Bharat has lost a Ratna, but the light from this jewel will guide us towards A P J Abdul Kalam’s dream destination – India as a knowledge superpower, in the first rank of nations. For him, the counterpoint to poverty was the wealth of knowledge, in both its scientific and spiritual manifestations. As a hero of our defence programme, he shifted horizons; and as a seer of the spirit, he sought to liberate doctrine from the narrow confines of partisan tension to the transcendental space of harmony. His profound idealism was secure because it rested on a foundation of realism … He took little from the world, and gave all he could to society. A man of deep faith, he epitomised the three great virtues of our civilisation: dama – self-restraint; dana – sacrifice; and daya – compassion … He wanted India to leap out of the underdeveloped trough and eliminate the curse of poverty through inclusive economic growth. Wisely, he suggested politicians spend only 30% of their time on politics, and 70% on development … Kalamji saw poetry in a tree, and energy that could be harnessed in water, wind and sun. We should learn to look at our world through his eyes, and with the same missionary zeal … He saw the future, and showed the way. As I entered the room where his body lay in state yesterday, I noticed the painting at the entrance that depicted a few lines from an inspirational book he wrote for children, ‘Ignited Minds’. The good that he did will not be interred with his bones, because his children will preserve his memory through their lives and work, and gift it to their children.
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India
Prof. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen “A P J” Abdul Kalam, engineer-scientist-technology administrator-former president is no more. India’s ‘missile-man’, we see in social media today, has his detractors as is evident from social media postings today, who after his passing hasten to tell us that he wasn’t really a scientist, but a mere engineer and that too probably not a very good one. It may be true that he was just a simple engineer and not one of those who boast a whole string of academic degrees longer than their own shadows at sundown. But let’s today take all that with a whole fistful of salt. In contrast to all that his detractors might aver, he was indeed – without question – an extraordinary human being. Humble and down-to-earth in his erudition, and an unassuming personality – aptly has he earned the sobriquet ‘people’s president.’
Though Prof. Kalam ultimately excused himself from the presidential contest for a second term in year 2012, his brief presence in the race brought up a quintessential coffee table question: “Would Kalam have won in a direct presidential election ?” In our view moot on two counts – he was apolitical to the last, never having addressed any political gathering, so there is no telling what impact he might make in an election. Secondly, the most gatherings he did address during his lifetime as technologist-statesman were institutional ones – urban-centric events confined within the cocoons of what were ‘developed’ islands in Indian science, technology, industry and the economy in general.
But then in retrospect, if we also observe how the selfsame Prof. Kalam reigned supreme when addressing large public functions after his presidency with his affable command and charm, especially audiences full of young Indians, he does impress. Oft has he been successful in taming screaming audiences within the blink of an eye and get them to take a collective pledges to serve the nation, repeating sentence by sentence after him and cheering every pause in his speech with gusto. That too was quintessential Prof. Kalam. So difficult to answer that question, no ?
There is no gainsaying that Prof. Kalam’s life too is as true a rags-to-riches story as can be, that of a poor tamil muslim son of a boatman, who strove to be an aerospace engineer and went on to become the chief scientific advisor to the prime minister of India and, eventually, made it to the presidential office. A tamil maraikayar muslim from a pious background, he was more likely to quote from the ancient Tamil classic Thirukkural than from Rumi or Iqbal. He was a pretty good amateur musician on the rudra veena too – an instrument in the Carnatic classical tradition, and was as equally versed with the Bhagvad Gita as with the Quran Sharif. A development fanatic, futurist and a strong believer in nuclear power — both for energy and for strategic deterrence, he justified India building weapons of mass destruction – his take was: “… strength respects strength”.
Prof. Kalam apropos does have a vast constituency all across India, for whom he finds greater acceptance as a technocrat, philosopher and statesman than as any leader of a minority community. His background and political affiliation, broad and counter-intuitive, counts more for them. As an aside, it is indeed worth mentioning here that Prof. Kalam was twice nominated in the past for the ‘MTV Youth Icon of the Year’ Award !
All those ruminations apart, Prof. Kalam was indeed an extraordinary man and an exemplary soul, who lived by a strict set of rules he had setup for himself … . Well versed in Sanskrit, he prefered to call himself a ‘brahmachari‘ rather than a bachelor – as ‘bachelor’ meant just an unmarried man, while the Sanskrit word imputed nuances and meanings much much more in tune with his world-view and work-ethos. Thus, true to ‘brahmacharita‘, Prof. Kalam remained wedded to the goals and aspirations he strived for with a passion akin to zealotry, remained a staunch vegetarian all his life, and lived a life that had all the hallmarks of a evolved ascetic whose needs were spartan and minimal, while his goals and targets received all his concentration, focus and indomitable effort.
In order to know Prof. Kalam the man better, we felt it is well worth our while to take a peek into a fragment of his journey from Rameshwaram to new Delhi … and so invite you, the reader, to walk with Prof. Kalam as he himself walked down memory lane. Here be excerpts from his autobiography, where he narrates in his own words a seminal event of his life as a young lad:
“… the sea was an important part of our lives – its tides, the lapping of the waves, the sound of trains passing on the Pamban bridge, the birds that always circled the town and the salt in the air are sights and sounds that will always remain etched in my memories … .
“Almost every household had connections with the sea, as fishermen or as boat owners. My father, too operated a ferry that took people back and forth between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, 22 kilometres away. I still remember the time when he got the idea for this, and how we built that boat. Rameswaram has, since antiquity, been an important pilgrimage destination … people visiting our town go to Dhanushkodi as part of their pilgrimage. A bath at Sagara-Sangam there … the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean … is considered sacred. My father, looking to supplement his not very substantial income, decided to start a ferry business. He started building the boat we needed for this, all by himself initially, right there on the seashore.
“Watching the boat come to life from pieces of wood and metal was perhaps my first introduction to the world of engineering … long pieces of wood were cut into the required shape, dried, smoothened and then joined together. Many years later, in my work, I would learn how to make rockets and missiles. Complex mathematics and scientific research would be the bedrock of those engineering marvels. But that boat coming up on the seashore, which would take pilgrims and fishermen back and forth … who is to say it was not as important or momentous in our lives then ?
“The building of the boat … brought my cousin Ahmed Jalalluddin into my life, who joined my father to help build the boat. He recognised the inherent desire in me to learn and question, and was always there to lend a patient ear and give words of advice. He could read and write English, and spoke to me about scientists and inventions, literature and medicine. Walking with him in the streets of Rameswaram, or by the seaside, or by our boat as it took shape, my mind began to form ideas and ambitions. The boat business was a great success.
“And so the years went by. My school, teachers, Jalalluddin and others taught me so many things. But the boat and the people who sailed in it were no less important … . Then one day, disaster struck… . I still remember the night of that terrible cyclone vividly. The wind had picked up speed for days, till it became a howling gale. It screamed and whistled in our ears and pulled and hacked at the trees or anything that stood in its way. Soon, a torrential rain started. We retreated into our houses … there was no electricity in those days, and the lamps barely managed to stay alive. In that flickering darkness, with the wind working itself into a frenzy, the sound of the rain lashing down outside, we huddled together and waited for the night to pass … the next morning … we saw the unbelievable destruction … trees, houses, plantations uprooted and devastated. Roads had disappeared under the water and debris blown in by winds that had come in at speeds of over 100 miles an hour. But the worst news of all was the one that hit us like a punch to the stomach. Our boat had been washed away … Now, when I think of that day, I realise that perhaps my father had known this would happen the night before … in the light of the morning, seeing his drawn face and the worries lining his eyes, I tried to gather my thoughts. In my mind I mourned our lost ferry boat fiercely.
“Yet, my father’s stoicism saw us through this crisis too. In time another boat came, and business resumed. Pilgrims and tourists returned. The temple and the mosque filled with worshippers and the markets bustled with men and women, buying and selling once more. Cyclones and storms struck us again and again. I even learnt to sleep through them. Many years later, in 1964, when I was no longer living in Rameswaram, a massive cyclone struck. This time, it carried away a part of the landmass of Dhanushkodi. A train that was on Pamban Bridge was washed away, with many pilgrims inside. It altered the geography of the area, and Dhanushkodi became a ghost town, never to recover its former character. Even today, skeletal remnants of buildings jut out of the sands there as monuments to the 1964 cyclone. My father lost his ferry once more in that storm … .
“When I struggled to give shape to the satellite launch vehicle (SLV) rocket, or the Prithvi and Agni missiles, when countdowns and takeoffs were disrupted, and rain came down on our launch sites situated by the sea in Thumba and Chandipur, I always remembered the look on my father’s face the day after the storm. It was an acknowledgement of the power of nature, of knowing what it means to live by the sea and wrest your living from it. Of knowing that there is a larger force out there that can crush our ambitions and plans in the blink of an eye, and that the only way to survive is to face our troubles and rebuild our life … .
FIRST JOB AT THE AGE OF EIGHT
“I was born in the year 1931. When I was about eight, World War II broke out. Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and despite the INC’s opposition, India too as a British colony was involved in the war. Daily life, however, remained fairly unaffected initially, particularly for us in the southern tip of the country. Rameswaram in the 1940s was a sleepy little town that came alive with the arrival of pilgrims. The town was dominated by the temple, though there was a mosque and a church too. Everyone went about their way fairly peacefully, and other than the normal altercations that break out in any town or village … The only source of information about the outside world was the newspaper. The agency that distributed newspapers was run by my cousin Samsuddin. Along with Jalalluddin, he was a big influence in my early life. Though he could read and write, Samsuddin was not well travelled, nor highly educated. Yet he had such affection for me and encouraged me in so many ways that he became a guiding light for me … To me they were adults who could reach out beyond the narrow confines of their daily lives and businesses and see the larger world.
“Samsuddin’s newspaper distribution agency was the only one in Rameswaram. There were about a thousand literate people in the town, and he delivered newspapers to all of them. The papers carried news about the Independence movement that was heading towards a crescendo at the time. These news items would be read and discussed with great gusto with everyone else. There would also be news from the war front, about Hitler and the Nazi army. Of course, there were many mundane matters too, like astrological references or bullion rates, which were consulted with utmost interest. The Tamil paper, Dinamani, was the most popular of all these papers.
“The papers reached Rameswaram by morning train and were kept at the station. From there, they were to be collected and sent to the subscribers. However, as World War II raged, we no longer remained isolated … . It affected my life and the newspaper delivery in a strange new way. The British government had placed a number of sanctions and rations on goods … something like a state of emergency now prevailed … our large family felt the difficulties acutely. Food, clothes, the needs of the babies of the household, all became difficult to procure and provide for. In our family, there were five sons and daughters, as well as my father’s brothers’ families. My grandmother and mother had to stretch every resource to the utmost to keep everyone fed, clothed and in good health.
“As the difficulties of the war started affecting us, Samsuddin came up with a proposal that excited and delighted me tremendously. A fallout of wartime was that the rail stop at Rameswaram station had been done away with. What would happen to our papers then ? How were they to be collected and distributed to the people of the town who were looking forward to their daily dose of news ? Samsuddin found a way – the papers would be kept ready in large bundles. As the train chugged down the Rameswaram-Dhanushkodi track, they would be flung out onto the platform. And that is where I came in – Samsuddin ordered me the enjoyable job of catching these bundles of papers being thrown from the moving train and then taking them around town for distribution ! My enthusiasm knew no bounds. I was only eight, but I was going to contribute in a meaningful way to the household income !
“… my new job had to be fitted into my regular routine … my studies and school had to continue as before, and the delivery business had to be accommodated amidst all these activities. Among my siblings and cousins, I had shown an early aptitude for mathematics. So my father had arranged for me to take tuitions from our mathematics teacher. However, my teacher had a condition that I, along with the four other students whom he had accepted, need to reach his home at dawn after having taken a bath. So for a year, which was the duration of the tuition, I started my day while it was still dark outside, with my mother shaking me awake. She herself would have risen before me and got my bath ready. She would then help me bathe and send me on my way to my teacher’s home. There I would study for an hour and return by 5 am. By then my father would be ready to take me to the Arabic School nearby, where I learnt the Quran Sharif.
“After my lesson on the Quran Sharif was over, I would sprint away to the railway station. There I would wait, hopping from one leg to the other, eyes and ears keenly open for signs of the oncoming train. Surprisingly, unlike most trains these days, the Madras-Dhanushkodi Mail was rarely delayed ! Soon, the engine smoke would be visible in the distance. The horn would be tooted loudly and, with a thunderous roar, the train would pass through the station. I had worked out the best spot from which to keep an eye out for the flying newspaper bundles. Like clockwork, they would be tossed out on to the platform. The train would then huff and puff away, Samsuddin’s person in the train would wave out to me and as the train receded, its whistle growing faint, my job would begin.
“I would pick the bundles, divide them up into batches according to the neighbourhoods where the papers had to be distributed and off I went. For about an hour I tore around Rameswaram, delivering papers to everyone. Many would be waiting for me, and there would always be a friendly word or two. Some would tell me fondly to hurry back home so I would not be late for school ! I think most enjoyed being handed their papers by a cheerful eight-year-old. Our town being on the east coast, by the time my work was over at 8 am, the sun would be high up in the sky. Now I would head back home, where my mother would wait with breakfast. A simple meal would be served, but how hungry I was usually ! My mother made sure I ate every morsel before sending me out to school. But my work did not end there. In the evening, after school was over, I would do the rounds of Samsuddin’s newspaper customers again, collecting their dues from them. Then I would meet him, so he could work out the accounts of the day.
“At that time, sitting somewhere near the sea, with the breeze blowing in, Jalalluddin or Samsuddin would finally open up the day’s paper. All of us would pore over the black type of the Dinamani. One of them would read aloud the news items, and slowly the larger outside world would enter our consciousness. Gandhi, Congress, Hitler, Periyar EV Ramasamy, their words and exhortations would hang in the evening air … . Maybe, I thought to myself, one day I would go to the big cities like Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. What would I say if I ever got to meet people like Gandhi and Nehru ? But such thoughts were soon interrupted by the calls of my playmates, and then for dinner. There was homework to be done, and even an eight-year-old has only that much energy to spend. By 9 pm I would be fast asleep, as the next day more studies and the life of a working man lay in store all over again.
“This routine continued for about a year. In that one year of running around with the papers, I learnt that to be a working man meant you had to be up and ready to face the day, whatever else may happen. Homework, tuition, prayers, all carried on, but the Madras-Dhanushkodi Mail would not wait for me — I had to be present at the station at the correct time and at the correct point to catch the bundles as they came flying in. It was also a most enjoyable time and I loved every moment of it, notwithstanding the intense tiredness every night. My mother often fretted at my taking up this additional work and the toll it was taking on me, but I shook my head and smiled at her. Knowing that my earnings were somehow helping us all, and that she was secretly proud of me for having taken on the role of a working man at the age of eight kept me going with a smile … .”
In June 2012, when Prof. Kalam posted an official statement that cleared the air and ended all speculation that he will not take part in the presidential election, he wrote a line to thank his followers: “It only reflects their love and affection for me and the aspiration of the people. I am really overwhelmed by this support”. Overwhelming indeed it is … mayhaps the life-journey of Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen “A P J” Abdul Kalam is in large part a reflection of a metamorphosing subcontinent in which our self-views and worldviews alike are today getting reforged in the crucible of an emerging new history and an even newer economic of interdependences.
May Prof. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen “A P J” Abdul Kalam’s soul rest in peace.