Former President Abdul Kalam’s academic credentials were rather modest. Although ‘Dr’ is commonly prefixed to his name, all his doctorates were honorary. He obtained his B. Sc. degree from Madras University and followed it up with a Diploma from Madras Institute of Technology. Taken together, they were considered equivalent to a B. Tech. It is creditable for the Indian strategic science system to have recognized Kalam’s worth and given him increasingly higher responsibilities. Such a thing would be unthinkable in the university system.
Kalam’s professional abilities were matched by his personal courage and leadership qualities. When a rocket was being test fired from Thumba and there was a possibility of its failing to take off, Kalam boldly came to the base and stood with his staff so that if it fell, it would be on ‘us’ and not ‘them’
A life-long bachelor, even as director of Hyderabad-based defence laboratory, he stayed in a room in the guest house. Every morning the canteen boy brought readymade tea for all the occupants, in a large kettle with the cups dangling from his fingers. Many directors would have insisted on being served tea ‘properly’ in a tray, but most unselfconsciously, Kalam accepted the proffered cup.
A civil servant who came to appreciate Kalam’s capabilities and dedication was the then Defence Secretary, N. N. Vohra who had no hesitation in making a large ad-hoc grant available to Kalam. Years later, Vohra acted as Kalam’s counselor. Kalam was offered a cabinet post in the Vajpayee government. On Vohra’s advice, Kalam declined it and instead accepted cabinet-rank advisor’s post. Remarkably, when he felt irrelevant, he simply resigned and walked away. Many of his ilk would have been enamoured of the frills a cabinet rank carried, but not Kalam.
The mainstream science establishment of the country kept him at bay. The only exception was Satish Dhawan who acted as his mentor and got him elected as a fellow of the Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences. He however never became a member of the ‘official’ Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.
In 1991, Kalam, then at Hyderabad, was invited to deliver a commemorative lecture at Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, for which I was the convenor. Since no reply was received, I was asked to contact him. Since a postal strike was going on in the city he had not received the letter. We had not met before, but he recognized my name from a recent article I had written for The Indian Express. Those were the days when DRDO’s Agni missiles were doing well, but ISRO’s Rohini rockets were facing problems. I placed the phenomenon in a larger context by pointing out that throughout history fear of the enemy had been a greater driving force than the love of stars. Kalam had cut out the article and displayed it on the laboratory notice board. ( Years later, I learnt from unauthorized sources, that I was awarded a Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship in 1995 on his recommendation.)
He came from Hyderabad for his lecture in Bangalore, but did not want to freshen up or take a cup of tea. Instead, he wanted to sit in the auditorium and arrange his slides. After the lecture, he wanted to go back. Since there was no flight to Hyderabad at that time, he instead took a flight to Madras and spent the night there so that he could be in office the very next morning. His lecture was brilliant. He took questions, answered some of them while the others he refused to entertain because of strategic reasons. His talk was direct and so were the questions he handled. If a question was worded in a convoluted or a ‘scholarly’ manner, he failed to grasp it.
As is well known, he loved to interact with students. No doubt, he had great faith in the power of the youth and knew of his ability to inspire them. But, I think, there was another reason at work as well. He was rather socially awkward. He abhorred small talk and got visibly put off by focus on trivialities. When he was the DRDO chief, at a major scientific function, he wanted to know from me the relative historical contribution of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. Our host, partly out of graciousness and partly with a view to disrupting the conversation, warmly invited Kalam to eat something. Doing away with niceties, Kalam said rather impatiently that he would prefer to continue the conversation.
Kalam had great fascination for technology, with the result that many of his solutions, like desalination of sea water or inter-linking of rivers became rather simplistic.
When Mulayam Singh took over as the defence minister, he greeted Kalam by saying that at last he would be able to talk to somebody in Urdu. Kalam told him that he knew only English and Tamil.
For the sake of future historians, a comment may be made on his personal life. In his younger days, he would have liked to marry a girl of the same faith but from a social stratum considered higher than Kalam’s. Guided by such considerations, the girl’s father refused to yield and the matter ended there.
Kalam’s induction into Indian strategic science machinery, his accomplishments and rise, his elevation as the head of the state, and his impact on the society, especially the students, is a remarkable phenomenon. Naming roads and institutions after him or installing his busts and statues would be the surest way of disowning him. The greatest tribute to him would be to imbibe some of the values he stood for.
(The writer is a former professor, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, and former director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi.)