A humble man to his last breath.
By Rajiv Theodore
NEW DELHI: Once while attending a convocation at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, the former President of India, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, noticed that his chair was larger than those offered to other dignitaries sitting around him. Dr. Kalam got up promptly and offered that larger chair to the vice-chancellor instead, which resulted in a smaller chair for the President.
A humble man, Kalam did not have any qualms to tidy his locks of hair with a comb even in public functions. And his passion to connect with children is well known, not in a forced avuncular manner, but to be one amongst them, in fact to become a child once again during his interactions with the younger lot, many times spending his birthday with them.
“My message, especially to young people is to have courage to think differently, courage to invent, to travel the unexplored path, courage to discover the impossible and to conquer the problems and succeed. These are great qualities that they must work towards. This is my message to the young people,” the President had said.
Many recollect, the bachelor took only two holidays a year, one each to mark the death of his parents.
“If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher,” he said.
Also known as India’s Missile Man or the brain behind India’s missile technology, Dr. Kalam is said to have got the idea of missiles while dropping papers during his early childhood. But then the overriding fact remains how a boy in a remote village in Rameshwaram, who supplemented his family’s meagre income by distributing newspapers, rose to become the President of India.
As a young boy growing up in picturesque Rameshwaram, at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the son of a boatman had a natural liking for the ocean and the calming effect waves had on him as he spent the little spare time he got in between chores and studies, watching the waters.
His father always desired his son to study further and be educated. On a typical day for the young Kalam, he would rise at 4 am, have his bath and then go to mathematics classes. After the class, Kalam, along with his cousin Samsuddin, went around distributing newspapers to residents of the town.
The town had no electricity; kerosene lamps were lit at his home between 7 pm to 8 pm. As Kalam studied till 11 pm, his mother used to save fuel for later use.
And it was when he grew up that a string of achievements were credited to him and this quote from Dr Kalam is never is out of context: “Man needs his difficulties because they are necessary to enjoy success.”
Here are some of his successes:
- After graduating from Madras Institute of Technology in 1960, Kalam joined the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). He designed helicopters for the Indian Army.
- At the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Kalam worked as the project director for SLV-III, India’s first indigenous satellite launch vehicle.
- SLV-III successfully launched satellite Rohini to orbit on July 1980. From then, Kalam expanded India’s space program.
- In the 1980s he led India’s missile program. Under his leadership, India became a major military power after the successes of Agni and Prithvi.
- Kalam was the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of Defence Research and Development Organization from July 1992 to December 1999.
- In 1998, along with cardiologist Dr. Soma Raju, Kalam developed a low cost Coronary stent. It was named as “Kalam-Raju Stent” honoring them. In 2012, they repeated a similar performance by designing a tablet PC for health care in rural areas, which was named as “Kalam-Raju Tablet”.
- In 1998, Kalam played the pivotal role in the Pokhran-II nuclear test later conveying to the international community that such arms were only to deter other nations from trying to subjugate India, and were only to be used as “weapons of peace”.
- It was in 2002 that in a rare show of unity, all political parties unanimously voted for Kalam in 2002 as the 11th President of India.
- His stirring speeches at the UN and the European Parliament are among the best ever delivered. His simplicity in oration and action were applauded and made him dear to all.
- After the completion of his term as President, Kalam wrote extensively and launched many initiatives for youth development.
It was during a lecture at Shillong on Monday evening that Kalam suffered a cardiac arrest and was brought dead to a nearby hospital. The former president’s last moments were spent imparting his wisdom, almost sage-like.
Some of his last words at Shillong were to a guard who was standing watch over the former President: “Thank you buddy. Are you tired? Would you like something to eat? I am sorry you had to stand so long because of me.”
The overwhelmed guard rambled, “Sir, aapke liye to 6 ghante bhi khade rahenge (Sir, I can stand for six hours for you).”
(Rajiv Theodore is India Bureau Chief, The American Bazaar)