Little Big Things: How A 25‑Year‑Old Turned Star Gazing into a Sustainable Business
In Little Big Things, we bring you stories of people who have rejected conformity and achieved success on their own terms.
She’s a motherf***in’ star girl.
Pooja Tolia, 25, was told early on by her father that she would make a terrible engineer, much to her relief. Differentiation and integration made no sense to her, and instead, she spent all her time writing poems and reading books.
“I thought, maybe I’m a misfit here.”
One day, she stumbled upon a poster for an Astronomy/Astrophysics certification course at Sophia’s College, Mumbai, where she was double majoring in Political Science and Psychology. From there, she happened to take a telescope-making workshop at the Nehru Planetarium, acing it within 15 days — the lens making is akin to making chapatis, she says — and ended up with her picture in the Times of India.
“It was the joy of building something with my own hands,” she said, calling it her first big breakthrough into astronomy, aided by the “two-minute fame.” Soon, she was asked by the Director of the Planetarium at the Nehru Centre to teach her peers the art of telescope making, followed by a full-time job as a guide to the centre’s daily visitors.
Learning to give tours in Marathi, sneaking in breaks to the planetarium’s library to read up on her newfound interest and attending all-night-long “star parties” to observe and identify celestial objects took up her time. She ended up funding her college tuition entirely through her earnings, with enough left over to buy two high-end telescopes.
“Initially, my mom was very upset when I started working at the planetarium. She said I was giving way too much time to it,” and expressed concerns over her academic prowess, Tolia recalled. She struck a deal with her mother: “If I maintain my grades, you will let me do this in peace.” Tolia said she aced her exams and gleefully exclaimed that her mother could no longer “logically” complain anymore.
When she started accompanying her seniors from the planetarium on astrophotography trips, carrying their equipment and hoping for a chance to learn the art, she was often surrounded by boys in the dark wilderness, which further concerned her mother.
“A lot of people have an issue sending girls alone on these trips. I sometimes also see girls complaining at nighttime. Someone brushes your hand, maybe innocently, but you can never know what might happen,” she said, expressing a desire to host all-women stargazing trips in the future to make the art more available to women.
After gaining a foothold in the community, Tolia started a new venture with her partners, Stargazing Mumbai, which offers cheap stargazing experiences for amateur astronomers.
“I’m someone who needs multiple windows open, but after discovering stargazing, I cut out a lot of things to make time for this,” she said. “Even if you have explored a lot, there is still so much more you don’t know. It’s a very humbling science. It really keeps you down to earth, even though it makes you look up.”
Now with her venture, she hosts corporate retreats for companies seeking unique team-building experiences, and attempts to share her passion for stargazing with anyone who expresses the remotest of interest. She names stars after members of her stargazing community, to make the experience more personal. “We build a rapport with the sky; it’s an attachment that is inseparable,” she says, adding that she has now married her academic career with her passion, by pursuing a PhD in space politics.
Tolia’s interest in art also enabled her to add an extra layer to her space repertoire, with astrophotography. “I let myself explore two different ends of the spectrum. When you make rigid plans, life will end up happening to you.” With an astrophotography exhibit at the National Centre for the Performing Arts under her belt, and her stargazing venture well on its way to being officially registered as a company this year, Tolia is trying to prevent life from happening to her. Her goal is to make astronomy, “the holy sacred grail” as she puts it, accessible to everyone.
“If I really want to make something of myself, it only makes sense to do it if I’m going to feel a strong passion throughout. Otherwise it just doesn’t make sense. You don’t want to kill yourself to work. You want to do something that you want to live for.”