The way the anniversary of A P J Abdul Kalam’s death was observed in the country was revealing. It was naam-ke-wastay at establishmentarian levels. Media coverage was mostly of the beaten-path style; no editorials. No public meetings either. The government satisfied itself with tokenisms — a formal statement by the Prime Minister that Kalam was irreplaceable, and the unveiling of a long-delayed statue at Rameswaram where the burial ground had remained neglected to the chagrin of the family and the locals. A big government advertisement announcing the foundation-laying ceremony of the Kalam National Memorial had the Prime Minister’s picture towering above all else.
The lukewarm attitude at official levels was in sharp contrast to the spontaneous enthusiasm at the level of ordinary people. It was a touching reiteration of Kalam’s title as the People’s President. That students were in the forefront of these expressions of love and admiration would have pleased the eternal teacher in Kalam. In a Chennai school, children created a large floral picture of their hero, then stood around his head forming a halo of tribute. In a school in Malabar, children spent time reading Kalam’s words, then went out to tend plants and trees which, he had told them, were precious. Students in Coimbatore planted a lakh of saplings. Another group announced a competition for school students to display their inventions. A sand artist livened up a beach in Puri with spectacular portraits of the Bharat Ratna. At the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, where Kalam died in the middle of a speech, students planted trees in his memory and announced a series of lectures on how to make the world a better place.
Kalam inspired the youth of India in ways no other leader did. He never had the glamour of a Jawaharlal Nehru or the oratorical gifts of a Vajpayee. His English was heavily accented. But those very weaknesses turned out to be his strengths. His genuineness shone through every word and gesture of his. His faith in young people energised the young and the old alike. The directness of his simple words hit home. Who would not be stirred to high endeavour when Kalam, his eyes sparking, tells his listeners: You have to dream before your dreams come true. A 2011 movie about a poor Rajasthani boy who struggled to study was titled, I am Kalam.
With one or two exceptions, the Presidents of India were great souls who brought honour to the country. Some like S Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain were internationally respected scholars. Two were remarkable for their ordinariness, yet they were the ones who conquered the hearts of the people—K R Narayanan and Abdul Kalam. Interestingly, those were also the Presidents the political system got rid of as fast as it could.
Narayanan was so punctilious that he said and did things that went against the positions held by the government in power. This and his view that there was government-level conspiracy behind the Gujarat riots of 2002 turned the BJP-led NDA government against him. Narayanan retired after his first term. Kalam’s adherence to the rule book made the Sonia Gandhi establishment turn against him. So he, too, became a one-term President. But both men carved for themselves positions in public imagination and in the history books that others have not matched. Narayanan, for example, was the first President who insisted on exercising his vote as a citizen. Kalam wrote more than a dozen inspirational books, 22 poems and four songs. In his 70s, he was nominated twice for the MTV youth icon.
In the Indian context, perhaps Kalam’s most significant achievement was that he exposed the meaninglessness of religious identifications. He bore a 24-carat Muslim name and did his namaz. But he was also a vegetarian, read the Bhagvad Gita, played the rudra veena and listened to Carnatic devotional songs every day. He was an Indian in the true sense of that term. And, with all his traditionalism, a very modernistic rock star Indian; how else could we explain that lovingly tended pop-culture hairstyle?
It was no less an achievement that in the political jungle of Delhi, sitting in the citadel of Rashtrapati Bhavan, he remained defiantly apolitical. In fact, he was dreaded by the politicians for they could not contain him within their political lines. He lived true to the message he conveyed to his young listeners: “Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us.”
This was a man who belonged to the stars.