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Scientist in service of god and mankind

Abdul Kalam is also a prolific author of all kinds of books. His latest — The Family and The Nation — has been co-authored by Acharya Mahapragya, a Jain monk, and the first chapter reads almost like a translation of Jain scriptures. So how has a famous Muslim nuclear scientist suddenly become a believer in Jainism, I wonder. Riddhi Shah writes.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2009 01:06 IST
Riddhi Shah

When I type Abd into Google, auto-complete prompts me to finish it with Abdul Kalam. There are 746,000 links. By contrast, when I enter Prat, Pratibha Patil is the third option, just below a Bengali newspaper called Pratidin. While the statistic isn’t meant to be a comment on Patil’s appeal, it is a testament to Kalam’s enduring popularity, two years after he stepped down as President.

The man is also a prolific author of all kinds of books. His latest — The Family and The Nation — has been co-authored by Acharya Mahapragya, a Jain monk, and the first chapter reads almost like a translation of Jain scriptures. So how has a famous Muslim nuclear scientist suddenly become a believer in Jainism, I wonder.

When Kalam, now 77, walks into the office of his Rajaji Marg bungalow, two things jump at me. One, that he’s rather short — not more than 5’4”— and two, that his silver hair, curving like two commas on his forehead, is still his most striking feature. We start talking about spirituality. “One is born into a particular religion. But that doesn’t matter,” he says, on why the book draws so heavily from Jainism. About 10 minutes into our conversation, I understand the secret behind his appeal. He has a naiveté you rarely see in public figures. And it’s this almost child-like idealism that makes him both immensely popular, and a target for cynical journalist-types like me.

Mid-interview, he suddenly turns to Mohammed Zakir, the photographer accompanying me. “How many pictures you have taken (sic)?” Kalam asks. “About two lakh.” “What is your favourite?” “Nature, sir.” “You like nature, ha? Good,” Kalam says in a grandfatherly way. Zakir smiles.

I ask him about his childhood, and his most enduring influences. “I belong to my parents. And then I belong to my primary school teacher. One Shiva Subramanium Aiyer,” he replies. Despite myself, I feel a surge of affection for this small, unassuming man. That Kalam has a strong desire to create change was clear even when he was President. But post-Presidency, wouldn’t he rather relax and spend time with his much-loved nursery. No, he says. “I have always had one question — how can I transform the youth?” And so he started the Lead India 2020 project, an NGO that works with young people. “I love meeting youth and hearing their dreams. That’s how I get energy,” he says. Does he feel a vacuum, now that he no longer holds public office? “My days are still as full,” he shoots back.

Before I leave, I have one last question. I can’t seem to reconcile the two disparate sides to his personality. How does he marry science with spirituality? “Everything we have is science. The fishing boat is science; electricity is science. Religion takes care of the spiritual side, while science takes care of the material. But both serve humanity — they have the same purpose,” he says.

I never thought of it like that.