Last night when news of APJ Abdul Kalam’s death spread thick and fast on social media – many heartbroken with the scientist/ex-President’s death and many wishing the news wasn’t true – one thing became clear. That this was not just the death of a scientist, a leading light of India’s space programme, or of the ‘People’s President’ – it was the demise of an adorable, all-round-good-natured, immensely accessible human being, rooted in his humble beginnings and untouched by the highs that fame brought.
Why do I say that? In no time, my Facebook wall was a collage of pictures featuring Kalam alongside practically everyone I knew – the quintessential smiling face beamed in each of those pictures almost saying “Come here, do you want a picture with me?” Kalam would be missed most for this ease of approach, this humility that comes with knowledge. Small wonder that he often quoted from a Sanskrit slöka that roughly translated to “A fruit-laden tree always bends low.”
For Kalam, science was one of the many, many things he was passionate about – the number one on his passions list being teaching. “You ask me to teach 20 hours a day, I perhaps can,” he said to me once.
And he always came across as a teacher you could look up to for those wonderful motivational one-liners that stay with you for a long, long time and egg you on when you are not in the best of speeds. For instance, the Christopher Morley quote “Big shots are only little shots who keep shooting” featured quite regularly in his talks. “India needs such small shots in thousands,” he would say. No big surprise that his books – strewn with such pep quotes – flew off the shelves in no time.
With a gentle sway of the head and smiling eyes, he could heap on you tonnes of data peppered with intricate statistics, effortlessly – and then cross check if you retained all of it, typical Professor-style. “An aerobic space transportation vehicle can have a 15% payload fraction for a launch weight of 270 tonnes. This trans-atmospheric space transportation system has the potential to increase the payload fraction to 30% for higher take-off weight. So what per cent payload fraction can an aerobic space transportation vehicle have?” he would ask. And you had to say, “15%”, before the conversation went any further. He made sure the learning never stopped as long as you were with him. And then he left you with further food for thought – that was the magnet of his personality.
Kalam saab, as we fondly called him (though he might have secretly preferred Prof. Kalam), wrote several books, scientific papers, essays and his public talks are all freely accessible on the internet for anyone to benefit from. One piece he wrote for the launch of Nature India, however, will always remain precious to me. “What do you want me to write on?” he asked when I said we would love to have an inaugural article from him. “You are launching Nature India – I have to write something worthwhile. Let me give it a good thought”. Kalam, then a popular President with non-stop speaking assignments, entertained several rounds of emails before the article could be finalised. “Please feel free to edit as you like,” was his standard reply to all my queries. Here’s the piece that was finally published in Nature India.
I leave you with the endearing bits from that article – they give a peek into the man’s difficult early years that ended up shaping his invincible spirit, which India will continue to look up to for years to come:
“As I embark on my discussion on space safety and security, I am reminded of my joint family in Rameswaram, a small island in southern part of India, where a number of us brothers and a sister lived together. I was the last fellow. I keenly witnessed my mother keep all her children connected in spite of their varying needs and personalities. I used to ask myself, how does she keep us united despite such amazing diversity? It was only through the inherent pure love of the mother.
During the last five decades, I have seen how many successes and a few failures of space programmes helped connect countries around the globe. Whenever a major space event takes place – man landing on the moon, first series of communication satellites in the geo-synchronous orbit or remote sensing satellites in polar orbit, NASA astronauts, including Sunita Williams, descending on earth on a rainy day – it captures the attention of the entire planet. Events in space have in a way integrated the world, like the mother unifying the family. The question is: can we use space to transform earth into a homogenously prosperous place without poverty or fear of war?”
[“With Kalam’s demise, India’s scientists will miss their champion and star supporter in New Delhi,” says veteran science journalist K. S. Jayaraman in this obituary. “Being non-political, Kalam could cut across political parties while his image as father of India’s missile programme helped him promote science and technology. An approval from Kalam almost always resulted in budgetary support for such projects like the $250 million nanotechnology initiative, or the manned space mission.” Read more on India’s missile man’s contribution to India’s science vision here.]