‘So, what do you know about missiles!’ It was a question asked with a directness that disarmed me completely. We were travelling with President Kalam to Bihar and I was attempting to profile India’s new president. As a student of economics and law, I knew very little about missiles, a fact which I readily confessed to the president. ‘Don’t worry, I will teach you!’ he said with typical enthusiasm. For the next half hour, in the regal surroundings of the Raj Bhavan, I was given a basic science classroom lesson by Dr Kalam. The eyes twinkling with excitement, the smile cheery, the voice bubbling with child-like energy, the positive spirit that typified India’s ‘People’s President’ shone through. I was hooked, as were millions of others, by the sheer simplicity of the message and the infectious charm of the man.
A few years later, he agreed to do an interview with me on the lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan. On hindsight, it was a mistake to even attempt a walk the talk format with President Kalam. He was in his seventies, I was in my forties but if you’d watched the interview, you would have wondered who was the younger man. ‘C’mon, walk faster!” he told me as I struggled to keep pace. When we launched CNN IBN, I met Dr Kalam with a special request. ‘Sir, we want to do a Republic Day programme with you!’ He was hesitant, perhaps realising that acceding to one request might lead to many more. ‘Sir, we will only have children in the audience asking you questions!’ I told him. It was the easiest way to his heart: he could never say no to the young. The lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan were opened up as was his soul. In the company of children, Dr Kalam was eternally youthful, not the first citizen of India, but just a friendly uncle with a kind word for all.
In 2007, at the Ramnath Goenka journalism awards, I had the privilege of receiving the award from President Kalam. When a question and answer session followed the award ceremony, Kalam refused to sit in the front row. Instead, he came and sat cross-legged on the stage, asking us why we didn’t focus more on science and technology in the news. It was a bizarre scene: pompous editors sitting on chairs while the easy-going president was on the stage floor asking us questions! This was quintessential Kalam: unconventional in style, be it his floppy silvery mane of hair, or inviting an audience to send him questions to his personal email: ‘please write to firstname.lastname@example.org, shall I repeat!’
In a way, he was a 21st century feel-good guru, someone who could connect with a diverse India by the sheer magic of his persona. What was that magic? Quite simply, it was his ability to stay rooted and unaffected by the trappings of power, a true aam admi in a VVIP khaas admi universe, someone who was above narrow political affiliations. He was till the very end the boy from a little village in Rameshwaram who had risen from a life of poverty through hard work, merit and knowledge. There may have been far greater missile scientists than him but few had been trained in the journey of life like Dr Kalam. Which is why he represented the classic new India aspirational story: rooted in a civilisational past where he could play the Rudra veena and recite Tamil poetry and yet live comfortably in a world of satellites and missiles. The combination of the spiritual and the scientific, of tradition and modernity, laced with eternal simplicity, was just irresistible. And when he smiled, he urged you to to smile with him because in Kalam’s world the glass was always half full, always looking to the future while being conscious of the past, a world where India 2020 co-existed with a rich cultural heritage.
Post-script: It is perhaps fitting that Dr Kalam breathed his last words amidst the ignited minds of students at IIM Shillong. A karmayogi till the very end, he couldn’t have asked for a better audience to say farewell to. And here’s a final thought: why don’t we declare his birthday as National Students day and offer hundreds of scholarships to poor, meritorious students, many of whom could then dream of making the long journey from Rameshwaram to Rashtrapati Bhavan like Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Kalam.