Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was well-known and admired in many capacities, not the least of which was as a great scientist and as the most loved President of the country. Those who came close to him however had the opportunity of seeing and appreciating him in other equally admirable roles and for amazing personal traits of character.
I had the privilege of knowing him from college days dating back to 1952, studying in the same Institution and living in the same hostel - a few rooms away from each other. Our association continued over the years when I had occasion to interact with him in various professional capacities, mainly exploring the scope for technology development for defence in Industry.
One lasting image of him during this period comes from meeting him in his one-room accommodation in the DRDO Guest House that had a table piled with books and papers and just two chairs - one for him and the other for the visitor. When there were more persons, the group had to adjourn to the lounge below, since the room was so small it could not take an extra chair. He would not even ask for a larger suite in the same Guest House, let alone the posh residence that he was entitled to in Delhi.
To my query on this, he replied that he was very comfortable with the room and the curd rice he gets from the pantry which goes with it; why should anyone ask for more just to be able to think and dream? For him, austerity and simplicity were articles of faith.
Kalam strongly believed that technology these days has become so complex that great achievements are no longer feasible through individual brilliance but can only be based on coordinated team work. In every institution that he headed, he built teams in which the members would want to give their lives for him; that was the stamp of the man and the foundation of his success.
All the above however pale into insignificance when one looks at his abiding love for children and the high hopes he had in the next generation to take India to greater heights. The books he wrote are testimonies to this. In my opinion, this really was the hall mark of his Presidency. Personally I have had some memorable experiences in this context.
Kalam, the educationist
In 2002, I happened to get involved with the cause of public education in primary schools and in the process founded an initiative aimed at ensuring access to quality schooling for kids from the marginalised sections of the society. After a few years I felt I could do better with some advice from him as he had become President by that time and accordingly sought an appointment; frankly, however, I had very little expectation from this step, knowing the way the officialdom works in our Capitol.
I was pleasantly shocked when I got a call from his office promptly asking me to present myself in the Raj Bhavan in Bangalore on a day during the following week, when he was scheduled to visit the City on official business. The time given was 9 pm; when I went there on time I found nearly 20 invitees waiting for their turn to meet him. Around 10 pm, he sent word to me through his Personal Assistant, asking whether I would mind waiting a bit longer since he wanted to talk to me at length without the pressure of time constraints.
Finally I met him around 11:30 pm and the interaction went on past mid-night. His Secretary was constantly reminding him of the early appointments scheduled for the next day but it had little effect on him. Soon he realised he could not cover all that he wanted on that day; he asked me whether I would mind coming to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi for a more detailed discussion. It was a request coming from him when he could have directed me!
Thus, I happened to meet him again in Feb 2004; it was a day when Parliament was getting dissolved, which meant very busy days ahead for the President. A slot of 30 minutes was given to me and once again this limit was exceeded even when the next in line for meeting him was a Governor of a State!
Kalam took great interest in the current state of the public education system, asking very penetrating questions; at the end of the meet he got up from his chair and saw me to the door personally. I knew it was not a gesture exclusive to me; it came naturally to him as he did it with most people who had come to see him in non-official capacity.
A very interesting snippet here: during the meet, he showed me a large board on which a number - something like a few hundred thousand plus if I remember right - was written. Words failed me when he said that that was the number of children he had interacted with till date and he would like to touch a million by the time he demits office. He capped it by saying that I am lucky to be able to meet them every day and any day I wish, while he had to struggle to find time to do it; he said he envied me for this!
Incidentally, he gave me two pieces of advice at the time: to focus on rural schools and especially the girl kids in the system as they are the least looked-after. In our programme, we took both of these to heart and implemented a number of measures, keeping him informed of these steps. He also suggested that I should think big and aim at 1000 schools as a target; he was confident I could achieve it.
When our Foundation finally reached this number in 2013, I got in touch with him with a request to come to Bangalore and preside over our anniversary celebrations, which he promptly accepted. That day in July 2013 when I could share the dais with him for the event has become a memorable one for me personally, for the wrong reasons; that was the last I saw of him.
It is ironic - though not unexpected - that I got a spate of phone calls from across the State over the last couple of days from teachers, students and parents of our schools, expressing grief on his demise and wanting to share their feelings with me. I am known to them more than anything as the guy who knew Dr Kalam and who brought him to meet them. He was a demi-God for them just as for a few thousand others. I have thus come to bask in the reflected glory of a great man.