Shakespeare may as well had APJ Abdul Kalam, an outstanding human being, teacher, scientist, thinker and much more, in mind, when he penned these words in Julius Caesar in which Antony pays tribute to the slain Caesar.
The spontaneous outpouring of public grief at the passing away of Bharat Ratna Abdul Kalam was unprecedented. Be it the long queues of people ranging from VIPs to slum dwellers wanting to pay personal homage to the great man, top trending of tributes to him on the social media, focus of all main stream media channels and newspapers, the sentiment was simply overwhelming. Rather than the usual and clichéd messages of condolences from nation’s leaders, there was a genuine feeling of a huge loss and several international leaders joined in to pay their respects.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, instead of issuing a formal note of condolence, wrote an entire column on the country’s Missile man saying that `Bharat has lost a Ratna, but the light from this jewel will guide us towards Kalam’s dream destination : India as a knowledge superpower, in the first rank of nations”.
Modi wrote that Abdul Kalam, who was genuinely loved and admired by the masses, “never measured success by material possessions. For him, the counterpoint to poverty was the wealth of knowledge, in both its scientific and spiritual manifestations”. He concluded by saying that he was father to every Indian child and “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”.
US President Barack Obama, in his condolence message spoke of Dr. Kalam’s great contribution in promotion of US – India space cooperation and forging stronger ties between the two countries. “A scientist and statesman, Dr. Kalam rose from humble beginnings to become one of India’s most accomplished leaders, earning esteem at home and abroad. An advocate for stronger US-India relations, Dr. Kalam worked to deepen our space cooperation, forging links with NASA during a 1962 visit to the United States. His tenure as India’s 11th President witnessed unprecedented growth in US-India ties. Suitably named “the People’s President”, Dr. Kalam’s humility and dedication to public service served as an inspiration to millions of Indians and admirers around the world.”
In his event-filled 83 year long life, Abdul Kalam had evidently touched millions of lives and his life was in itself a message and inspiration. All those who were fortunate to interact with him, and he never let go an opportunity, he left a lasting impression which remained with that person for an entire life time. Be it the scientific community, the educators, the students, world leaders and even the media, everyone who met him left mesmerized by the man’s simplicity and humility. At the same time, all that weighed on his mind, all the time, was the development and growth of India and the improvement in the quality of life of its citizens, particularly those belonging to the rural areas. His pet and passionate project remained PURA (Providing Urban Facilities in Rural Areas) and he looked for opportunities to spread his vision.
Such was the respect he commanded among all sections of the society, including the political parties, that he emerged as one of the rare consensus candidate for the post of president in 2002 yet he kept himself aloof from politics and never got into any discussion on the subject. Even when the then Pakistan President Parvez Musharraf visited India in 2005, he gave him a complete lesson on his vision on improving the living standards of the poor and the downtrodden. He advised Musharraf to initiate a program in his country on the lines of PURA and assured him all help in the area.
He was not just a role model for millions of Indians and even those in other countries, he led by personal example. He led a simple life and immersed himself into studying. He was childlike in his approach towards learning. An example of never-say-die attitude was his desire to ride in a Sukhoi-30 fighter jet cockpit at the age of 74. It is not easy to ride the small jet and most youngsters one-third that age would fall sick of the speed and maneuvers of the fighter plane. Yet Kalam insisted and flew the jet for about 40 minutes. His pilot, Air Commodore Ajay Rathore, who sat next to him later said he behaved as excited as an eight year old boy and was in great spirits throughout.
Born in a boatman’s family at Rameshwaram on October 15, 1931, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam faced a tough childhood. He graduated in Physics in 1954 from St Joseph’s College, Tiruchirapalli and studied Aeronautical Engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology. He later joined Indian Scientific Research Organisation (ISRO) and made significant contribution as project director to develop the country’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III) which injected the Rohini Satellite in the earth’s orbit in 1980 thus making India a member of the exclusive international space club. After working at ISRO for two decades he was given the responsibility of developing guided missiles as chief executive of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme at the Defence Reseach and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1982.
He was responsible later for the development and operationalization of AGNI and PRITHVI missiles. He played a vital role in building indigenous capability in critical technologies. He was subsequently made the Scientific Adviser to Defence Minister and Secretary, DRDO from July 1992 to December 1999.
He was the main force behind the weaponization of the strategic missile systems and the Pokhran-II Nuclear blasts in collaboration with the department of Atomic Energy which made India a Nuclear power state.
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1981, Padma Vibhushan in 1990 and was conferred the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1997 and served as the country’s 11th president from 2002 to 2007.
Even as the President, he redefined the Indian presidency. Till he was elected with an overwhelming 9,22,884 votes (the only invalid vote had a note saying he would look much better with a hair cut !), the office of the president of India was considered that of a titular head. In fact his advent to the post came shortly after the 2002 riots in Gujarat when communal situation in the country was on a boil. The then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in a political masterstroke, proposed Kalam’s name as the president and the opposition Congress readily agreed to support him. He made it a point to visit riot ravaged Gujarat despite objections from the government of the day. Throughout his tenure he remained active and earned the epithet of People’s President.
A devout Muslim, a player of Veena and a profound lover of Carnatic classical music, as comfortable with Quran as the Bhagwat Geeta, first unmarried Indian President, spiritual thinker and much more, he was a multi-faceted personality.
Abdul Kalam often spoke at length about his childhood in Rameswaram as a boatman’s son. However, it was never about tragic struggles or of events that should be remembered with either pity or outrage. There was no anger or bitterness; it was always about hard work and hope. He believed in dignity of labor and was as comfortable with primary students as with scientists and thinkers, and world leaders.
However, he was most passionate as a teacher. He once said : “If the people remember me as a good teacher that will be the biggest honour for me” .
That’s what he was doing when the end came. In fact his last day on Mother Earth itself is a reflection of what a great man he was. Even at his age, he preferred to travel by the circuitous road from Guwahati to Shillong – to deliver a lecture and interact with students. While on his way to Shillong, he noticed that a pilot vehicle ahead of his convoy had a man (a security personnel) standing in a vehicle even as the convoy meandered its way up the 100-kilometer route to Shillong. He asked those sitting next to him to ask the man to sit down but was told that he was merely doing his duty.
Not convinced by the explanation but helpless in view of the security drill, Abdul Kalam reached Shillong and the very first demand he made was to call that man over. He profusely thanked him even as the bewildered security man didn’t expect such a gesture from a former president of the country. The man somehow gathered his wits and responded that he respected Kalam so much that he could have stood for even six hours or more. The gesture reflected the humbleness and kind hearted nature of Kalam.
He then went to the stage to deliver the lecture which was to be followed by an interaction with the students. However, merely five minutes into the lecture he slumped down and was rushed to the hospital where he was declared dead. The man who had passion for teaching and spreading the light of knowledge all his life, died in consummation of exactly the same love. What a glorious end to an illustrious life!
Indeed, “This was a Man”.