The dreamer falls asleep

July 29, 2015

Former Indian president A P J Abdul Kalam passed away leaving the entire country mourning the loss of a visionary who stole people’s hearts and taught the young how to dream

India is in mourning for a man who, possibly, touched the lives of more people than some prime ministers. And, it is not just by shaking hands with, literally, thousands and thousands of children that Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam or A P J Abdul Kalam made a couple of generations grow up dreaming of an India that was different. He delivered the toughest of messages to the children and the youth in the most simplistic manner. His message: Think positive.

One of his closest associates and former associate director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, Prof N Balakrishnan, is a repository of several anecdotes on Kalam. But, there is one that he will never forget. “You could go to him with the stupidest of ideas. He would say very good. Because he seriously believed that after every serious attempt, there would be something positive that would come up. There was no such thing as not done in any of his talks.”

Kalam’s approach was very simple. The world should exuberate with positive energy. And, that is precisely what Kalam did. From riding a bicycle to deliver newspapers in his village in Ramanathapuram in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, to riding another bicycle with a sounding rocket to the launch pad at Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram, this son of a

boatman rose to become the president of India. His journey has been replete with some of the most positive stories that will remain etched in the memories of all, including even a visiting head of an ‘enemy’ country, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharaf, who was lectured by Kalam on what India and Pakistan could do to improve the lot of the rural poor.  

Kalam has been described variously as the man behind India’s Pokhran nuclear test in 1998, as a great scientist and the driving force of the space and missile programme. To be fair to the man, he has described himself very aptly. In one of his books, he says a question was asked about his contribution during a review of the satellite launch vehicle (SLV) programme at a time when the vehicles were failing. Even before the project director could respond, the then chairman of the space commission, Satish Dhawan, intervened to say that he is the team leader.

From all the descriptions that his friends and detractors have come up with in private conversations, Kalam stands out as a good manager. It was his ‘collaborative spirit’ that his then boss and scientific advisor to the defence minister, Dr V S Arunachalam, remembers fondly in his condolence message. In fact, it was Arunachalam who started the integrated guided missile development programme. But it was Kalam who delivered the result by just coordinating the talent spread across the country’s defence and scientific laboratories. The wiring of the entire Pokharan nuclear test was done by Dr Anil Kakodkar and Dr R Chidambaram. That Kalam had luck on his side along with his capacity to stealthily work under the radar of US satellites monitoring India’s nuclear plans, was evident as he became the hero of the nuclear test.

And, that luck favoured him not just in the field of science. At a point of time when the 2002 Gujarat pogrom against the Muslims had shaken the country, then prime minister A B Vajpayee delivered a masterstroke by proposing the name of Kalam for presidentship. His nomination delivered several messages to the people. Kalam was a Muslim who was a remarkable nationalist with impeccable integrity. The subtle message went across to even Vajpayee’s detractors within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in that dark year of India’s history. The political class may have used his credentials to symbolise the secular polity of India. But Kalam saw something else in that opportunity.

He realised that the India of the future belonged to the young. And, it was that India which he reached out to. In the early days of his presidency, he left everyone aghast by breaking the stiffness around the post. He simply reached out to school children. To say that the children loved him would be an understatement. He shook hands with more children than, perhaps, the country’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, popularly called ‘Chacha Nehru’ (Uncle Nehru), whose birthday is celebrated as ‘Children’s Day’,’ because of his love for children. Kalam simply bridged the gap between the old and the new.

By his constant questioning and easy ways of replying to every question, he gave the children and the young hope for a better future. He even went about making power point presentations (like the one he made to president Musharraf) and talked about the power of the Internet to gain knowledge to deliver the message home. That knowledge is what will take India to the Vision 2020 that he had envisaged. He may not have got an opportunity to join the exalted faculty at the IISc because he did not have a doctorate, but he became the best ambassador for science and technology. His actions in many ways made him truly a ‘Peoples’ President’.  

Unlike some of his predecessors, he was certainly not a rubber stamp of a president. When he wanted to deliver a message to the government, he did so in no uncertain terms. He was politically savvy enough to duck when it was necessary to do so. Many a time, he broke protocol to speak to the concerned minister, himself, over the telephone to look at issues from a different perspective. His focus was simply on the well being of the nation and all his initiatives were to ensure that people did not suffer. And, he made his mark in the very beginning of his term. He once said, ‘dreams are not what you see when you sleep, but what does not allow you to sleep’.

His passion was like that of a young man. He once arrived to address the last session of an Indian Science Congress to a standing ovation from the big audience which included scientists from different parts of the world as well as students. He went around the stage waving like any popular rock music star would do. That was the time people realised that India had a ‘rock star’ of a president. So, when he collapsed on stage and died at age 83, a nation of the youngest population in the world was rightly shocked.

Tharoor strikes a chord

The last week has given a remarkable perspective to the truly nationalistic feelings among Indians. If former president Kalam looked at nationalism from one side of the prism, there was one more that went completely viral almost a month after the event was over. We are talking about Shashi Tharoor’s outstanding performance at the Oxford Union debate on whether ‘Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’. The subject would naturally touch every Indian because British exploitation during its rule remains a sore point even today.

Many among the young were, perhaps, unaware of how the British rule exploited resources, trampled upon and strangulated India’s economy. From the perspective of the young the gains left behind, perhaps, were only the English language and democracy. Tharoor’s erudition simply demolished all that to bring every single listener of his presentation on the social media up to speed. His speech was marked by several quotable quotes. But, one stood out: “What’s important is not the quantum of reparations that Britain should pay, but the principle of atonement. I, for one, would be happy to accept a symbolic pound a year for the next 200 years, as a token of apology. And, maybe Britain could kindly return the Kohinoor diamond to the country it was taken from!“

As Indians gloated and the number of viewers hit broke records, Tharoor had to face the ignominy of being pulled up by his Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, for something as inane as allegedly leaking out information on a party meeting. And, with all the nationalistic feelings over the brilliant speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, went public to appreciate Tharoor’s speech. The latter also thought it was very ‘gracious’ on the part of the Prime Minister to do so. So, we now know why the approach and timing of the Congress is so very wrong. When the nation is going ga-ga over a speech that was the best nationalistic speech, indeed better than even Modi’s election campaign speeches, the Congress party president preferred to criticise Tharoor. It did not occur to the party chief that she could have very well used Tharoor’s speech to deliver a message on nationalism that the BJP claims to be its birthright.


Kalam had a number of quotes to his credit. One of them would be worth pondering over: “Thinking should become your capital asset, no matter whatever ups and downs you come across in your life.”

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]