Abdul Kalam – The Demise of a Legend

“Let not thy winged days be spent in vain. When once gone no gold can buy them back again.”
– Motto of the High School, Ramanathpuram, Abdul Kalam attended.

News came on Monday last of the sudden passing away of APJ Abdul Kalam. It was stated that he died of a cardiac arrest while he was lecturing to students in Shilong, Meghalaya. What a dramatic end to a life of someone who believed that you have to keep producing dreams and translating your dreams into actions! Never mind, we’ll still have the chance to read his final thoughts in his latest book called ‘Transcendence’ which appeared on 15th June 2015.

His was a persistent quest for all that was deemed unattainable. Not for himself. For India, his motherland which he always wanted to shine in the highest position on the firmament of nations. Even better, he espoused the vision of scientific leaders like Professor Vikram Sarabhai (with whom he worked) who believed India must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies, not as a means to display India’s might, but to thrash out real-life problems. He did not have to proclaim himself a patriot. His actions spoke much louder than that. There are not many of this character.

A leader-integrator

There is no need to state that Abdul Kalam was invested as India’s President in 2002 when Shri AB Vajpayee was Prime Minister. He came to Mauritius as Chief Guest on the occasion of our National Day in 2006 and he should be quite well known to all for the sheer simplicity and humility with which he conducted himself in our midst. I knew about him and his career as one of India’s most prominent scientists much before, as a staunch leader of men and women of the highest calibre in the scientific field. All his career – and life — he played the role of a leader-integrator of teams and not as stand-alone self-glorified un-doer of works others had done. He was a fighter against all odds to get good things done, despite constraints.

I had been reading a series of his books with great appetite. They dealt with his life experiences. They were written in a clear, lucid, crisp literary flow, drawing from the precision no doubt of his basic scientific training steeped into the deep humanism he should have inherited from his father, mother and teachers – and colleagues. His was a training in educational establishments of a not-so-remote past which valued honesty, integrity and serving society with all one’s faculties as a goal superior to self-proclamation. This culture is now fading away.

As if he always wanted to prove, in his own humble simplicity, that nothing is insuperable where there is a correct determination to reach a valid goal in life – despite limited resources and serial hardships to get to the final goal.

So, I expected nothing less than the best India has produced when he came over here in 2006. What else could a realist and an arch pragmatist like him say over here that would not do us good? His piercing eyes had already spotted Jatropha plants growing over here in the wild. His recommendation before he left us was to grow the plant on a large scale and to gain our self-sufficiency in energy by this means. Some countries, such as Brazil, having been using its seeds to produce bio-diesel.

As it is the custom here and in some other places, freely given advice falls on deaf ears. That’s why we are still busy discussing about coal-fired power plants, exaggerated profits of IPPs, possibly an electricity blackout in a couple of years, etc. No entrepreneur took up the idea to undertake on a large scale the alternative clean and renewable energy source Dr Kalam suggested. No one even knows whether any file to this effect was moved up in the relevant Ministry.

Just like we in Mauritius are still struggling with ourselves to tap wind energy for at least one decade now with not a single industrial MW produced to date, Rodrigues excepted! His proposition would have implied a massive change of industrial culture. Why bother when the facility gained from import of fossil fuel was less straining? More profitable and short term? We decided instead to keep aloof from planting the Jatropha on our available land. We covered it up rather, wherever possible, with concrete slabs. That was called real estate development – and cement sales.

Faith and Science

What was remarkable about Abdul Kalam was the way he combined faith – not religion – with his scientific work. At the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and, later, at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), he pursued, undaunted by the little resources made available to them and serial setbacks, the relentless quest for the mastery by India of nuclear technology. A goal achieved in 1998 after strenuous work despite limited means.

The leader of the team at the DRDO, Professor Vikram Sarabhai, once fell seriously ill and Dr Abdul Kalam realised that any mishap could not only wrench away from him his highly esteemed colleague and mentor but also jeopardize the realization of the path-breaking critical project they were both working on. He had such faith that he spent the whole of that night in the mosque, praying for the recovery of Professor Sarabhai and was rewarded with good tidings the very next day.

For him, prayer was not a means to get into a religious straitjacket of dogma from which it is nigh impossible to extricate oneself. It is his deep faith in the universality of all that led him to walk with kings and still keep the common touch of simplicity. He believed that prayer acted as a stimulus to tap and develop the power of creative ideas stored within our minds and personalities – a force for good rather than for spreading havoc all around in the name of self-righteousness.

Like most of us, he once felt extremely dejected when he was not chosen for the position of pilot in the Indian Air Force for which he had developed an intense liking as a young man and had worked very hard. Having lost his moorings for a while, at his intimate dream being shattered at a young age, he rambled around in desperation to other parts of India and met Swami Sivananda at the Asram of Rishikesh during these wanderings. The Swami, a highly realized person, comforted him stating that he was cut for a loftier career and had to work his way up patiently. Not only did he become the scientific Gandhi of modern India – something he lived up to in every detail – as predicted much earlier by Professor Sarabhai; he became India’s eleventh President. It was a long journey from the seaside village of South India to Rashtrapati Bhawan.

For someone of his mettle, the unattainable became a reality. Thanks to him and colleagues he teamed up with, India joined the restricted global nuclear club despite its rudimentary labs and parsimonious budget allocations. India launched last year a space vehicle to planet Mars at a tiny fraction of what it costs advanced nations to do the same. It was a giant leap for a nation once depicted with a begging bowl to join the even more restricted space club of the world. The researches done in the physics labs of Dr Kalam have found materials of common application in day-to-day life. One example is the very practical, cheap and light-weight carbon-steel prostheses for the handicapped.

Dr Abdul Kalam has no doubt had an outstanding public career. Anybody would love to do even a fraction of all he did for his country’s advancement. Beyond the personal achievement however, we have to look at the potential for a country like India – with its often rumbustious politics and incomprehensible change of political affiliations – to produce a sincere person with the sharp insight, sagacity, wisdom and practical applicability of Dr Kalam. If India has produced an archetype like him, it should be able to produce many more others.

There are a number of them hidden behind the thickets of political distortions and, following the example of this extraordinary person the like of whom people the great legends on earth, India would do well to release them as well to full expression.

  • Published in print edition on 7 August 2015

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