I am a patient, unargumentative Indian. I endure everyday woes without protest. Anticipating a traffic delay, I quietly leave three hours earlier than I have to; I walk past a roadside garbage pile-up with my eyes averted and nose pinched between thumb and forefinger. But even I have to draw a line somewhere, and it’s here: I will not, WILL NOT, read one more fake APJ story.
Everyone knows that Dr APJ Abdul Kalam came from a humble childhood and accomplished big things, that he loved and inspired children, and that he was a simple man with few wants. But it’s aggravating to see how people have decided to make him the central figure of every corny story infesting the internet, every parable about Humble Beginnings and Valuable Life Lessons.
For the last couple of years I’ve watched helplessly as Facebook and WhatsApp have bombarded us with these tales. You’ll have seen some that get regularly shared, like APJ and the Story of the Burnt Roti (in this fable with its mind-bogglingly incongruous cultural references, APJ’s mom serves the family burnt roti at the end of a tiring day, and Dad calmly says, “Honey, I love burnt roti,” and later tells the young APJ, as the boy goes to him for a goodnight kiss, “Beta, life is full of imperfect things.”) and The Night He Took His Employee’s Child to the Circus (in which he demonstrates his qualities as a Compassionate Boss by noticing that his assistant is working late into the night, and then quietly showing up at the assistant’s house-while the man is still at work-to take his child to the circus! Some versions end with a visit to the exhibition, if you’re looking for variety). Invariably, the posts end with a gentle admonition like “Share if you care. We’ll understand if you don’t,” or the mysterious mathematical formula, “1 Like = 1 Respect.”
Contrast these with the simple dignity of APJ’s own reminiscences of his mother (on his official website) and you’ll see what a great disservice these tributes do to him. His story deserves to be told with truth, not these embellishments that must’ve made him cringe. Did they distress him, that gentle, unpretentious man, as these myths grew in number? Can you picture him at his meagre desk, wearily beginning yet another rejoinder? “Sir, while I’m touched by your complimentary references to my life’s work, I beg to point out that I did NOT grow up in a log cabin. And I did NOT give any such thing as the Chhattisberg Address…”
Curious about the origins of the burnt-roti story, I spent some time on Google. When I looked for “Honey, I love burnt roti,” I got more than 3000 results, all for the APJ story, and most of them dated 2014 and after. But when I changed the search term to toast or biscuits, the results went back much farther in time, and were mostly anonymous entries on inspirational blogs.
Who are these people that put out these yarns, anyway, and what drives them? Is it an Indian thing, with our compulsion to deify? And when they tire of APJ, will they train their sights on someone else? Let’s see…Single man? Check. Glorious career? Check. Patriotic credentials? Check. Yes, I can see it now…readers, get ready for the Story of Ratan Tata and the Burnt Dhansak.
As I write this, my phone pings. I check and see that it’s another “heart-touching story”: APJ and the Cherry Tree.