Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam was a man of many names and many roles. Missile man, India 2020, Target 3 billion, People’s President were just a few monikers the Indians had coined for their much respected former President, scientist and writer. But to him, in his own words as quoted by his assistant Srijan Pal Singh, despite being presented with many options to choose from, he said the most important role he had played in his lifetime was that of teacher to a multitude of students over the many years. In fact it is perhaps fate then that the great man should leave earth on July 27 doing what he loves best, ‘teaching the youth of India’.
Born Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam on October 13, 1931 to a ferry owner father and housewife mother his beginning was humble as it could get. “As a six-year-old boy living in Rameswaram at the time of the second World War, I would wake up at 4 am to go for maths class every day. My father would be waiting to take me for namaz and Arabic class after that. Once this was done, I would walk three kilometers to deliver newspapers to all the houses on time as I had taken over my older brother’s work as a newspaper agent. And then I would go to school,” he recounted once at a lecture to university students. However it was hard work that finally saw Kalam attend Madras Institute of Technology and at graduation joining the Aeronautical Development Establishment of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as a scientist eventually becoming India’s best known nuclear scientist, a long way for a simple boy from Rameshwaram.
As a scientist his contribution to his motherland was immeasurable with him not only contributing to its nuclear program, but even developing in 1998, along with cardiologist Soma Raju, a low cost coronary stent, named the “Kalam-Raju Stent and in 2012, by designing a rugged tablet computer for health care in rural areas, which was named the “Kalam-Raju Tablet”, a few of his such scientific inventions.
But he was to perhaps play one his most important roles for his country in 2002 when he contested the Presidential Elections. Not arriving through the conventional route taken by a politician, it was through his hard work as a scientist in government service that pushed him to contest and win the election. That year Kalam succeeded K.R Narayan becoming the 11th President of India.
To many in India he was the ‘People’s President’ which is perhaps an honor above all for one of such position, that is to be accepted by the masses as one of their own. A role accepted as mere customary in India however to Kalam it was still a platform to serve his country and reach out to the ordinary people, especially the young.
A leader with admirable qualities, at the end of his term President Kalam refused to re-contest due to his unwillingness to involve the office of the President in a political tussle between parties thus preserving the honor of his position.
“My conscience is not permitting me to contest,” he said in 2012 when there was a widespread call for Dr. Kalam to contest once more in the Presidential election. Kalam at the time declining the request said, “Many, many citizens have also expressed the same wish. It only reflects their love and affection for me and the aspiration of the people. I am really overwhelmed by this support. This being their wish, I respect it. I want to thank them for the trust they have in me”.
Dr. Kalam since leaving office had in fact worked harder for the development of India, an example that once can be of service even without power, office and status.
In the years since then Dr. Kalam had worked continuously as a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Management Shillong, the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and the Indian Institute of Management Indore, an honorary fellow of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Chancellor of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology Thiruvananthapuram, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Anna University and an adjunct at many other academic and research institutions across India. He also taught information technology at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad and technology at Banaras Hindu University and Anna University.
‘Ignited Minds’ he did (a title of one of his book) the President has travelled far and wide delivering lectures to youth on everything from solar energy to the importance of broadband connectivity for India’s villages. During his lectures he also ensured he delivered life lessons to the students encouraging them to follow their heart, to work hard and also to have fun along the way. Active till the very end in educating India’s youth his sense of service was interminable.
Unlike many today Kalam never forgot his roots. During his 25 tenure as a scientist in Thiruvananthapuram people speak of the great man waiting for the bus, having breakfast at his favorite tea shop, talking to people from backgrounds as humble as that which he had come from. It was this reason that he could continue connect with people, across the boundaries of age, class, religion and region.
Dr. Abdul Kalam was what one can call a well-rounded Indian. He knew the importance of hard work to be successful, but also knew the importance of being happy and truly living life. Born a Muslim he also immersed himself in Hindu culture, and despite being a scientist loved poetry, played the rudra-veena and listened to classical carnatic music all the while not forgetting to pray five times as day as a devoted Muslim would.
In his life and his work, Dr. Abdul Kalam embodied the best of what India can be. As Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician puts it “Abdul Kalam was a complete Indian”