CHENNAI: And there, ascends the seraph winged of fire, into realms azure beyond ours That here lighted our lives with courage and dreams:
‘Hello, Abdul Kalam speaking’ – those words sent a shiver down my spine when I called his residence one night hoping to get an appointment. I did not expect that such an eminent man would answer the phone himself, and it took me a while to speak coherently. We met Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in his office the next week – he was a visiting professor at the Anna University in those days. A bunch of students from Vivekananda Study Circle at IIT Madras (IITM), we were acting on a brainwave to invite him to deliver a guest lecture at our campus.
At a time when the country as a whole was sorely short of heroes, Kalam was everything an icon can be –with his unique style, long jacket and silvery hair, and a philosophy and mission preaching technology solutions to societal problems. His books were a huge hit and many of us had read them multiple times in the hostels.
His simplicity struck us. His office at Anna University was well-kept and on his table, I remember seeing bookmarked copies of both the Holy Gita and the Holy Koran. He was lively and child-like. Meeting him, you wouldn’t think he was a man with such legendary reputation already – one of our friends had shaven his hair and Kalam joked to him that he loved that hairstyle! He agreed to our request to our great delight, despite initial reservations, learning of our interest in serving the nation. His parting gift was a laminated photograph of Swami Vivekananda hidden away behind one of his boxes, and his words to our friend still ring my ears: ‘search, you will find’.
Kalam could not make it to our event as he was elected President meanwhile and we graduated. However his ideas influenced all my friends and this was one of the things that motivated me to return to IITM after my PhD and Post-doc at Imperial College London. Kalam also emphasized in so many of his communications to youth that science and technology must be made relevant and innovations must be taken to the masses. All this and association with teachers at IITM and Imperial, who excelled in technology transfer, continues to inspire me and lies behind my own vision to take our innovations to the society. Our research at IITM has led to several startups licensing our IPR, most recent of which is Planys Technologies, which is bringing advanced diagnostics integrated marine robotics to inspection and survey of ports, ships, bridges and dams in India.
When Kalam passed away last year, we all mourned, For, he was icon above all societal divisions. We all grieved like we had lost one of our own.
(The author is Associate Professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Madras, with research interests in remote and automated inspection. Poetry is his avocation. You can reach him on twitter @foenon)