We 92 years ago, in a quiet town that attracted thousands of pilgrims was born this great man we call Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam. How will Dr Kalam be most remembered? How, if at all, has he changed the image of Rashtrapati Bhavan? Has he been one of India’s greatest Presidents?
According to him, he had to take unexpected turns along life’s way to his place in history as a scientist, teacher and President. At the three quarter point of his life, Dr Kalam was persuaded by the then Prime Minister, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take a different route for India’s sake. From then on, given his faith in children and his love for them, he headed towards the title of the People’s President. That is when Mosque Street of Rameswaram where Dr Kalam spent his childhood days became the talk of the country.
Today, Rameswaram signifies ‘Land of a mighty soul, Years of positive Kalam history’. The stress people put on it is justifiable. Whenever conversations revolve around Dr Kalam, Rameswaram gets a special mention. To return to that pure heart of great thoughts, renowned Rameswaram, there is no richer or more evocative journey to take into the ideal spiritual retreat that houses his memorial.
Dr Kalam’s bid for greatness was his clarion call for peaceful coexistence by citing his childhood experiences. His books, ‘Wings of Fire’ and ‘My Journey’ talk in detail about how Rameswaram that was immune to upheavals and communal riots thrived as an example of universal brotherhood. During his career as a scientist, briefly as a teacher and his tenure as President, Dr Kalam represented everything he stood for. In spite of being subjected to criticism, he stood for his religious beliefs and appreciation for other faiths, unwaveringly. His spiritual experiences with Pramukh Swami Maharaj, Acharya Mahapragya among other religious leaders are one thing and his commitment to Islam, Tawhid and Hadith is another.
Anyone who had read books written by him or on him would not refute the fact that The Quran moulded him. Being with him throughout, I know how he vouched for the healing benefits of Salah. Hence, history will remember Dr Kalam as a man who was empowered by his faith in Quran, as a President who set an example of inclusiveness through his camaraderie with Pandits, Pastors, Acharyas, and other men of character. Therefore, he prioritized the mentioning of Maulvi, Kazi and Paramacharya who thrived as examples of religious syncretism. The peace people seek must begin in their own hearts is precisely what he conveyed.
Defined by countless languages, religions, culture, ways of life and traditions, India has been addressing the relationship between science and spirituality with a mix of scientific temper and humanism. All religions and faiths have an equal contribution in the growth story of India as a democracy and scientific power and Dr Kalam made it a point to reiterate facts that helped us remember the shoulders we stand on. He told and retold the story of St. Mary Magdalene Church in the tiny hamlet called Thumba, Kerala, becoming the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. Bishop Peter Bernard Pereira knew what exactly he was doing when he convinced the parishioners to dedicate the whole parish for a national cause. Nobody cared what religion Vikram Sarabhai and APJ Abdul Kalam belonged to but about the vision that brought them together.
When Dr Kalam became the President and advocated the importance of fraternity, literally all Indian leaders tried to get into the mould of inclusive leadership, a few religious leaders turned liberals and people looked up to him for life lessons which was in fact the urgent need of those times. Though the spirit of inclusiveness started to wane gradually after his Presidential tenure, Dr Kalam’s Presidential days was a triumph of personality. His remarkable sense of self boosted India’s pride in world forums. His healthy ego and friendly relations with world leaders put Rameswaram on the map. No other President in my memory strengthened the roots of idealism: the idea that we thrive on the sacrifice of our elders, especially parents, through reading, thinking and scientific inquiry we can improve ourselves. Dr Kalam lived out Jim Corbett’s quote that goes as “It is these big-hearted sons of the soil, no matter what their caste or creed, who will one day weld the contending factions into a composite whole, and make India a great nation.”
To those who grumble that Dr Kalam wasn’t vociferous everywhere, especially in condemning violence and brutality, I would like to make one thing clear. Dr Kalam’s statements were understood by those who had to. When journalists asked him his opinion on the 2002 riots, he said India was in need of an educated political class and leaders must possess better insights to govern a nation as far as economic growth and dignity for human lives is concerned. For instance, his call for a movement to eliminate communal strife is not a casual passing comment. Indians, irrespective of their religion and faith joined hands with him. With the powers vested in his office, he did everything in his capacity to follow up and rectify grievances. His visit to the land of legends and lions that was torn by an earthquake and riots, soon after he assumed office was to right all wrongs, to do justice and be of service. If these gestures went unnoticed, then I would call it inattentiveness or an underplay. Rameswaram gave us a man who in working partnership with God displayed to the world that we are supposed to be stewards of empathy.
The one gesture of transcendent importance that stands as a monument to Dr Kalam’s presidency is the opening of the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan to children. Dr Kalam valued children and their right to speak their mind. He answered all emails personally because each one of them had a personal touch to it. Those correspondences came in different tones extending congratulations, praise, requests and questions. Some of the letters had informal salutations that talked about the comfort level. Most children who wrote to him received the right kind and amount of inspiration. Reading those letters, I understood that their commonality with Dr Kalam prompted them to write. All who corresponded with him and met him wouldn’t have grown to be famous but each one of them has a testimony. Over the years, countless have shared their experiences of how and when they were inspired by Dr Kalam. Given the fair amount of neuroscience behind practising positive affirmations, all knew Dr Kalam attempted to inspire children to dream big. Positive affirmations kindled positive thoughts and positive results followed. If verses of Persian Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi worked for him, Dr Kalam was sure others too were on board. Therefore, he made children repeat those verses after him.
Being mindful of his success story, his words of inspiration were coated with a promise that anyone can rise from humble beginnings. Listening to fulsome tributes, I realise it is time we declare his birthday as ‘National Inspiration Day’.
The Varanasi of the south was blessed with a noble teacher Sivasubramania Iyer who groomed young Kalam and equipped him to break barriers, social and mental. Dr Kalam demonstrated that when a teacher becomes President, initiatives which would help all students to rise and shine will be in place. Millions of children who toured the biggest presidential residence of the world will grow up to believe that dignity rests on her/his willingness to provide opportunities by breaking barriers.
In my opinion, as his friend and Private Secretary for 24 years, President Kalam will be remembered for his courage to risk it all by reworking protocols to make himself accessible than for achievements that reshaped Indian political landscape. I don’t mean to discount the difficulties he confronted in the form of suggestive questions from the news media. A great deal of what he accomplished as the hero who hailed from the Island of prayer should be attributed to his personality par excellence, morality and eloquence. He wanted to be the President who took it on him to help children find their way, end hatred, promote love and protect the constitutional rights of all. “It never occurred to me in my dreams that I might get this opportunity to serve humanity”, he said placidly.
Let us honour Dr Kalam’s legacy of service by sowing seeds of harmony, pondering on his thoughts and emulating this great mind who wished for a peaceful world.
His dreams must live on.