I write this obituary from the C-130 Air force plane with Dr. Kalam’s mortal remains a few feet behind me to be taken to Rameshwaram. He is draped in the national flag, the tricolor he served and deserves. He was the hero of my generation – I remember how I used to be glued to his Presidential address just as I was finishing school. He was an ocean of experience, ideas and motivation and to capture his personality and contributions in a few hundred words is a near impossible task. But as Dr. Kalam always said, “don’t stop trying” so here goes my attempt.
- “Funny guy! Are you smashing?” This is what I would hear from Dr. Kalam at every single dinner or lunch we had together. “Smashing” was the typical “Kalam call-sign” for asking whether the food was good. “Funny guy” was of course a more complicated expression, which could mean a whole variety of things. Depending on the tone in which it was said, it could mean good, not good, embarrassing or simply a casual reference. If you were working with Dr. Kalam, being able to decipher his usage of the word “funny” was almost a mandatory art to know which could be learnt only through experience. It took me a good one year to figure it out! Funny!
Dr. Kalam was a teacher, mentor, guide, co-author, friend, boss from whom I received care like a mother and concern like a father. I had the great fortune of working with him closely, travelling with him so frequently for over six years, till the point he left us all. He was infectiously optimistic, to him there was never an end. He never really watched TV, but still was a cricket fan – asking me scores on matches when we travelled between functions. His favorite cricketers were Dhoni and Sachin. I remember if I told him India was not doing well in a particular match, he would reply, “Watch! Our captain will come and do something unique.”
Uniqueness was so common to him. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge. The library and reading room occupying half of his 10 Rajaji Road House would be spilling books into bedroom and sometimes right upto the garden. He never departed on a journey without carrying a couple of books in his hand baggage. On the very last day of life, I remember lifting his hand baggage – it was heavy. I said, “Sir! Your bag is getting heavier!” He replied, “That is because I am reading more!”
To me the line which separated Dr. Kalam from the rest was not just his knowledge. It was his sensitivity and humility. He always introduced everybody as friend — whether it be his secretaries, his driver, his gardener, his cook or the people who maintained his house or even a stranger he just met. To him the world was truly flat, and there was no place for hierarchies and ranks in his life. I have had lunch and dinner with him at least 2000 times – often being the second to come to the table. Not once did he start eating on his own, not once did he miss asking whether I was liking the food.
He had the gift of empathy – and his memory of other people’s difficulties was impeccable. That was his art of winning over people. If he saw anyone with even with a small cold on a day he would offer you medicine or hot soup. The next day his first words would be – “Are you repaired?” No matter what you replied, his reaction would be, “Funny fellow you are!”
Dr. Kalam’s greatest faith was the nation and its youth. Even in the final two hours of his life, we discussed on terrorism as a threat to sustainability and the issue of Parliament becoming dysfunctional – two recent pieces of news which had pained him the most. He trusted the youth, particularly his students, to come up with a solution for these issues. He was an eternal believer in the power of the ignited mind of the youth – which he termed as most powerful, on the earth, above the earth and under the earth.
What next? We are bereft of Dr. Kalam as a physical form but we are still blessed with Dr. Kalam as an idea, a vision and a dream. His thoughts and missions about empowering rural areas, about clean energy, about value based education, about creativity, innovation and integrity are still flying high.
When I was his student in 2008 at IIMA, he told me in an after-class conversation, “If you are blessed with intelligence, and empowered with education – it is your responsibility to change the world”. That statement changed my life. He often said, “my dream is to see a billion smiles on billion faces”. Let us give our eternally optimistic, grand old friend, inspiration, mentor and beloved People’s President of the nation a reason to smile, wherever he is now. Salute you Kalam sir!
Srijan Pal Singh was an advisor to Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.