‘The whole experience of that silence … it is almost as if there is some music in your head’
Rakesh Sharma was a test pilot in the Indian Air Force in 1982 when he was asked if he would be interested in a secret assignment. He would need to undergo far-reaching medical examinations – psychological tests, being put in a small chamber, having his hands put in hot and cold water at the same time – without knowing the reason why. The 33-year-old veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, agreed. “It was all so cloak and dagger that I don’t think there was anybody who said no,” he says.
Sharma put his eventual selection as India’s cosmonaut – out of 250 shortlisted candidates – down to his equanimity. “Call it calmness, call it acceptance, I never took it that seriously,” he says. “I never used to sweat the small stuff … I mean, if it’s going to work, it’s going to work; if it’s not going to work, it’s not going to work.”
After 18 months of training in Star City, Sharma flew to the Soviet Salyut space station and became the first man to practise yoga in weightless conditions.
India looked “sare jahaan se aachha” – better than the whole world – he told the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, from orbit, words he stands by today. “There were the deserts and the coastlines and the Himalayas, the purple deep valleys and the snowcapped mountains, so it was truly a pretty sight,” he recalls from his home in the hill station of Coonoor, Tamil Nadu.
Twenty-six years on, Sharma is still India’s only cosmonaut, and is frequently asked to speak about his experience, which he still struggles to convey. “You’re in the verbal domain but what has impacted you was in the experiential domain. That is the deficit one feels,” he says. “The whole experience of that silence, that rate at which the movement happens, it is almost as if there is some music in your head.”