COIMBATORE: Since Monday night, 81-year-old T Sampath Kumar has been travelling back in time to 1950-54 — the four years he shared a ‘secular’ hostel room with A P J Abdul Kalam and Alexander at Tiruchy’s famous St Joseph’s College.
Memories of his roommate, who would later emerge as the country’s eminent rocket scientist and illustrious President, are evergreen for this resident of Saibaba Colony in Coimbatore.
“When I first saw Kalam he was wearing a dhoti and full-sleeved white shirt in contrast to the shirt and trousers I was clad in. He had joined BSc Physics, while I was pursuing my under-graduation in Mathematics and Alexander, who is now in the United States, was a student of Biology. Considering our varied religious faiths, it was a perfect setting for communal harmony,” Sampath recalled on Tuesday.
Apart from sharing the room, the three would meet during their Tamil and English classes. “Though Kalam was older to me by three years, I occasionally had quarrels with him but he never got angry. Despite coming from a poor family background, Kalam would give us gifts made of shells when he returned to college after spending the summer holidays in his native coastal village in Rameswaram,” he reminisced.
Kalam had recorded the cordial relationship he enjoyed with his hostel mate in his book ‘Agni Siragugal’ (Wings of Fire) saying “even though we belonged to different religions, we lived together.”
Sampath fondly recalls that they would address Kalam by his nickname ‘Kalam Iyer’. “We named him thus because despite hailing from the Muslim community, he ate only vegetarian food. In fact, he was the secretary of the college’s vegetarian mess. Kalam loved biting into ‘pooran poli” (a sweet dish),” the octogenarian noted.
Being a sincere student Kalam would wake up at 5 am ahead of his other roommates and offer prayers and would stick to books till 11 pm much after Sampath and Alexander had fallen asleep.
“He always wanted to study aeronautics (which he did later at the Madras Institute of Technology) and used to discuss his ideas,” said Sampath.
Sharing another anecdote, Sampath said that every year students of the St Joseph’s College used to collect over `15,000 with difficulty for hosting cultural events. “In 1964 when a cyclone devastated Dhanuskodi in Rameswaram, Kalam prevailed upon us to hand over this money to the people who were left homeless,” he said.
Another trait of Kalam was that he would be respectful towards women and loved Tamil literature often quoting couplets from Tirukkural.
Years later when Kalam became a national icon, he landed up at Sampath’s house twice — 2005 and 2010. “The last time he met me was to condole the death of my wife Saroja. I asked him to write something about her, and he penned two words ‘Punidha Piravi’ (holy birth),” he said.
On Monday evening a neighbour had called Sampath over phone to convey that his dear friend was no more. “I was shocked. I always asked him to take rest and reduce his visits to colleges and schools. But he did not listen to me out of his love for students,” concluded Sampath in a choked voice.