Topic: - In Memoriam
IT was truly a bittersweet homecoming. As Malaysian angkasawan Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor touched down on Earth on Oct 20 last year after his 12-day space journey, he was blissfully unaware that his younger brother, Sheikh Mustapha Shukor al-Masrie, had slipped into a coma after a fall just a few hours earlier.
As fate would have it, by the time Dr Sheikh Muszaphar returned to Malaysia from the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia, his brother had passed away.
When interviewed by the press shortly after the funeral, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar said: "Ajil (as Sheikh Mustapha was known to friends and family) was my devoted fan and since the start of the space programme, he had given me solid support."
Unbeknownst to his older brother, Sheikh Mustapha had been quietly working on a book to honour him. His death left it unfinished, so the family took over where the 32-year-old had left off.
Led by Dr Sheikh Muszaphar, they have worked relentlessly over the last few months to realise Ajil's dream of seeing the book come to fruition.
The result is Reaching for the Stars, which comprises two parts: In the first, Ajil writes about the angkasawan's aspirations and journey, and in the second, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar and his three other brothers write a touching tribute to their departed sibling.
Ajil's wife, Haryati Mohd. Redza1, also writes a tribute to her husband in the closing chapter.
Says the angkasawan of his brother's initial work: "It was a shock and surprise when I walked into his bedroom and discovered the pictorial dedication to me."
"There were pictures pasted all over the walls, scribbled transcripts on serviettes, downloaded visuals of me in space, and a bowl of kuaci seeds, half-finished," the doctor says, looking visibly emotional.
He is glad that they were able to finish what his brother didn't manage to.
"I burnt the midnight oil to publish Reaching for the Stars and now that it will be launched soon (it was launched on Friday), I feel a sense of achievement."
"It is a celebration of the memory of my dear brother as well as my country, family, and friends. I hope he can hear me say 'Thank you, Ajil – and I miss you so much'."
This is the first time Dr Sheikh Muszaphar has spoken of his brother since his demise, and as he poured his heart out over coffee and pastries at his KL restaurant, Rebung (which he co-owns with Chef Ismail Ahmad), one can't help but wonder: would he have gone ahead with his space adventure had he known Ajil wouldn't be around when he got back?
"That is a very hard question to answer. I really don't know, but he would have wanted me to go, that’s for sure," he says.
It is no secret that Ajil adored his older brother (Dr Sheikh Muszaphar is the third of five boys and Ajil was fourth) but it is obvious from Dr Sheikh Muszaphar's tone that the admiration was mutual.
"We are an exceptionally close-knit family. Growing up, we were so close that we would finish each other's sentences," the 35-year-old orthopaedic surgeon-turned-spaceman says.
Apparently, their boisterous characters are thanks to their father, Negri Sembilan-based businessman Datuk Sheikh Mustapha Sheikh Shukor. Their mother, Datin Zuraidah Sheikh Ahmad, is less chatty, so together, they strike the perfect balance, says the cosmonaut.
"She had her way and we were all sent away to residential school, and were given every opportunity to excel."
Unsurprisingly, astronomy dominated many conversations between the brothers: "Ajil and I would debate for hours about whether there is life in space."
And when the national space programme selections began, three of the siblings registered.
"My eldest brother, Sheikh Ahmad didn't make it to the final 100, and shortly after that, Sheikh Taufik2 was dropped short of the final 59."
When Dr Sheikh Muszaphar made it all the way to the end (he pipped Dr Faiz Khaleed to win the coveted spot), it was the great Malaysian dream come true.
"As excited as I was to carry the Malaysian flag to space, I also lost my privacy. Somehow, Ajil made it all bearable for me, putting everything in perspective whenever things got too intense," he says.
Thankfully, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar is a firm believer that life goes on no matter what hurdles come along.
"I now have made a commitment to care for my nephew, Aiman. It saddens me still when he occasionally asks for his father." (Ajil left two children, Aiman, three, and Siti Balkish, one.)
According to the family, Aiman was initially very affected by his father's absence. However, lots of love and patience have comforted him somewhat.
"He has come to terms with it, I believe," says Dr Sheikh Muszaphar. "The other day in school, I overheard him telling his friends that his father has gone away further than his uncle has (in space) ... he has gone to heaven. Woah! That was like a kick in my gut," the doctor says frankly.
Will he allow Aiman to fly to the moon some day?
"That'll be totally his decision but I'd be over the moon to hear that!" he laughs.
Since his big adventure, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar's life has not really gotten back to normal.
"It has been a non-stop flurry of talks and interviews. It's hectic but I embrace it. I still believe I have a commitment to my country and my fans," he says.
Not content to rest on his successes so far, the cosmonaut embarked on a nationwide road show in support of Barisan Nasional during its recent election rally.
"I'd like to dabble in politics too ... someday," says Dr Sheikh Muszaphar.
Until he adds another job description to an already long list (which includes model, doctor, restaurateur, and cosmonaut), his fans are being kept busy with rumours of an impending marriage that is being keenly discussed in the media and in blogsville.
Dr Sheikh Muszaphar says matter-of-factly: "No! Romance is not on my list of priorities at this point of time."
"Yes, I have been seen with a certain lady doctor and photographed – but she is a good friend, nothing more."
He lets rip a bellowing laugh, "I love children – I do wish to settle down and have children of my own some day but until then, I'm practising on Aiman."
On his to-do list at the moment is more publishing.
"Now that Reaching for the Stars is done, I hope to publish my own work soon. I am working on a draft now. But I'm taking my time on that one."
"Ajil's account was just the first of many and it was deliberately written in clear, uncomplicated English for all to enjoy and be inspired."
The book has also been kept at an affordable RM20, and will be published in English, Malay and Chinese.
"I am not aiming for it to be a best-seller. My wish is that the parents read this to their children before bedtime to make them realise that to reach a goal, you need to start with a single step. Mine led me to the stars."
'Reaching for the Stars' is published by MPH Group Publishing and was launched in Kuala Lumpur on Friday by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak.
Source: The Star Online
Site Editor's Note:
1. The spelling of Ms Haryati Mohd. Redza's name has been amended and is different from what appeared in the original article.
2. The 3 siblings who registered for the programme were Sheikh Ahmad, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar and Sheikh Arwiz.