Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, in Karnal. Kalpana Chawla`s parents originally came to Karnal (city in Haryana
) from the Multan district of West Punjab
(now in Pakistan) after the Partition of India after independence. When her father, Banarsi Lai Chawla, was leaving his hometown of Sheikhopura, communal riots broke out. He was one of the few survivors in the family who managed to reach India safely but without any possessions. The family finally settled down in Karnal, Haryana. It was precisely here in the Haryana city-town that Kalpana Chawla cherished most of her early life.
When Kalpana Chawla was born her father was still a petty businessman trying hard to support his growing joint family of sixteen members. For his own survival, Kalpana`s father started several petty businesses, from selling toffees, groundnuts, dates and soaps as a street hawker, to manufacturing metal boxes for storing provisions and even setting up a textile shop. Finally, he became a self-taught technologist and engineer and began manufacturing tyres when the Indian market was flooded with imported tyres. Meanwhile, he married Sanyogita, a highly religious young woman, whose family also came from the same region in Pakistan. Kalpana`s early life had an archetypal Indian setting, where she was brought up in an environment where hard work was encouraged. The youngest child among three girls and one boy, she was treated like any other girl in the family, expected to be obedient and docile. But Kalpana`s mother came from an educated family and was always ready to fight for her daughters. In fact, by the time Kalpana grew up, her eldest sister Sunita, eight years her senior, had already broken several family traditions. She had done well in school and gone for higher education to college, which was a taboo for girls in those days.
Even as a child, Kalpana Chawla began to show her independent nature and she even selected her own name. It so happened that she was called by her pet name `Monto` at home. Her parents were always so busy that Kalpana had not been formally named at a proper ceremony. When Sunita and her aunt took Kalpana for admission to a nearby-nursery school, the Principal asked her name. Sunita answered that they had three names in mind - Kalpana, Jyotsna and Sunaina, but they were yet undecided. The Principal therefore asked the little girl (Kalpana) as to which name would she prefer. And she promptly replied, Kalpana. It becomes pretty obvious that early life of Kalpana Chawla had started with much fun and frolic, with dollops of discipline put in.
Like the name she chose, which means `imagination`, Kalpana Chawla was a highly imaginative child. During summer when the family slept on the roof of their small house in an isolated corner of Model Town colony, she would watch the night sky. Staring at the twinkling stars she wondered what they were, dreaming they beckoned to her and if it was ever possible to reach them. She would often ask questions about space, but would rarely receive a satisfactory answer. Into her early years of life, stars captivated Kalpana so much that once when she and her classmates built a physical geography map of India covering the floor of an entire classroom in her school, Tagore Baal Niketan, she covered its ceiling completely with stars - sparkling dots marked on blackened newspapers.
Like stars in the night sky, the first things in the blue morning sky that caught her fancy were aeroplanes. Karnal is one of the few Indian towns with a flying club. It was called `Karnal Aviation Club` and is now a part of the Haryana Institute of Civil Aviation. Here, small Pushpak planes and gliders regularly take off and lands. As her house was a few kilometres away from the Club, her favourite pastime was to climb up to the roof and watch them go roaring over her head. Bewitched, she would wave her hand at the pilot if the plane flew low over the house. Since her early years in life, Kalpana Chawla was fantastically attracted to the blue emptiness above, beguiled to know more.
Whenever her teachers asked her class to draw scenery, she would always draw aeroplanes flying in the sky, while the rest made mountains, rivers and houses. She also loved making models of aeroplanes during craft classes.
In one such incident during a class, Kalpana asked her teacher Daljit K. Madan whether she had ever flown in an aeroplane. When she said no, Kalpana enquired whether she was afraid of flying. At the tiny age of eleven, she persuaded her father to take her to the Club and had a thrilling joyride aboard a Pushpak. From that day on, flying became her first love. She became as excited as a child whenever she saw planes or talked about them.
Early life of Kalpana Chawla can be termed as an incredible breakaway from typical Indian girl`s routined life, with variances gradually becoming a regular affair. Although Kalpana never scored the highest marks in her class, she was always among the first five. Sincere, hard-working and attentive, she respected and admired her teachers. She enjoyed subjects like English, Hindi and geography, but her favourite subject was science, taught by Nirmala Namboodripad, who took pains to make the subject simple and interesting. Kalpana also wrote poetry and danced at the annual day celebrations. She loved cycling and running and at sports meets she always came first in the races. Friendly and helpful, she often played badminton and dodge ball with boys. As she grew into a young woman, she cut her hair short and never put on any make-up. She refused to cook, never ironed her clothes and began to wear trousers or jeans.
In those days, most girls in Karnal completed their education, got married and settled down. But Kalpana`s teachers at school encouraged the girls not to waste their education and do something more worthwhile in life. Belonging to middle or lower middle class families, the girls were also keen on higher studies and earning a living. And here lies the yawning difference between Kalpana and her other counterparts. Since her early life, i.e., by the tenth class, Kalpana had also made up her mind. Whenever any visitor asked her what she wanted to become in life, she would readily reply, `A Flight Engineer!` She thought that a flight engineer designs aeroplanes, as nobody had explained that a flight engineer navigates an aeroplane during its flight. Once she saw a photograph of the Viking lander on the planet Mars in a popular weekly and her imaginative mind woke up to the possibility of travelling in space and landing on the Red Planet.
Like her elder sisters Kalpana was admitted to an exclusive girls college - DAV College for Women for her Pre-University. She passed her tenth class from the Haryana Board Examination in 1976. Actually, she was underage and got away by changing her date of birth from March 17, 1962 to July 1, 1961. Slowly passing from an early life, Kalpana Chawla had moved into the level of college education, the transition taking place quite subtly.