I was a teacher earlier, and I am a teacher again'
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was known as the People's President, is out with a new book. He talks to Bishakha De Sarkar about his childhood, his belief in India's secularism, and the reason for his mop of long white hair
- Published 25.08.13
In a move that the famously meticulous resident of Number 10, Rajaji Marg, would have approved of, I do a quick recce of the place hours before my evening appointment. I needn't have bothered, though. The cab driver who later steers me there knows his way around Lutyens's Delhi. "Dus Number," he repeats. "That's Kalam."
Well, not for nothing is Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam known as the People's President. His neighbours are the army and the navy chiefs. But the quiet man in the middle — who talks to a shaggy Arjuna tree in his front lawn — is the one that people know of even though there is no nameplate.
As unobtrusively, the ex-President — India's 11th — walks into the waiting room, where I have been biding my time looking at all the bric-a-brac that adorn the shelves — from a set of golden dolphins to a statuette of Swami Vivekananda. Kalam is in a grey blazer and trousers, with a pen peeping out of the front pocket of his blue shirt. His hair — the trademark well-oiled silver bob that touches his ears — is in place. "Bi-shaa-kha," he says in greeting, as if he's known me all my life.
Kalam has agreed to an interview because his new book — he has written 23 so far, two of which have sold a million copies — is just out. My Journey: Transforming Dreams and Actions by Rupa is a collection of short essays about his childhood and early years.
"Ours was a joint family," he says, after gently lowering himself into a sofa. The youngest of five brothers and one sister, he lived with his parents and relatives in Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. His father, who built boats and ran a ferry service to a Hindu pilgrim spot, lived till 102; his mother till she was 93. They had 15 grandchildren. "At any given point of time, there were two cradles in the house," he laughs, and then asks anxiously, "You know cradle?"
He peppers his words with questions such as this — in the way a teacher guides a student. He has been to Surat, he says, where he came in touch with 1,00,000 students. "Surat," I ask. "Yes, Surat. In Gujarat. Famous for diamonds," he explains.
Clearly, he is still a teacher at heart. Though he once wanted to be a fighter pilot (he didn't pass the test) and later joined the government as an aeronautical engineer, Kalam is quintessentially a teacher. Even now, he lectures in IIMs and IITs, and in two American universities. "I was a teacher earlier, and I am a teacher again," he says.
He was, in fact, in a classroom in Anna University in Chennai in 2002 when he got a call from then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whom he knew in his capacity as the country's chief scientific advisor. "I was teaching so I couldn't take the call," he says. Later, when he called the PM back, Vajpayee made his offer. Would he consider being President?
"I asked for an hour's time," he recalls. He called up his friends in various parts of the country and had a virtual discussion. The verdict was 60:40 — 60 in favour.
"I was persuaded to say yes because it would give me a platform to promote my ideas. And as the President, I did that with India 2020 — a plan to make India economically developed by 2020."
Staff at Rashtrapati Bhavan — where Kalam spent five eventful years till 2007 — hail him as a President who treated everybody equally. He gained the moniker "People's President" for a host of reasons, chief among which was opening up the gates of the Bhavan to the people.
"There are 12 types of gardens there. I kept one garden especially for the visually challenged. They cannot see the flowers but they can feel the fragrance, they can touch. And they can say, this is the smell of jasmine, this is a rose," he says.
He met "thousands" of farmers, postmen and policemen during his tenure. Every week, he would interact with 250-400 children. His swearing in ceremony too was attended by 100 children from across the country. "Three teachers of mine were also there, and 64 members of my family. I paid for my relatives," he adds. Also present were a temple purohit, a Christian priest and a Muslim leader from Rameswaram.
For Kalam, the confluence of religions is a way of life. When he was a small boy, among his closest friends was a Brahmin. He recounts in his book that a new teacher saw them sitting together in class and asked their names. When he heard Kalam's, he asked him to sit at the back.
Young Abdul was troubled — "I felt sad, even humiliated," he writes. When his father heard about it, he, along with his learned Brahmin friend and a Christian priest, summoned the teacher. "They would not allow their children to be segregated," the three wise men said to the penitent teacher.
Almost 75 years later, what does Kalam think of attempts to polarise people, especially during elections, on religious lines? I mention Narendra Modi, the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party's election campaign, but Kalam steers clears of names.
"As you see, the three wise men — a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian — explained to the schoolmaster. This is unique to India," he says, and then adds that when a nation develops economically, education and prosperity follow. "Gradually differences in society reduce," he adds. "The youth want that. And half of India's population is young."
I venture deeper into politics, naming more names. How does he rate the two men who were prime ministers when he was President? "Atal Behari Vajpayeeji was quick in thought and action," he replies, and then goes on to relate an anecdote about Manmohan Singh.
In 2007, Kalam was to visit Africa to attend a pan-African parliament of 53 nations. "I felt that as the President of India, I should offer them something." Since India's core competence was in computers, he thought New Delhi could help set up a pan-African e-network — for tele-medicine, tele-education and so on.
"So I rang up Prime Minister Manmohan Singhji. He immediately agreed. I announced this — and it became a hit programme."
Kalam, however, has not been spared his share of criticism. In some scientific circles, it has always been stressed that India's Missile Man was never a nuclear scientist, but essentially an administrator. In political quarters, he has often been referred to as a BJP man, because the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance had nominated him.
"The President's post should not be politicised," he says. "Once a president is elected, he is above politics."
Last year, there was an attempt to pit him against Congress presidential nominee Pranab Mukherjee, but Kalam, in a rare public announcement, declined the offer. "It (the 2012 aborted move) didn't shake me up. If I couldn't get the support of all the parties, I was not interested," he says.
So he is back to teaching. And, at 82, he is surprisingly fit. That, he says, is all about "thinking good, acting good". His day begins at 6am, when he goes for an hour-long walk (20 minutes in the evening), around the Arjuna tree which houses sundry birds, including a peahen and her family.
"I meet good human beings. I read a lot, I listen to Carnatic classical music, and I love the santoor. And it helps that I am a vegetarian."
Kalam turned vegetarian when he joined Saint Joseph's College in Tiruchirappalli in 1950. As a scholarship student, he couldn't afford to eat meat or fish. "Economy forced me to become a vegetarian, but I finally starting liking it," he says. "Today I am 100 per cent vegetarian. Wherever I go, as long as I get a hot vegetable dish, I am okay. If I am in Gujarat, I have Gujarati food, if it's Shillong, it's northeastern."
The man who was project director of India's first indigenous satellite launch vehicle (SLV) and helped develop missiles such as Agni and Prithvi also writes poetry. "Poetry comes from the highest happiness or the deepest sorrow," he says. As a college boy, he wrote The Indomitable spirit after a devastating cyclone. Years later, the 100-year-old Arjuna tree was his muse when he moved to his government bungalow — where the British architect Edwin Lutyens once lived.
"This one was out of happiness, the previous one out of sorrow," he says.
Kalam is also fond of music. "Basically, I love Carnatic classical," he says, and names a Thyagaraja kirtana — Endharo mahanubhavalu — as a particular favourite. Saint Thyagaraja goes to a raj durbar ("you know raj durbar?") and is expected to sing in praise of the king. Instead, he salutes knowledge, Kalam recounts.
When he was in Hyderabad, he learnt the veena. "I had a great teacher, Madam Kalyani. Then I became scientific advisor and moved to Delhi. But I still I have a wish — I must go back to it."
I was allotted 20 minutes but have taken more than double the time. The former Prez has politely looked at his watch twice. But I can't leave without asking the two questions that he says his young visitors never fail to ask. Why did he never marry, and why does he wear his hair so long?
"Regarding marriage, it somehow it didn't happen. One fellow in such a big family not getting married is not an issue. Now I support a lot of them." No, he doesn't feel lonely. "We are always together — through technology. You can see the family every day."
As for the hairstyle, blame — or praise — Anil, who "comes every quarter" and styles his hair. My hair grows and grows, you cannot stop it — that fellow grows, it grows wild," he says, as his eyes crinkle into a smile.
He gets up to leave. "I liked your questions," he says as a parting shot.
I feel like I've just been graded an A.