Dr APJ Abdul Kalam came to this world, saw it and he conquered the hearts of the people. Our best tribute to him would be to emulate his example and live our lives, make life sublime and be of some use to our fellowmen
"War is war. The only good human being is a dead one." - George Orwell
"Do something worth writing about or write something worth reading to become immortal." So wrote Benjamin Franklin. If that yardstick is applied, former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam has already become immortal by both those two counts. In addition, he lives in the hearts of every Indian child and youth because he loved them both most sincerely. Death, be not proud that you have been able to snatch him from our midst, for he continues to live amongst us. His childlike innocence, his transparent sincerity, his disarming universal smile, and his love for his motherland have made him the most popular President of India in recent times. Of course, there were great Presidents like Babu Rajendra Prasad and Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in the past.
Probably the one unfulfilled wish in Dr Kalam's life was his dream of becoming a professor in an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or at Anna University, and to settle down in Chennai after exiting the Rashtrapati Bhavan. That was not to be, thanks to the small mindedness and hubris of some of our hard-hearted, fossilised minded, so-called scientists and educationists, most of who have not understood what education is all about. If having a PhD is the hallmark of becoming a professor, many of our professors should not be where they are.
None of our IITs or Universities have set the River Ganges on fire anyway with all the PhDs they have produced. By the same yardstick, Guruji Rabindranath Tagore was not qualified to be a teacher, let alone getting the Nobel Prize for English poetry in 1913, not having had any formal education worth the mention! I do not think any of our present educationists and scientists have any idea what education is all about. Dr Kalam made up for all that by teaching in schools and AIIMs all over the country, which made him the darling of our children's eyes. He would have loved it that he died in harness that too while still teaching-anaayaasena maranam-which, it is believed, only pure souls are lucky to get. God has been great. Kalam Saab was lucky in life and also in death. Luck is a certificate that comes from God without HIS signature affixed.
I first saw this great man and meet him when I was still very young a new entrant to Stanley Medical College, at what was then Madras, in 1956. I did not have space in a hostel. My cousin, Balachandra Shetty, was a final year student of a new engineering institute called the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) at Thambaram, where they had a nice hostel with single rooms. Kalam saab was his classmate and lived in a room with another of my acquaintances, Surendra Hegde, in the same hostel. I stayed for over a month in their hostel until I got a room at Stanley. I met him a few times during those days.
I had not met him for decades after that when I saw him in a science conference where I was invited to lecture. I could not have the courage to go to talk to him because he was, by then, a big man. After the lecture he came up to me and remembered our meeting at MIT hostel and was conversing in Tamil. I was pleased to hear him telling me that when I was describing the plight of poor malnourished kids dying like flies in India, he had tears in his eyes. It made me realise how simple he was and how child-like his heart was.
Our next meeting happened in curious circumstances. I was the Dean of a medical college. The then Vice Chancellor of Kanpur University came to meet me. I thought he had his child enrolled in our college, but no. He had come all the way to meet me personally with a request. It seemed rather strange. He had come to request me to deliver a Guest Lecture at their next Indian Science Congress. Of course, I agreed, but I was curious to know why he had to come all the way to meet me. Then he told me that the chief scientific advisor to the Govt of India who is in charge of grants for their conferences had told him to have my lecture to get grants. That was Kalam Saab. I was really moved to tears that such a big man had a soft corner for an ordinary person like me. That was our second encounter and the lecture went well, thank God.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in his wisdom, chose Kalam saab as a jewel in the crown of India- Bharat Ratna. As a technologist and a missile man, he had few peers and he went on to occupy all top posts in the Ministry of Science and Technology culminating in him being the back bone of the Pokhran Test. He had invited me to Delhi for his swearing-in ceremony but I wrote back saying that I could not afford the travel costs at such short notice. He had then given me a standing invite to meet him when I go to Delhi. I did go to see him several times, when we would discuss matters of common interest to the country. He always thought of the poor and the less endowed. He even released one of my books at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and got his own photographer to shoot the event. I remained grateful to him.
I had invited him to inaugurate our University’s Golden Jubilee event in 2003. He was reluctant, as he does not want to spend taxpayer’s money for private functions. At the last minute, he called me to say that he is going to Bangalore for some Government engagements and would come from there. He had one condition, though. I had to get him 1,000 copies of a book of mine, which he had bought himself when it was published from his own money to distribute to school children when it was published. I have given here under his letter about the book. I also had to get 1,000 school children to attend the event so that he could distribute my book on the occasion of our Golden Jubilee. We did that and he was so pleased to see the children there. Interestingly, he did not accept any private hospitality that we offered on that occasion.
The first time I met Kalam saab at the Rashtrapati Bhavan I was shocked to see that he had a big bundle of Bhavan’s Journals where I used to write a column. In one of them, I had written about him, he would be the ideal person for the Presidentship of India. This was long before he actually became the President. He wanted to know; “ade epedi eleAthininge? How did you write that?” Every time we met that warmth which never diminished in intensity even long after he demitted office. His personal secretary, Palghat Prasad, was good enough to connect me to him whenever I wanted to meet him and for that I remain grateful. Prasad was Kalam’s trusted lieutenant even after retirement. Prasad could read Kalam’s mind easily and would tell me if he is in a good or bad mood.
Kalam came to this world, saw it and he conquered the hearts of the people. Such persons are rare creations of God and are born once in a long time. Our best tribute to him would be to emulate his example and live our lives make life sublime and be of some use to our fellowmen. I, for one, have benefitted immensely from his example. May God keep his soul in eternal peace with HIM. May he become jeevanmukta. May Allah, the Most Merciful, shower him with HIS best blessings and give courage and right direction to Kalam’s fellow citizens to change themselves to be good humans.
May the people’s President become immortal.
"The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity." - Leo Tolstoy.