In the early ‘80s I was aboard an Air India flight headed towards New York City. I was an excited teenager about to join an American University. There was an air of superiority considering there were very few of ‘my cadre’. A few minutes into the flight and I noticed to older teenagers engaged in a heated discussion. They were near enough for me to hear their conversation. I could tell they were intellectually charged. One was a clear fan of Vikram Sarabhai, the other committed to Homi Bhabha. I have to confess that at the time I wasn’t familiar with their respective contributions. The argument continued as the flight headed towards London – the first stop. The air of superiority that engulfed me left rather quickly when I got to know the depth of the conversation the two were having. I don’t recall it all but I know this much, after a while they seemed to agree on something and the conversation became less heated. I caught the name APJ Abdul Kalam and the word “missile”. As a student of chemistry I didn’t really care who he was or what his contribution to the word “missile” was.
Over the years, India’s progress in missile technology, nuclear technology and eventually the office of the President of India became synonymous with one name Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. I grew to admire him and I grew to question him. In the late 1990s I read a speech attributed to him. It talked about Ramzan in Dubai, spitting in Singapore etc. I had my own point of view that I voiced on the Net but it never reached him.
Then one day this changed. The Madras School of Economics, Chennai, where SAGE hosts a lecture for the last 6 years, was hosting Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam as the 7th speaker. This was in July 2014. The decks were cleared and I landed in Chennai. The rain gods were particularly childish as they played hide and seek with us. The flight carrying Dr Kalam got delayed. It landed and Dr Kalam arrived at the venue. He was everything I imagined him to be. He was small built wore sports shoes and walked briskly. As he alighted from his SUV, I greeted him with flowers. These quickly transferred to an aide. He was ready to go but had to make a stop to be photographed with the MSE staff. The ‘quick’ photograph took 20 minutes! He then walked with me to the lecture hall. As he entered he noticed the display of books. And that is when he first spoke to me. He said “oh so, you are the SAGE guy!” I was thrilled to bits.
He walked around and saw the selection of books. He paused, he browsed and I felt like a giggly school girl, giddy at his every gesture. And then he turned and walked into the lecture hall. He got a reception reserved for rock stars. As far as the eye could see, there were people. These were students, teachers, faculty, and everyone else who wanted a glimpse of the legendary man.
The introductions began and I waited my turn to speak. While waiting I thought about what I would want to say. I was to welcome him, to talk about him and most of all, to thank him. But I wanted to make it special and make it different. And then I remembered the two budding scientists in the Air India flight. As I got up to speak, the words began to flow. I recounted the flight when I was a teenager and I looked at Dr Kalam when I stated that they both agreed that his contribution was un-paralleled. The humble Dr Kalam, smiled a small smile and quickly looked at his hands. I know he was used to receiving accolades and it was heartwarming to know a compliment still made him smile.
The evening ended and I gave him a memento. He showed it to the audience as a gesture of gratitude for what he had received. The humility in the man was evident from his every action and his every gesture. But he was to floor me once again before he finally left.
The institute had arranged for tea and Dr. Kalam politely declined. I wanted to spend a little more time with him and his declining meant that I couldn’t. A brief pang of disappointment threatened to become larger and I forced on a smile I didn’t want to smile. I began to walk with him to his waiting SUV. He turned to his aide and stated that since they were already late, would they still arrive in Coimbatore in time for another engagement that evening. The aide responded. I then understood why Dr. Kalam didn’t want the tea; he wanted to reach Coimbatore directly from the MSE campus. This was after he had come straight from the airport to the MSE campus. The man didn’t want to waste a single minute of his life. Am sure food and water were for sustenance and he didn’t care much for that. “At 82, I want to be this man”, I thought to myself. And I bowed my head to the humility and the spirit that defined this man.
As we reached the SUV, many waiting students thrust pieces of paper to get his autograph. He patiently signed them until he reached a Rs. 100 note thrust before him. He looked up and refused to sign it. That also marked the end of his autographing spree. The aide opened the door of the SUV and Dr. Kalam reached inside to grasp the handle that would help heave him inside. I could see him struggle just a wee bit and almost reached out to help. The aide quickly gestured for me not to and stood patiently until Dr. Kalam seated himself. The aide then helped close the door, he gave me half a smile and I understood what he meant. Dr. Kalam didn’t need anyone’s assistance to seat himself. At 82, he was confidence personified, he was positivity at its best and he was humility that wouldn’t be seen for time to come.
I cannot believe he has gone but I know that his spirit lives on. There is always a lump in my throat when I think of people who have touched my life. The greatest tribute to Dr. Kalam is perhaps not in the flowers, the wreaths, the blog posts and condolence messages. To me the greatest tribute to the man is to follow the path that he followed, to build an India that continues his vision and to overcome obstacles the way he did. For him his country was the center of his universe and his fellow citizens his heartbeat. I know, even today he wouldn’t rest a minute longer than necessary; he would want to continue to build India.
Its time we all did too.