Dr APJ Abdul Kalam: A life that inspired us all

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam: A life that inspired us all

An ode to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who believed that knowledge always gave leverage over adversaries and that life is an endless pursuit of its attainment

By Najeeb S A

Published: Sat 15 Aug 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 15 Aug 2015, 11:22 AM

It was sometime during the mid-2000s; the ballroom in the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai was packed to its capacity with eminent cardiologists from across the globe. They had gathered to participate in the international medical conference on 'non-invasive cardiac management' to be inaugurated by then President Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam.
On the day, it was announced that the President had a fall and broke his arm. However, not wishing to go back on his commitment, he was going to address the audience from the presidential mansion through video conferencing.
For most people in the audience, doctors as well as journalists, it was a huge disappointment. Two large television screens were set up on either side of the podium. At the designated time, Dr Kalam promptly walked into camera focus.
With one hand in a sling, he appeared perfectly composed; with the other he waved to the audience. He then apologised to the crowd for not being able to join them in person as agreed.
"Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans," he said. Before the audience could realise what he meant by that statement, he pointed towards someone sitting in the journalists' bloc and said, "Sir, you don't have to take notes, the transcript of my speech will be uploaded on the President's web site in an hour from now."
What followed later baffled many in the audience, especially those who had come to participate in the conference from abroad. Dr Kalam spoke with the assistance of presentation slides on how nanotechnology could be used in the management of heart ailments.
The cardiologists in the audience were in for more surprises when he told them about his endeavours in applying defence technologies to cure heart diseases.
It was back in 1998 where, in collaboration with a Hyderabad-based eminent cardiologist, Dr Soma Raju, he developed a low-cost coronary stent, that was later patented as the 'Kalam-Raju' stent.
The locally developed stent cost only a fraction of the imported ones, proving its affordability to the country's average citizens. The chain of hospitals under Dr Raju's Care Foundation successfully implanted the Kalam-Raju stents in 511 heart patients within a span of three years.
After the Q&A session, a cardiologist from Europe remarked, "If only in Europe we too had presidents like you, sir, rather than mere politicians." Dr Kalam dismissed his comment with a light-hearted smile.
Making strides across the nation
Sceptics argue that he was not the finest engineer produced in the country, nor was he the most erudite in the history of the occupants of its highest office. He did not obtain an academic PhD, though 30 universities had conferred their honorary doctorates on him.
It was during his term as Project Director that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) put 'Rohini' into space and got the initial PSLV design right. However, they are still struggling when it comes to Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). As a consequence, the Mars mission had to be powered by the less potent PSLV. Because it lacked the power to plot a straightforward path to Mars, a complicated work around had to be engineered for dealing with the Earth's gravity.
While the development of the missile deterrents (Prithvi, Agni, Akash) and the 'Light Combat Aircraft' (though yet to be inducted into the IAF) have been significant, other key defence projects like the 'main battle tank' and 'gun-radars' are years behind schedule. Though the delays cannot be solely attributed to Dr Kalam, he was at the helm of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), long enough to push these projects forward, which floundered to deliver.
Some scientific circles also point out that Pokhran-II was only a "semi-success". It may be worth mentioning that none of the countries in possession of the H-bomb were able to roll out the contrivance in their initial attempts. Several DRDO scientists who were part of Pokhran-II and Pokhran-I, citing seismic statistics and energy outputs say that the H-bomb demonstration was not successful. Most people associated with Dr Kalam admire his leadership qualities and his ability to dodge bureaucratic snags. However, many have doubted his competency as an aeronautical engineer. Not surprisingly, both IIS Bangalore, and IIT Madras did not want to admit him into the ranks of their teaching faculty.
Strong political gamut
Dr Kalam's nomination as President was nothing short of a masterstroke by the NDA. Being the first BJP-led government, they considered it a great asset to find room for a Muslim national hero in the nation's highest office. Despite his naïveté with the political gamut, Dr Kalam adapted without losing time to his new responsibilities. During the year-long standoff with Pakistan at the verge of war, and the times following the Gujarat riots, Dr Kalam's mellowed permeation proved to be nothing short of allaying for the NDA.
Years later, in an interview with journalist Karan Thapar, former prime minister Manmohan Singh conceded that without Dr Kalam there would have been no nuclear deal with the US. In the 2008 monsoon session of parliament, Communist Party Politbureau Secretary Prakash Karat announced their block's withdrawal of support to the UPA. The Congress soon approached Mulayam Singh Yadav who boasted of a large Muslim vote bank under his wings. But it was Dr Kalam's incitement to Yadav that actually swung the votes in UPA's favour.
Hardly a year ago when Dr Kalam had agreed to continue in office for another term on condition of unanimity, the Congress party vetoed the call. For a political game player this would have been the perfect opportunity to get even with the Congress and show his requital to the NDA who had rewarded him with the Bharat Ratna and the presidency. But then Dr Kalam outgrew himself from such petty political witch-hunt that earned him more than reverence from either side of the ideological spectrum at a time of intense political polarisation. The boatman's son from the little known fishing village of Rameswaram invariably went on to symbolise the best of India, the India with its composite mosaic of ethnicities, faiths and languages that synthesise themselves to form one unique identity.
Surprising nominations
With his long hair parted unfashionably in the centre and combed down to the sides reaching over his ears, Dr Kalam was an unlikely pop culture idol. Yet he adapted himself to much of the protocol demanded by the highest office he had come to occupy, without ever compromising on his hair style. The news of having nominated for the MTV Youth Icon of the Year in 2003 and 2006 must have surprised him, given that his idea of music had little in common with MTV's.
As a matter of fact, the tag that Dr Kalam showed preference in being identified with was not that of the former President of the nation, nor the 'missile man', but of the 'teacher' who would always impart knowledge to the next generation. That's exactly what he was doing at the IIM in Shillong during the final moments of his life, because he believed that knowledge always gave one the leverage over one's adversaries and life is an endless pursuit of its attainment. He talked and walked that adage.

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