Intro: Throbbing with warmth, affection and dynamism, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was a volcano of brilliance and an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the millions of students and youth in the country.
In the passing away of Bharat Ratna Dr Abdul Kalam on July 27, at Shillong, India has lost a Karmayogi, a guiding star, a saint scientist of highest order, a visionary institution builder sui generis and above all, a man among the gem of purest ray serene. Like Swami Vivekananda, who envisioned the “rising of India,” Kalam could see the “future greatness of India” with clarity of a prophet. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed him as a rare “gems”. A leader and a teacher who could easily connect to the youths, Kalam was also a “People’s President,” “Missile Man” and “Rocket Scientist.” A versatile personality blessed with the noble qualities of head and heart, Kalam never hankered after power, pelf and opulence. He was a down to earth optimist and a renaissance man to the core.
He was indeed the “Indian hero” as described by the Week Magazine. If today India is getting recognised round the world as a scientific and technology powerhouse, a large part of the credit for this distinction should go to Dr Kalam whose contribution to the areas of Space and Defence research is as immense as it is phenomenal. Behind India setting a global record of being the first country in the world to reach the Red Planet in the very first attempt, there lurks the never say die spirit and ceaseless endeavours of Dr Kalam. Incidentally, as the widely acclaimed architect of India’s first civilian launch vehicle, SLV-3, he laid the firm foundations of the Indian launch vehicle technology. The four stage, solid fuel driven SLV-3 had its first successful flight in 1980.
As the project leader of SLV-3, he was a constant inspiration to his team of engineers and scientists fighting against heavy odds to make India self reliant in launch vehicle technology. Kalam was clear that India should become a globally recognised space power capable of sustaining its leadership position in space exploration through challenging planetary probes. Indeed, the unqualified success of Mangalyaan, India’s first ever mission to planet Jupiter, is traced to the flawless performance of the four stage PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) whose development followed the success of SLV-3.
Dr Kalam, who played a stellar role in engineering the 1998 Pokhran nuclear blasts, was of view that India needs missiles as “strength respects strength.” Kalam saw to it that the twin nuclear blast at Pokhran was successfully accomplished by fooling US intelligence satellites. He was of fully well convinced that for the peaceful rise of India, the country should become militarily strong.
His expertise and excellence in the area of launch vehicles gave a quickening impetus to India’s quest to master the Science and Technology of advanced missile systems. As the head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), he conceptualised and launched the ambitious Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) which paved the way for the indigenous development of many advanced technologies that were denied to India by western countries. Indeed, the spirit of hope and confidence unleashed by IGMDP continues to spur India to take up the challenge of developing futuristic weapon systems. It is a tribute to the foresight and vision of Dr Kalam that India is now capable of building Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with advanced technological features. As Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India between 1999 and 2001, he played pivotal and pioneering role in giving a new thrust and direction to the Indian Science and Technology. The silver haired, lifelong bachelor Kalam dedicated his life to turn India into a power house of Science and Technology. Significantly, Kalam was also the inspiration and guiding spirit behind the development of India’s first supersonic multi role fighter Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) which is now close to achieving its Final Operational Clearance (FOC).
The greatness of Dr Kalam lies in the fact that he always insisted upon the transfer of technology developed for building military systems to other areas including health care so that common people in the country could benefit from such a strategy. For instance, an affordable, cost effective coronary stent for heart patients could be developed indigenously as a spin-off of the technology developed for a missile system. Another gadget that owes its origin to the pro active spirit of Dr Kalam is the highly affordable light calipher for the benefit of Polio affected Indians. These two healh care products are a tribute to Kalam’s concern and solicitude for the common man of the country.
Throbbing with warmth, affection and dynamism, Kalam was a volcano of brilliance and an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the millions of students and youth in the country. In his company, one could be instantly infected by the spirit of action and positive outlook to contribute to the enrichment of India in a variety of ways. Indeed as pointed out by the distinguished civil servant BS Raghavan “Let us celebrate the fact of his having lived amongst us and our having lived in his time.” As the President of India, he made the ornate and opulent Rashtrapathi Bhavan accessible to common man. He was clear that the first citizen of the country should engage with all other citizens of India. Kalam, the eleventh President of India, was also country’s most respected scientist and widely decorated educationist having been bestowed with honorary doctorates from 30 universities and institutions. “He greatly enhanced the stature of his office by adhering to constitutional norms. He gave respectability to our country in the world. APJ was a president and a human being par excellence” says former attorney general of India Soli J Sorabjee.
An aerospace engineer from Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) in Chennai, young Kalam who had a fascination for flying was more than eager to become a combat pilot. But then the destiny willed otherwise. After he failed to qualify as a fighter pilot in the tests held in Dehradun, he trekked to the holy city of Rishikesh to seek a new way forward in his life. Here he had an invigorating dip in the holy waters of Ganga. Thereafter he walked to the ashram of Swami Sivananda. Here Swamiji consoled and conquered a crest fallen Kalam with the soothing words, “Forget this failure, as it was essential to lead you to on a destined path.” This was a turning point in the life of Kalam. A man of indomitable will and a rare blend of grace and greatness Kalam’s philosophy was “Never say no and Nothing is impossible.”
A voracious reader with a huge appetite for knowledge, Kalam wanted India to be a world leader in utilising the knowledge base for its all round development. He has authored 14 books on a variety of subjects including Wings of Fire, Ignited Mind and India 2020. He had a deep understanding of Tamil literature and tradition and was deeply influenced by the stirring patriotic poems of the revolutionary Tamil literary star Subramanya Bharati.
His colleagues at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapruam used to address him as Kalam Iyer. Incidentally, at Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS)—the first Indian space facility that is now a part of VSSC-Kalam used to peddle his way to the testing centre with rocket payloads.
Son of a poor boatman from the pilgrim centre of Rameswaram, who also did errands such as newspaper delivery to support the family, Kalam was a mentor to the countless Indian scientists and engineers working in a variety of fields. A workaholic and a go getter, Kalam was a great team leader. “His simplicity, love for music and equanimity in stressful situations had always been a source of great inspiration for me” says former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist and a theatre personality Soorya Krishnamoorthy. Kalam seems to have had the premonition of his death. “No more manoeuvres are required any more as I am placed in my final position in the eternity,” wrote Kalam in his last and latest book Transcendence: My Spiritual Experience with Pramukh Swamiji. This book gives a vivid picture of exhilarating spiritual experience he had had in the company of Pramukh Swamiji, whom Kalam considered as his “ultimate teacher.”
Clearly and apparently, Kalam who was ahead of his time; he wanted India to be active and dynamic partners in global initiatives for building a reusable space vehicle, solar power satellites and human expedition to Mars. “Kalam’s life was a mission—telling every youth of the country to dream big, to have high aims, to think and to translate that thought into action with hard work and perseverance” says Dr A Shivathnau Pillai who was closely associated with Dr Kalam during his stints in ISRO and DRDO. The spirit of Kalam continues to ignite the minds to help them burn like a sun.
Radhakrishna Rao (The writer is a freelance columnist and worked with Kalam on projects related to Defence technologies)