It was a poignant moment. Past midnight, in March this year, APJ Abdul Kalam placed a flower on the body of his friend, poet and critic, PV Subramaniam, popularly known as Subbudu. “I have, my friend, kept my word,” the President said quietly.
Two years ago, Subbudu had written to Kalam asking him to do just one thing for him. “Wherever you are, come and place a flower before my funeral pyre is lit.” Dismissing it as jest, the President had shot back, “How do you know that you will die first?” But when Subbudu actually passed away, Kalam knew he had a promise to keep. “I was informed around 10 pm that Subbudu was no more. The next morning I had to leave for Rajasthan. But not before doing what he asked me to do. I went to the Mughal Garden, plucked one flower and drove straight to his house in East Delhi. It was around midnight but I fulfilled my friend’s wish.”
Friendship, as Kalam quotes from the saint-poet Thiruvallavur’s ‘Thirukkural’, is like the hand that rushes to set right the dress when it tends to slip from the body. His friendships, like his love for children, are well-known — be it friends like Yagnaswami Sundara Rajan, Advisor to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), or A Sivathanu Pillai, Chief Controller, Research and Development Wing of the Defence Ministry. Rajan’s love for Kalam led to what he claims to be “poetry” written for him: “Is he only a friend/ Is it comradeship derived from working in the Space Programme? Is it the special relationship born out of Love for Tamil?”
While Kalam is best equipped to answer this, he says how he grew up with what he calls the “three-cradle syndrome” — always more than one new-born in the large family that young Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was part of in Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. There were siblings, their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren.
It is rather ironic that for all his love of children, Kalam remains a bachelor. “I never missed marriage. Because of the joint family system, there were so many of us at home,” he says. At one point, there were 50 family members staying for a short while with the President at Rashtrapati Bhawan. In Rajan’s poem, he asks why Kalam needs to get married when he has “Rohini and Maneka” — two Indian satellites — with him.
Thanks to a lesson on birds in school, the young Kalam wanted to “reach the skies” as a boy. It was his teacher, Mr Iyer, in his panchayat school who not only taught Kalam and his classmates about birds but actually showed them how they fly. That was enough to push Kalam to do something associated with flying. He started off by trying to join the Indian Air Force, but could not make it. Even today, when he sees an officer in uniform he admits that he gets goose pimples. The moments in which he honours defence personnel are special to Kalam. “Every time I see an officer with a wing on his shirt, I feel very proud.”
Kalam settled for aeronautical engineering, which became a springboard for his contributions in the development of India’s first indigenous satellite launch vehicle. Kalam worked with the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) for over two decades and later developed indigenous guided missiles at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). He was also responsible for the development of the Agni and the Prithvi missiles.
‘APJ’ was born to Jainulabdeen and Ayesha Kalam on October 15, 1931. His father owned a boat repair workshop and a coconut farm. Kalam’s daily errand was to go from door to door and collect payments for the newspapers his brother delivered every morning. His toughest taskmaster was his mathematics teacher. The latter agreed to teach him, but he set two conditions: he should report to him at the crack of dawn and bathe before he reported. Kalam managed to do both. When he goes back to teaching, as he says he will after his presidency, one wonders what kind of regimen Kalam puts his students to.
The grandeur of Rashtrapati Bhawan has not made Kalam forget about his pre-presidential possessions. He still has the “blue bag” in which he rolled in “two shirts and a pant” during his air travels as a scientist with him. The reason he dons stark blue shirts is because stark blue — the colour of the sky — is his favourite colour.
As the ‘People’s President’, Kalam has entertained farmers, postmen and police constables in the presidential palace. Along with playing the host, he provides lunch and extracts the promise of each guest planting five trees.
By his own admission, Kalam is fascinated by people older than 90. His role models are Khushwant Singh, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and Air Marshal Arjan Singh. His next book will feature all three of them. “My father lived to be 103 and mother 93,” says the 75-year young Kalam, intrigued at how one copes after the 90th year.