Brother awaits Kalam last trip

Scanning the faces closely in the small bedroom with his cataract-covered eyes and hoping to see Abdul Kalam among them, A.P.J.M. Maraikayar asked: "What is happening outside? When is he coming?"

By G.C. Shekhar
  • Published 29.07.15
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Maraikayar with his daughter Naseema. Picture by GC Shekhar

Rameswaram, July 28: Scanning the faces closely in the small bedroom with his cataract-covered eyes and hoping to see Abdul Kalam among them, A.P.J.M. Maraikayar asked: "What is happening outside? When is he coming?"

The 99-year-old, the former President's only surviving sibling, had to be told repeatedly that Kalam was no more. Their other three brothers and lone sister had passed away earlier.

"When the news trickled in first on TV, he was not convinced, recalling there had been wrong news a few years back too. Only when Ponraj (a Kalam associate in Delhi) called us to confirm the news did it slowly sink in," Maraikayar's daughter Naseema said.

Naseema, who holds a doctorate in Islamic studies, then fills in the details of the last rites. "They will bring him tomorrow. They'll keep him at the girls' school for the public before they bring him here," Naseema tells her father. "So, he will come home?" Maraikayar asks again. She reassures him he will.

Locals who have known the Kalams through generations throng their single-storey house - which sits cheek-by-jowl with others in the middle-class neighbourhood dotted with jewellery shops and garment outlets - flitting in and out as if the family belongs to the entire town.

"They do belong to all of us. When Kalam's name was announced for President, police tried to keep a tight control on those who entered the house. But they gave up as excited locals turned up and demanded to go in and wish the family. Ever since, it has been an open house, except when Kalam visited a couple of times," recalled Suleiman, a neighbour.

Auto drivers and shopkeepers have erected large banners mourning the loss of their most famous son.

Stephen Jeyaseelan, Kalam's only surviving classmate from Schwartz School in Ramanathapuram, 60km away, recalled their years together. "Study he did. In fact, that's the only thing he did, while the rest of us played and had a jolly good time."

Jeyaseelan was the physical educator in the same school for 36 years, having joined after finishing college.

"Whenever we spotted a pond filled with rain water, we would remove our uniforms and jump in for a swim. Kalam would merely be studying the ripple effects in the water. He was good at math but not the school topper. That honour went to one Abdul Qayum," chuckled Jeyaseelan.

In 2000, exactly 50 years after they had passed out, the two had met at the school when Kalam came visiting - two years before he became President. "When I introduced myself, he asked in front of everyone to tell them how many hits I had taken from the headmaster every day. We had a great laugh," Jeyaseelan recalled.

#Asked if he would attend the funeral, Jeyaseelan was not sure and cited the traffic and security arrangements. "I would love to see him a last time. He made us all proud."

Kerala cobbler

In Thiruvananthapuram, where Kalam had worked at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, George the cobbler relived old memories.

Kalam would often stop by his tiny shop on the way back from work, "sit down and crack a few jokes, get me to buy dosa and rasa vada from a nearby cafeteria and leave".

George, 74, had moved to Kerala from Tamil Nadu in 1957. "I once asked Kalam Sir why he hadn't married and he replied he was lost in his work and didn't find time," he said, speaking over the phone.

He recalled the shock when a Raj Bhavan vehicle stopped by his shop in 2002, when President Kalam was visiting. "It was about 1pm. An official got off and came to me to tell me I had been invited to meet the President. Me and the owner of Guruvayoorappan hotel (an eatery Kalam frequented) went together. President Sir asked me in Tamil, 'George eppadi irukk, sowghyama (How are you, are you good),' to which I nodded a yes."

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ANANTHAKRISHNAN G