(The following is a translation of a piece by celebrated Tamil writer, the late S Rangarajan, who wrote under the pseudonym Sujatha – after his wife. “Sujatha” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sujatha_Rangarajan ) was a classmate of A.P.J Abdul Kalam through their university years and is also the inventor of the electronic voting machine for Bharat Electronics Ltd, where he worked, apart from being a script writer for hit movies by Tamil film maker Mani Rathnam. This piece was written before Kalam became the President of India)
APJ Abdul Kalam was my classmate in the BSc course at Trichy’s St Joseph’s College . During lunch breaks in the big assembly hall, we used to banter until the bell rang for the lectures. I remember him from those times. He would not talk much then, and if someone poked fun, he would gently laugh it off. And he would not come with the rest of us to watch movies.
After our BSc,, when I joined the Madras Institute of Technology to study electronics, I saw him join the aeronautics course in the same year. We both shared a common passion for Tamil and I recall our frequent meetings on that count. I recall his interest in the songs of Subramania Bharathi (nationalist poet) and Tirukkural (Tirvalluvar’s omnibus of couplets). Right at that stage, it was clear that he wanted to accomplish something practical in the field of aeronautics or rocket science. Our professors (one German, one Indian) showed the way – and I think it was the first time in India. They made an engineless-glider and took it to the Meenambakkam airport – part by part – and put it all together again. Then they used a winch to pull it and hoisted it like a kite in the sky. It caught the hot winds and soared. And so did our feelings in the college. Kalam played a role in that.
Professor Raghavachari, who taught us physics, was passionate about Tamil. He held a competition that invited essays in Tamil on science. Kalam and I took part, of course. Kalam’s essay was titled “We will build a plane”. Mine was on Infinity Mathematics, titled “Anantham.” He got the prize.
Kalam did not stop with his writing. Forget the plane. He built a rocket!
I lost touch with him for a few years after our MIT days. In the interval, he grew up under the supervision of figures such as Vikram Sarabhai, training in NASA. After I joined Bharat Electronics Ltd, I found opportunity to meet him on many counts for official work. He was a part of ISRO’s SLV rocket project. I could now see strong signs of hard work. There were people saying right then that he was destined to climb the ladder in the government hierarchy. Later, he moved to become the head of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) at Hyderabad in the Department of Space. He successfully accomplished a series of missile projects: Prithvi, Agni, Akash, Nag et al. Then he became advisor to the prime minister and played a significant role in the stalled light commercial aircraft (LCA) project, pulling it finally out of the hangar and actually making it fly.
If I were to look back and compare ourselves with our batch mate, Kalam’s rise is manifold. None of us quite rose to become a Bharat Ratna. The main reason for his success was his dedication towards work, tireless labour and self-confidence.
When he was in the DRDO, I have taken part in his review meetings – and they were brief. He would ask a project head if a certain task was done. If it was delayed he never got upset. No shouting – but somehow he would make the person responsible for missing the deadline squirm in discomfort. When he was working 24/7/365, others were compelled to match up. He led by example.
His personal needs were few. He was a bachelor and a vegetarian with no “bad” habits. To top this he had a devout Muslim’s sense of good conduct. These kept him away from the temptations of a big office. In all of Tehelka’s tapes that exposed doings inside the government, he came out as a figure who stood in the way of corruption in high places.
I particularly recall one incident. When I went to Hyderabad for a meeting with him, some Russian technicians were visiting and there was a dinner at the Taj Banjara. I was invited as well. The Russians were gloating in the joy of having signed an agreement and forced a glass of vodka on Kalam, who avoided any intoxicant. He approached me quickly and asked in an embarrassed tone, “What’s that in your hand?”.
“Water. Ice water, Kalam,” I replied.
“Give it to me,” he said.
In a flash he had taken my glass and thrust the vodka glass into my unsuspecting hands.
“Those guys simply don’t understand that I don’t drink,” he said.
In a while I heard them say “Cheers” – and a glass of ice water went up with the vodkas!
Kalam and I plan to write a book together. He said we could do one on India’s rocket science since the times of Tipu Sultan. “I am ready, Kalam. Are you?” I would ask him. “I am almost ready. Let us start next month,” he would say – everytime.
Now that he has retired, I expect him to write it – if only the Indian government, US universities, colleges, Lions and Rotary clubs, schools and social organizations would leave him alone!
Translated by N. Madhavan
From Kattradhum Pettradhum (The Learned & The Received), a collection of Sujatha’s writings, published by Ananda Vikatan Publications