The Kalam I Knew

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Much has been said and written about Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Here is a personal account about the boatman’s son who became President of India

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was born a humble boatman’s son but died a phenomenon.

No other past president in India received such adulation, affection and admiration from the masses as Kalam did during his presidency and such widespread and genuine grief after his sudden death, while doing what he relished best – talking to young minds. Indians normally reserve such response only for political giants of charm and charisma, a la Gandhi or a Nehru.

Common people hardly knew or heard about Kalam till the Bharat Ratna was conferred on him in 1997. They came to know him better when he became the country’s president in 2002. During the five years he was at Rashtrapati Bhavan and during the eight years after he came out of it Kalam, in his early 80s, grew to be an icon for youth and inspiration to passionate dreamers and would be achievers. All this Kalam accomplished by his simplicity, love for the people and fervent nationalism. He touched the heart of every Indian by constantly insisting that India can become a big power by dreaming and working hard to realize that dream.

More than one lakh people from all age groups, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, had gathered in his hometown Rameswaram to pay their last respects to the “People’s President.”

He may have held the nation’s highest office and decorated with the nation’s highest honour, but what stayed with Kalam all his life and till his last breath, were astounding simplicity and a childlike innocence. These qualities won him the heart of the entire nation.

But Kalam was neither naïve, nor a simpleton when it came to science or politics or things in general. Though doubts about his suitability for the office of the President were expressed by many, Dr. Kalam stepped into the shoes of the constitutional head with ease and displayed rare statesmanship as president during the years 2002-2007. He also displayed rare diplomatic acumen during his visits abroad as the head of the state.

KALAM THE DIPLOMAT

This writer, who was in the media team of his 2006 visit to Mauritius and Myanmar, remembers one instance when Kalam played the role of the diplomat with aplomb. The continued detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was an irritant in India-Myanmar relations. India needed to raise the issue of her release, but without hurting the sensitivities of the military junta.

“How is your daughter?” Dr Kalam asked the general. Than Shwe, the tough general, was surprised but got the message. “We take care of our daughters, don’t we?” Kalam told him with a smile. The general melted and smiled back at Dr. Kalam, the ice was broken in a pleasant, unoffending way. Sui Kyi was released a few years later.

Since the issue was not part of the formal, official dialogue, Dr Kalam did it in his typical, informal style with Senior General Than Shwe when the two leaders chatted at the airport lounge prior to Dr. Kalam’s return home. He told the military leadership of India’s keenness in seeing the restoration of multiparty democracy in Myanmar.

As was his wont, Kalam had done his home work on Myanmar before his visit. He found that General Than Shwe had once described Aung San Sui Kyi as “my daughter”.

“How is your daughter?” Dr Kalam asked him. Than Shwe, the tough general, was surprised but got the message. “We take care of our daughters, don’t we?” Kalam told him with a smile. The general melted and smiled back at Dr. Kalam, the ice was broken in a pleasant, unoffending way. Sui Kyi was released a few years later.

During his interaction with college students in Yangon, Dr. Kalam spoke about Mahatma Gandhi and pointed out that the Mahatma always insisted that youth must be fearless. “Be fearless, speak for your rights,” he quoted Gandhi to the students. That was a loaded message in a country ruled by the military leadership. But they could hardly complain as Dr. Kalam was only quoting the apostle of peace.

Kalam visited the Mazaar of Bahadur Shah Zafar and offered flowers at the sacred site. In his last days, Zafar had bemoaned that

“None came to visit me; nor offered me so much as a little flower.”

Recalling these moving lines, Kalam had said earlier that he would no doubt visit the site and offer floral tributes.

MAN OF MUSIC

Kalam, before he became President, came to the offices of PTI in New Delhi to address the news agency’s journalists. It was January 1998 and the Bharat Ratna for M SSubbulakshmi had just been announced. Dr Kalam had received the honour the previous year for his contribution to missile technology. I asked: “Sir, the Bharat Ratna has gone from Missile (Kalam) to Music (MS), what is your comment?”

Kalam instantly warmed to the subject, and said: “It is indeed great news. I am a fan of MS. I have sent her a congratulatory letter. It has been a great desire with me to play on my veena the Pancharatana Kirtnas that MS renders so beautifully in her matchless voice.” (Kalam was an amateur Veena player.)

COMMON MAN FIRST AND LAST

It was well known that the Congress Party was not interested in Kalam becoming President. The Left was against him too. The search for a consensus candidate was not easy. The logic proffered by the Left parties in opposing Dr. Kalam was that he lacked political experience and the constitutional expertise to discharge the duties of the President.

Suddenly, Dr. Kalam took off his shoes and removed one socks and with it began polishing his shoes. My camera captured the moment which showed the simplicity of the man

Kalam, however, had conducted himself with grace in the controversy kicked up around his candidacy. He had politely but firmly let it be known that he had served under five prime ministers and therefore could not be naïve about politics or political correctness of his future acts as the country’s President. “I will learn the job,” was all that he told his critics and detractors.

I had closer interaction with Kalam during his visit to Myanmar and Mauritius in March 2006. As the Presidential Boeing 747-Tanjore was airborne after it took from the Delhi airport, Kalam surprised the media party as he came down from his upper deck presidential suite and met each journalist personally.

While on our return from Mauritius, Kalam again came down to chat with the journalists about the just concluded visit. The huge Jumbo 747 suddenly seemed to dip and dance as though seized by a spasm. What had begun like a gentle sway grew in seconds to a rattling stagger, throwing standing journalists off balance. A concerned air crew took positions around Kalam to protect him from a possible fall.

“Don’t worry,” said the phlegmatic and poised Kalam, ever the man of science and assured the journalists that , “It’s only air turbulence, you know”, and went on to explain the phenomenon in his characteristic style. “You know turbulence is due to masses of air at different velocities colliding into each other. The modern aircraft is designed to tackle such a situation, you know.”

As the flight stabilized and steadied, he asked us, “You are satisfied, happy?”

After the visit, he went to the lounge with foreign secretary Shyam Saran to relax a bit. As the two were talking, I took a few photographs. Suddenly, Kalam took off his shoes and removed one sock and with it began polishing his shoes. My camera captured the moment which showed the simplicity of the man. Not for him the trappings and ceremonies of the Presidential office. In his heart he was a common man. I had kept the photo unused all these years for obvious reasons.

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