As I sat down with Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma (retired) and asked him about his experience as the first Indian to go into space – and this is a legend we all have grown up with – he told me the experience was so overwhelming for him that he had still not come to terms with it.

“It’s difficult to recover from it. I still feel so small,” Sharma said.

From my school textbooks, I remember that he had replied with “Saare jahan se achcha” when the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, asked him how India looked from space. Having been in the air force, he had anyway travelled and flown over the length and breadth of the country.

Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma: “My parents were born and brought up in Pakistan. I was born just after Partition in Patiala, and while all my relatives are up north, I was raised in Hyderabad. As part of the Indian Air Force, I served all over – from Gujarat to Assam and down south, so I am from all over, and I don’t like to label myself as belonging to one state or the other.”

So how did the air force happen? I wanted to understand his background.

“We didn’t have any relatives in the armed forces, both on my father’s side and my mother’s side, but we had a cousin, my mother’s cousin, who was actually in the air force and was training to be a fighter pilot. I was all of five years old at that time, in Hyderabad. He once took me to his passing-out parade and sat me inside a Vampire plane, and then those aircraft did a fly-past. It was the first jet-engine aircraft in the Indian skies, and the whistling sound captivated my imagination. And when I sat in the cockpit and saw all those dials and stuff, I was hooked for life. So that’s how I got into the air force, and right at that age, I wanted to fly one of those machines.”

Unfortunately, his cousin died two months later in an air crash, and that made things difficult for Rakesh in terms of taking parental approval over choosing this career.

“But ultimately, it worked out. So I was motivated right from then…”

As was destined, he would be among the few people in history who went into space and the first from India to do so. But talk to him about it, and he wants to keep it low-key.

“You know, sometimes people and the media paint such a larger-than-life image of a person when things like this happen, but as far as I am concerned as well as most of my colleagues, who have been into space – it’s just a job. They are professionals. They were selected. They were given a job, and well, I was just like them; and once that is over, you want to get on with your life.”

What do you call it? Pure humility or an extraordinarily pragmatic understanding of life? This man is considered one of the greatest achievers in post-Independence India, and here he is, saying he was selected, just like his colleagues who got selected, and just did his job! Maybe he is right about the larger-than-life image that gets painted, but there is a reason that happens. The reason is that there is a certain fantasy, a certain science-fiction element to going where few have gone. So that’s why it appears extraordinary. Doesn’t he relive those moments at all?

“Not at all.”

I am stunned! Want him to elaborate.

“Well, to begin with, I never aspired to go up into space, and I didn’t because we never had a ‘programme’ as such. This is not to say that I was not captivated by this whole business of space flight. I mean, I was a kid when [Yuri] Gagarin had gone to space, around 1961, and for students like us who were in high school at that time, it was a huge event, as you may recall. There were discussions on what they ate in the morning, afternoon and evening; the menu and everything was documented. And though there was no television in those days, we devoured all that was written about it. Then came Life magazine, and we saw those tremendous photographs that gave a fairly good idea. But as Indians, we never aspired, because we were just about getting started on our programme and firing sodium vapour into space using American Nike-Apache rockets. So going into space was earlier never on the horizon. Later, when the chance came, of course, I was thrilled and just took that up. It’s been 35 years now, and today, the programme is just about beginning here.”

But why did he decide not to live with that experience in all its nostalgia? Others would have been thrilled and boasted about it in their CVs.

“In retrospect, I think to not live with that experience was a personal choice. When you start thinking too much about it, you start imagining stuff which is not there. So I prefer not to do that.”

Is there anything that has stayed with him? When, for instance, I climb a hill and stand on top and look around, I feel something. So was there anything similar for him? Was there a life lesson?

“You know, let me just put it in perspective. This whole game is so expensive that when you are up there, each minute of your time is curated; you have to do stuff, record the results, so there is really no time to put your nose to the window and watch the world go by! Not that we didn’t do that; and of course, one was greatly impacted.”

We have all seen the photographs from up there. But he was the one who saw the real thing!

“What I am trying to underline is that you don’t have to go up into space to come by that feeling. You know, you can get it right over here: the feeling that we are a very insignificant part of this universe.”

To millions, he is the first man from India to have gone into space. To me, he appears as a seeker more than anything else. He sounds deeply spiritual.

“I agree that to see it and to actually, in a way, experience it is a different thing. Because the lack of gravity is again very, very unusual, and to be in that milieu…well, I have come away with the feeling that space is a great place to visit, but there is no place like Earth to live on.”

This realisation he got from above may be why he turned towards environmentalism later in his life.

“See, this is the only home we will ever have, and I have been speaking on these topics for the last 35 years. So that comes to you with great force – the fragility of our planet – because you are just suspended in space, and there is just vacuum all around, and there is nothing as far as I can see or as far as the Hubble Telescope can see, there is no other habitable place!”

At this stage, I have goosebumps listening to how he describes his space experience, and I start imagining it. How does he see the attempts made by various countries and corporations to colonise space?

“It appears, of course, that we are now going to get started on colonising the moon and later Mars, but that’s in the future. Let’s see how that pans out.”

Over the past three decades, he has spent most of his time talking and thinking about the environment.

“You know, people want to listen to what I have to say about space, but when you have a captive audience, though I give them a sense of what it takes to prepare for a space flight to whet their appetites regarding that subject, I do steer the conversation or my monologue towards sustainable living, and I do try and paint a picture for them as to what can happen if we do not embrace sustainable living because we are living on a planet that has non-renewable resources. So if you are going to expend resources faster than they can be replenished, then you are going to destroy the only place that can give you life. I think the crowd does resonate with it, but these are existential realities, and some fundamental changes have to occur, starting with the kind of economic model our world follows nowadays, which is all based on quarter-on-quarter growth and profit. So, it’s a nonsustainable paradigm in an environment which is finite.”

Absolutely. That realisation is very important.

Excerpted with permission from Against the Grain: Lessons from the Outliers, Pankaj Mishra, Penguin India.