The crowd surged in and the drone of rotor blades drowned in the deafening roar of “Long live Kalam” when the helicopter carrying the Tricolour-draped body of the former President landed on a makeshift helipad 10km from his birthplace Rameswaram on Wednesday afternoon.
Security personnel of this small fishing island at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu had never encountered such an emotionally-charged crowd as the glass casket bearing the body of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who died of a cardiac arrest in Shillong on Monday, was lowered from the chopper.
Some family members of Kalam, who would have turned 84 this October, were also present at the helipad.
People lined the route as a military vehicle ferried the casket to the town’s main bus stand, where it was kept till 8pm for admirers to pay their last respects to the popular “People’s President” before the funeral on Thursday morning.
After this, the body was handed over to the Kalam family who took it to their ancestral house at Pallivasal Street, where the popular Bharat Ratna scientist and 11th President, grew up. As per the wishes of Kalam’s family, especially his 99-year-old elder brother, the government had decided to conduct his last rites in his hometown.
Earlier, the body was brought to Madurai from Delhi on a special aircraft with urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu and defence minister Manohar Parrikar accompanying the former President in his last journey home.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and at least eight chief ministers are expected to attend the ceremony on Thursday.
Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa’s has said she would not be able to attend the funeral.
Townsfolk lit lamps, candles and incense sticks to pay homage to their favourite son, affectionately called the Missile Man of India for catapulting the country into the big league of rocket science and military missiles. Shops and offices remained closed as a mark of respect to Kalam, who fondly reminisced his childhood in Rameswaram in his 2013 autobiography “My Journey”. His ancestral home, House of Kalam, was besieged by crowds, prompting great-grandson APJ Shiekh Salim to plead with television crews to respect the family’s privacy. “My shocked great-grandfather is not in good health,” he said.
Dr Abdul Karim, a Kalam lookalike who was four years senior to the former President at St Joseph’s College in Tiruchi, said: “He lived his life for the country and he did it till the last minute.”