the ground even now.

Hmmmm…..

We saw Sriharikota and we felt it. But there was so much more. The Sea beyond. The Cyclones building up somewhere and heading towards SHAR. The Yenadis and their settlements. The Launch facilities. The rocket assembly facility. The Launch pads. The Forrest where we used to go berry picking. A Cheetah had been found in the Forrest recently. For fifty years, no berry picker had known that our forrest had Cheetahs in them.

Finally, Sriharikota is all about rockets. A kid at Space Central School today would find the heroic rockets of our times childish. After all, our celebrated SLV will not qualify as a strap on booster today and the Rohini that our parents got to stick in the sky, is probably smaller than the battery pack on GSAT-19.

Here is something you might like:

Growing up to Mars

https://www.facebook.com/SCSalumniOfficial/