CHENNAI: A bachelor, former President APJ Abdul Kalam, never compromised on simple living and had a reputation of not accepting “no” for an answer.
In 2007 when his term as President ended, he chose to visit the Anna University, where he was previously emeritus professor, to interact with the students. At that time the university authorities wanted to provide him a comfortable accommodation, but Kalam told them a single room would do for him “as I am a single man.”
While he was Emeritus Professor of Societal and Technology Transformation between November 2001 and May 2002 – before moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan – he stayed at the university guest house. “All that he wanted was Internet connectivity. He would go to bed at 1 am or 2 am and be out for a walk by 6 am waving to students and sporting his trademark smile,” recalled a former professor.
It was on the lawns of Anna University campus that he interacted with journalists when the then NDA government announced his candidature for the Presidential race in 2002 and quoted from the Bagavad Gita highlighting that everything happens for the good.
Once when he and A K George, his PhD student at the Anna University’s Electrical and Electronics Engineering Department, had gone to the Care Hospital in Hyderabad, experts were dismissive about the latter’s research project on ‘Enhancing the Capabilities of Mentally Challenged Children.’ But Kalam who had encouraged George to take up the topics precondition to “working together” refused to be bogged down. Instead he turned the tables on the experts and told them to say anything but “no”.
Likewise, when George had shared with Kalam similar views from experts in Bengaluru, the rocket man showed him an 1870 text in which British scientists had passed a resolution saying nothing heavier than air can float in air. “But within years the Wright Brothers experimented the first aircraft,” he politely reminded.
George and asked him to carry on his research. Kalam’s pupils note that the ‘People’s President’ always had a sharp memory which meant that none could dodge him. In fact once while answering questions from students in Chennai, Kalam declared that he did not like “defeatist tendencies” as he expected the youth to have self-confidence to tide over obstacles of any kind with their creative leadership skill.
Bitter Gourd, His Fav
Chennai: Abdul Kalam always loved a simple but sumptuous meal. Whenever he visited the Anna University here, the canteen’s caterers would serve him a full course meal. “He liked bitter gourd a lot,” recalls a server. When the caterers served him then nellikkai (gooseberry soaked in honey), he relished it and asked where they had procured it from.
My tryst with the icon
Special invitee for my sis’ wedding
“The first time I saw Dr APJ was when he came to inaugurate a hospital on June 19, 2003. I came all excited to the function in khaki pants and a new black shirt only to be stopped by his security, as black wasn’t allowed for security reasons. I had to go out to buy a new T-shirt and finally stood in the crowd to see him. His elegance and charisma shone bright as he swiftly strode into the hospital, inaugurated it and interacted with the guests and the crowd. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to interact with him and could only exchange pleasantries. I was kicking myself for missing a golden opportunity to interact with the Missile Man of India. But to my surprise, he was a special invitee to my sister’s wedding four years later. This time, I made sure that I received him and tagged along just to be with the man. What struck us the most was his simplicity. He enquired about me asking me about my studies as if he was a close relative. When I told him that I was an MBBS student, he blessed me and said, “Study well. Our nation needs doctors like you.” That was the kind of warmth he exuded. How do you react when your hero in flesh and blood encourages you! The day is one of my most cherished experiences in my life. RIP great patriot.
Dr Aadarsh Raghavan (27). APJ Kalam, Aadarsh’s father’s friend, was the special invitee to his sister’s wedding in 2007
Struck by his humility to interact
The first time I met Dr Kalam was back in 2002, when he came as the chief guest for our Science Day celebrations. I had made a large model of the globe to be displayed and he personally congratulated me for the effort and asked the students in the room to “Pursue science and not be afraid to ask questions”. To be complimented by one of the greatest scientists in the country was a dream come true. A year later, I met Dr Kalam at the inauguration of Rajiv Gandhi memorial. I was one of the students who performed during the ceremony. Many of us were given time to talk to Dr Kalam and he gave a small talk about the importance of culture and sticking to one’s roots. I was still in awe of his humility and willingness to interact with us despite becoming President. In 2011, I attended his lecture at IIT Madras, which left an indelible impression on my mind. His speech, filled with indomitable spirit to ensure the uniqueness of youth was not destroyed by the society, had me whistling. Being a role model is one of the most powerful way to educate people and I’m proud to say Dr Kalam was my first role model.
Ashwath Ram, a 25-year-old graduate student in USA did his schooling and under-graduation in Chennai
(As told to Siddharth Prabhakar)