Remembering Dr APJ Abdul Kalam: How the Missile Man of India changed lives
We speak to three individuals about their interactions with former President of India, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
It was 6.30 pm on a Monday (July 27) when Dr APJ Abdul Kalam clutched his chest and fell to the floor while delivering a speech in the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong.
The entire country came to a standstill as news of the death of the former President went global. While citizens mourned the loss and expected a few days of silence in respect to the missile man of India, the contrary happened. According to reports, Dr Kalam willed for the country to keep moving without a pause in the case of his demise, and with state honours, the Rameshwaram-born man was put to rest.
His work, life, and interactions are well documented on various platforms and are available worldwide. But we decided to talk to three individuals who were in direct contact with Dr Kalam and learn about how their lives were changed owing to their interactions with him.
Ponraj Vellaichamy – Former scientific advisor to Dr Kalam
Ponraj’s career as a scientist started with a dream to meet Dr Kalam in his 10th standard. While that dream was not fulfilled for nearly 15 years, he finally managed to meet him in 1895 when Ponraj started work as a scientist for the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). “When I joined, I was surprised that Dr Kalam was the Director-General of the ADA. I worked with someone who I wanted to become since I was 15 years old,” Ponraj adds with joy.
Ponraj recounts his first proper conversation with Dr Kalam, “I met him on November 17, 1995 as he came for a press conference. As soon as we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, we got talking about our home town, and we connected. From then on, I had many opportunities to work with him on various projects under him. When he became president, he asked me to join as Director Technology Interface at the President Secretariat.”
Ponraj’s role at the Secretariat was “challenging” and often had “impossible tasks” as he recollects, “United Nations had set millennium development goals in most underdeveloped countries, and he (Dr Kalam) asked ‘why don’t we do something in education and healthcare toward that goal.’ Many African countries were fighting amongst each other, so he asked ‘why don’t we connect Africa?’” The former director had to formulate a 5-year plan within five days, and while the task sounded rushed, Ponraj clarifies that it was well thought out. After pitching the plan to former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and the pan-African countries’, the African Union passed a resolution to accept the project since it was “exactly meeting the millennium development goals of Africa.”
The project supposedly provided higher education for 30,000 students, complete medical education for more than 10,000 doctors, and created a lot of opportunities for Indian hospitals. He says that it was the “biggest opportunity” he got from Dr Kalam. After a brief dialogue on Dr Kalam’s scientific achievements, Ponraj ended his recap by adding that, “Dr Kalam would’ve been very happy by the Chandrayaan 2 launch.”
M.S.S. Raghavan – Former Director (project) of the Nuclear Power Corporation
An 85-year-old man, Raghavan recollects with simplicity, “What I liked in him was that he was very honest, and very humble,” referring to Dr Kalam. “He had no classification; all were same in his eyes.” To explain why he thought so, he provided a circumstance, “When he was about to become president in 2002, he had come to the plant (Nuclear Power Plant) for a presentation. When I asked him for a picture, without a second thought, he pulled me in and made sure I had a good picture. He was very progress-oriented and simple,” he said, pointing at the picture on the shelf.
“I liked his human approach and motivational attitude to work. He wanted to bring the best out in people and always strived to encourage them to do their best. Instead of pointing out what to do, he assigned tasks and guided them constantly. He completely removed this concept of hierarchy. Even when he was President, we didn’t feel like we were talking to someone holding that much power.” Raghavan adds that he used to motivate his team in a similar manner – something he learnt from his interactions with the former President of India.
Dr Kalam was known to be a simpleton in his way of life, and Raghavan adds emphasis, “Whenever he came to Madras, he stayed in Guindy on campus at the hostel, and never a hotel. He always said, ‘if you can do something on your own, what the need for luxury, or help?’” The moment that stands out most for Raghavan, however, is when Dr Kalam came for a meeting which had a big dinner spread. With immense respect, he recalls, “He pulled me aside and asked ‘thairusaadam enga?’ [translation: where’s the curd rice?]. While this stunned the former director, he says it created a significant impact in his life. He ends by saying, “I think Dr Kalam died doing what he loved most – talking to students.”
Abdul Ghani – Socialist and a keen supporter of Dr Kalam’s ideals
Ghani’s association with Dr Kalam started with his drive to plant trees. He explains how it materialised, “Dr Kalam had dreams to make India a developed nation. One of his vision was about the environment. And since I have a close association with the environment, I decided to make a difference in that field.” Abdul Ghani is involved in making a social impact by caring for the environment and campaigns to preserve nature as inspired by Dr Kalam.
When I met him for the first time in 2012, it triggered me to take action. I used to admire him from my childhood, but when I met him for the first time, that admiration turned to inspiration. I think it’s safe to say that he was my first role model. He is someone who taught me what patriotism is and how a citizen should love his country. I was inspired by his selflessness to that commitment.”
He adds, “If every citizen in India had the same level of patriotism as Dr Kalam, India would become a developed nation. And I think that would be a fitting tribute to give on his fourth death anniversary.”
With great sadness, Ghani recalls the last time he met him, “I had a very close interaction at Dr Kalam’s residence. I spent time with him in his library, and it happened to be my last meeting with him. That day, we had a casual meeting. The things he told me touched me so much. He was 80+ but still had so much energy and power, and he still thought about how he can help the country. He spoke to me in detail about the power of youth. He told me we should engage the youth in productive activities, enable them to solve problems and do larger and more consistent activities.” Inspired by that interaction, Ghani organised a youth conference in 2015, reportedly with support from former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa.
He then spoke about Dr Kalam’s importance in the scientific arena and credited him with bringing India into the limelight. Finally, Ghani shared a message for the youth, “I’m sure his vision will become a reality, not by 2020, but in the near future. It will be undertaken by India’s youth, and think it will be the best gift students can give him – simply because he believed in you.”
As our conversation with the three individuals ended, there happens to be a consistent set of values and achievements that prevail – a man with a humble attitude, a scientist with accolades that took India forward, a visionary for India’s development, and someone who believed in the power of youth.
Such was a man who had critical roles in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO), and was the 11th president of India. He aided in the development of missiles, space missions, and rockets while in the DRDO and ISRO. He also effectively served as the President for one tenure and used that power to connect with students from all over the world. This interaction, some suggest, are like seeds in the back of the mind which can make a difference in the livelihood of that individual, and their surroundings – eventually fulfilling Dr Kalam’s ‘developed India’ vision. Our interaction with these individuals is merely proof of the difference that Dr Kalam can have on a person.