CHENNAI: “What did you study?” the official in the backseat asked V Kathiresan, a driver in the rank of sepoy deputed to the Defence Research Development Organisation in Hyderabad, nearly quarter a century ago.
“I replied that I failed in English in my SSLC exams. To that, he replied, ‘You must pass 10th standard’,” Kathiresan, who now holds an MA, MEd and PhD, working as a lecturer at Tirunelveli Government College, recalled the journey with former president APJ Abdul Kalam that transformed his life from a sepoy to Dr Kathiresan.
A native of Sankarapandiyapuram village in Sattur Taluk of Virudhunagar district, then 19-year-old Kathiresan had joined DRDO as a sepoy. After Kalam, then a director at the organisation, took an active interest in his studies, it all began to change.
A busy Kalam, after attending to his hectic daily schedule at DRDO, would teach Kathiresan the basics of English language and its grammar. With a tutor like him, it was not before long Kathiresan passed his 10th standard. But that was only the beginning.
While he was elated, Kalam was not done. The master now wanted his pupil to complete his Class XII. “He paid my fees and bought me books. He would also clear my doubts. But, we had a competition. When he retires to read his books, I will start studying the books prescribed for XII. I would compete to study more than him,” recalled Kathiresan.
Though he had moved with him closely, Kathiresan was oblivious to how important Kalam was. “I found him very simple, without any airs despite being a director of the institute.” With help from his teacher, Kathiresan passed his XII exams with 51.4 per cent marks.
Kalam, who always insisted on dreaming bigger, was obviously not satisfied though. He wanted Kathiresan to go further, perhaps learning computers. But, the latter preferred Humanities - much to his regret now - and joined BA History.
“He taught me World History, European History, and the two World Wars. That is how I completed my under-graduation.” He passed the exams by scoring above 50 per cent. By then Kalam had fixed the next target - post graduation.
Kathiresan admits candidly that he had grown irritated by this insistance to study more and further. “I was in a young age, getting angry when he asked me to study again and again. But I never showed my anger, it was inside,” said Kathiresan. It was, however, never lost on him that the teacher was intensely pursuing it out of sincerity — after all, he even bought him an air ticket to ensure that his pupil did not miss his post graduate exams in Chennai.
In those 10 years from 1982 when he was deputed as Kalam’s driver, Kathiresan recalled, “I completed X, XII, BA, MA, B.Ed, M.Ed and also MA political science in one sitting.”
Kathiresan returned to his Company in Army in 1992 and later sought voluntary retirement in 1998. “I registered for PhD in English as he wanted,” he said.
In the following years, Kathiresan passed the Teachers Recruitment Board test and became a district education officer under Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan. He later went on to become a teacher in a Government college in Athur in Salem district in 2009, before joining the current job at the Government College in Tirunelveli.
P Krishnan, who was Kathiresan’s teacher at an orientation class when he was appointed lecturer, recalled how Kalam would seek for his driver-turned-friend whenever he tours the southern part of Tamil Nadu.
As he prepares to go to Rameswaram to pay final tributes to his master, Kathiresan has one regret - not having learnt computers.