The evening of 27th July, 2015 suddenly turned a black obsidian, as news flashed of the passing away of a great visionary and an icon. Scientist, India’s missile man, for having pioneered country’s successful nuclear programme and development of satellites, and former President of the country is no more. Honoured with all decorations including the highest distinction Bharat Ratna, translating as the ‘precious gem of India’, in consideration of his significant contributions to the country’s space and nuclear research, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, or Dr APJ Kalam, as he was fondly called, remained a great humanist, humble and unassuming all the way. The Indian Presidency, the zenith to which an individual can scale up in the echelons of country’s government, surpasses all other republics around the world in its pomp and ceremonial splendour. The presidential mansion, called ‘Rashtrapathi Bhavan’, nestles on a geographical elevation known as Raisina Hill in Delhi, the sheer size and magnificence of which is comparable to extravagance of edifices one reads about in fairy tales. India has had ten other presidents before him, many of whom are hardly remembered, but Dr APJ Kalam brought a rare stature to the office, bringing it graciously down to level of common people. Keeping pomp and ceremony to unavoidable minimums, simplifying his requirements, and increasing his access to people, he literally became the peoples’ president during his five year tenure in office from 2002 to 2007, interacting with as wide sections of society, ranging from academics, students, teachers, captains of industry, technocrats, medical professionals, non-governmental organisations and political leaders of all affiliations. He endeared himself to youth with tremendous zeal and focus, firmly believing they were the builders of future, and, therefore, did everything to inspire their minds through his thought-provoking and aspiration-igniting lectures, speeches and writings. His speeches were mostly power-point presentations stoking the fires of ambition, sharpening the spirit of enquiry, and guiding the youths’ vision towards nation’s development and larger welfare of people. Remaining deeply rooted in India’s ethos, ancient culture, and age old civilisation, he carried his vision with great aplomb to the youth, enlightened leadership and academicians, in his numerous presidential visits to countries worldwide. His stature as a scientist head-of-state endowed him with a unique aura that endeared him to people wherever he went, truly turning out as an adornment to the office of presidency.
A bachelor, staunch vegetarian and teetotaller by habit, his was a life dedicated to science and research, high ideals, and vision to steer India to forefront as a super power in a few decades. His ‘Vision 2020’, presented to executive leadership during his term of office, has since become part of government’s developmental programme. One of his notable books is ‘Target 3 Billion’, which highlights issues prevailing in rural India, suggesting measures to improve standards of living. It focuses on inclusive development abbreviated in the acronym PURA (Providing Urban amenities in Rural Areas), by means of voluntary participation and entrepreneurship; he cites examples of Fabio Luiz de Oliveira Rosa, who helped in changing the structure of Palmares, a rural district in Brazil, by electrification, giving access to water and electricity and enabling better agro practices, leading to prosperity in the region; another example is that of Magarpatta, a satellite city in Pune, India, which provides housing to several thousands of people, in addition to developing an IT park. Post his presidential years, he continued to command respect and draw people’s affection vide his travels through out the country and outside. His lecture tours kept him busy till the last moment of his life. As I heard the news, what came surging to my mind was the strains of a South Indian classical music composition, ‘Enthoro Mahanubhavulu’, meaning ‘salutation to the great souls’.
Sampled herewith are some of Dr APJ’s words and the narration of Mr. Srijan Pal Singh, an engineer, gold medallist from IIM-A (India’s topmost B school), planner, management consultant, speaker, and author of many books, few of which he co-authored with Dr APJ. He was accompanying Dr APJ in his last engagement at IIM (Indian Institute of Management), Shillong, where Dr APJ collapsed in the course of delivering a presentation to the student community on the subject, ‘Creating a Livable Planet Earth’.
😊 “If you fail, never give up because FAIL means First Attempt In Learning; end is not the end, in fact END means Effort Never Dies; if you get No as an answer, remember NO means Next Opportunity, so let’s be positive”.
😊 “Without your involvement, you cannot succeed, with your involvement, you cannot fail”.
😊 “Dreams are not what you see in your sleep, dreams are those that do not let you sleep”.
😊 “If you salute your duty, you do not need to salute anybody, but if you pollute your duty, you have to salute everybody”.
😊 “Iam not a handsome guy, but I can give my hand-to-some one who needs help. Beauty is in heart, not in face”.
😊 “All birds find shelter during rain; but eagle avoids rain by flying above the clouds”.
😊 “Thinking should become your capital asset, no matter whatever ups and downs you come across in life”.
😊 “All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us have an equal opportunity to develop our talents”.
😊 “If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like the sun”.
What I will be remembered for, says Srijan Pal Singh, is my memory of the last day (27th July 2015) with the great Kalam Sir… It has been eight hours since we last talked — sleep eludes me and memories keep flushing down, sometimes as tears. Our day, 27th July, began atb12 noon, when we took our seats in the flight to Guhawati. Dr Kalam was 1A and I was 1C. He was wearing a dark coloured ‘Kalam suit’, and I started off complimenting, ‘nice colour’. Little did I know this was going to be the last colour I will see on him. Long, 2.5 hours of flying in the monsoon weather. I hate turbulence, and he had mastered them. Whenever he would see me go cold in shaking plane, he would just pull down the window pane and say ‘now you don’t see any fear’. That was followed by another 2.5 hours of car drive to IIM-Shillong. In these two- leg trip of five hours, we talked, discussed and debated, as on other long flights and longer drives we have been together over the last six years. As each of them, this was as special too, three incidents / discussions will be lasting memories of our last trip. First, Dr Kalam was absolutely worried about attacks in Punjab. The loss of innocent lives filled him with sorrow. The topic of lecture at IIM-Shillong was ‘Creating a Livable Planet Earth’. He related the incident to the topic and said, ‘it seems the man-made forces are as big a threat to liveability of earth as pollution’. We discussed on how, if this trend of violence, pollution and reckless human action continue, we will be forced to leave earth. ‘Thirty years, at this rate, may be’, he said. ‘You guys must do something about it…it is going to be your future world’. Our second discussion was more national. For the past two days, Dr Kalam was worried that time and again parliament, the supreme institution of democracy, was dysfunctional. He said, ‘I have seen two different governments in my tenure. I have seen more after that. This disruption just keeps happening. It is not right. I really need to find out a way to ensure that the parliament works on developmental politics’. He then asked me to prepare a surprise assignment question for the students at IIM-Shillong, which he would give them only at the end of the lecture. He wanted them to suggest three innovative ways to make the parliament more productive and vibrant. Then, after a while, he returned on it. ‘But how can I ask them to give solutions if I don’t have any myself?’ For the next one hour, we thwarted options after options, to come up with recommendation over the issue. We wanted to include this discussion in our upcoming book, ‘Advantage India’. Third was an experience on beauty of his humility. We were in a convoy of 6 to 7 cars. Dr Kalam and I were in the second car. Ahead us was an open Gypsy with three soldiers in it. Two of them were sitting on either side and one lean guy was standing atop, holding his gun. One hour into the road journey, Dr Kalam said, ‘why is he standing? He will get tired. This is like punishment. Can you ask a wireless message to be given that he may sit?’ I had to convince him, he has been probably instructed to keep standing for better security. He did not relent. We tried radio messaging, that did not work. For the next 1.5 hours of the journey, he reminded me thrice to see if I can handle signal him to sit down. Finally realising there is little we can do, he told me, ‘I want to meet him and thank him’. Later, when we landed in IIM-Shillong, I went inquiring through security people and got hold of the standing guy. I took him inside and Dr Kalam greeted him. He shook his hand, saying ‘thank you buddy, are you tired, would you like something to eat? I am sorry you had to stand so long because of me’. The young lean guard, draped in black cloth, was surprised at the treatment. He lost words, just said in Hindi, ‘sir, aap ke liye to che ghante bhi khade rahenge’ (sir, for you I will remain standing even for six hours).
Thereafter, we went to the lecture hall, as he did not want to be late. ‘Students should never be made to wait’, he always said. I quickly set up his microphone, briefed on final lecture and took position on the computers. As I pinned his microphone, he smiled and said, ‘funny guy, are you doing well?’ ‘Funny guy’ remark of Kalam could mean a variety of things, depending on the tone and your own assessment. It could mean, you have done well, you have messed up something, you should listen to him, or just that you have been plain naive or he was just being jovial. Over six years I had learnt to interpret ‘funny guy’like tge back of my palm, this time it was in the last sense. ‘Funny guy, are you doing well?’, he reiterated, and I smiled back, ‘yes’.those were the last words he said. Two minutes into the speech, sitting behind him, I heard a long pause after completion of a sentence. I looked at him, he fell down. We picked him up. As the doctor rushed’ we tried whatever we could. I will never forget the look in his three-quarter closed eyes, and I held his head with one hand and tried reviving with whatever I could. His hands clenched, curling on to my finger. There was stillness on his face and those eyes were motionlessly radiating wisdom. He never uttered a word or showed pain, only purpose was visible. In five minutes we were in the nearest hospital, in another few minutes they indicated the missile man had flown away, forever. I touched his feet, one last time. Adieu, old friend, grand mentor, see you in my thoughts and meet you in the next birth…! As I turned back, a closet of thoughts opened. Often he would ask me, ‘you are young, decide what will you like to be remembered for?’ I kept thinking of new impressive answers, till one day I gave up, resorting to tit-for-tat. I asked him back, ‘first you tell me, what will you like to be remembered for? President, Scientist, Writer, Missile man, India 2020, Target 3 Billion, what?’ I thought I had made the question easier by giving options, but he sprang a surprise on me. ‘Teacher’, he said. In another context, while discussing about his missile time friends, he said, ‘children need to take care of their parents. It is sad that sometimes this is not happening’. He paused and added, ‘two things, elders must also do. Never leave wealth at your deathbed — that leaves a fighting family. Second, one is blessed if one can die working, standing tall, without any long drawn ailing period. Goodbyes should be short, really short’. Today, I look back — he took the final journey, teaching, what he always wanted to be remembered doing. And, till his final moment, he was standing, working and lecturing. He left us, as a great teacher, standing tall. He leaves the world with nothing accumulated in his account except loads of wishes and love of the people, successful, even in his end. I will miss all the lunches and dinners we had together, all the times he surprised me with his humility, and startled me with his curiosity, will miss the lessons of life he taught through words and action; will miss our struggles, racing to airport to connect to flights, our trips, long debates. He gave me dreams, showed me dreams need to be impossible, for anything else is a compromise to your own ability. The man is gone, the mission lives on. Long live Kalam… Your indebted student, Srijan Pal Singh.
Singh’s tribute is a true reflection of what his thousands of admirers would feel. I have neither met nor interacted with him. I have only see him in pictures, television news reports of his public engagements, and a few clippings of his talks, apart from his brilliant contributions to India in the field of space and nuclear research, not to speak of many sterling qualities of head and heart. What comes to mind is the dramatic scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Mark Antony thunders, “His life was gentle, and the elements / So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!'”. Dr APJ’s remains, in Delhi for whole of yesterday, presently lie in state for public to pay their respects at his native village in the South Indian town of Rameswaram, prior to a befitting funeral at specially erected site near the local mosque at 11 am IST ttoday30th July 2015. The United Nations has honoured him by declaring his birthday, falling on 15th October, 1931, to be celebrated as ‘World Students’ Day’. For now, RIP Dr APJ, not merely in the conventional sense of the term, it is RIP to the spirit of the great man, to mean Return If Possible; return in yet another benign form to enrich lives, either here or any other part of the universe.