APJ Abdul Kalam is a man of the people, for the people, and by the people. No wonder, that the media portrayed him as “the people’s President”. The story of his life, from Rameswaram to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, is an essay of epoch-making achievements. The urge to excel and a passion for perfection is an obsession with him. This outlook has been cultivated by him since his teens, and is still going strong even in his 80s. Vision, mission, and values constitute the purpose and philosophy of his life.
He was born under the most humble circumstances in a family of 10 children, which however did not deny him the richest quality of filial love and care, thanks to his doting parents; and eventually, Abdul Kalam rose to occupy the highest office in the country, as a fitting finale to an illustrious career in the advancement of space technology.
His appointment as the President of India was in recognition of his legendary role in securing a prominent place for his country in the nuclear map of the comity of nations. It was an acknowledgment of his reaching the acme and zenith in the science of space. Abdul Kalam received the Padma Bhushan in 1981; the Padma Vibhushan in 1990; and the Bharat Ratna in 1997. He became the President of India in 2002. Honorary doctorates from 45 universities/institutions have been conferred on him.
It is unusual for a person to write two autobiographies. But then, Abdul Kalam is an unusual person. The book under review, My Journey, has been written by Abdul Kalam in the first person. “This book, however, is not meant to be a linear account of my life. I have done it earlier (Wings of Fire, published in 1999). My Journey recounts certain unique experiences of my life from my childhood until now”.
An autobiography is the story of a person, written by that person himself. The autobiographer ventures beyond dates and facts, personalising the story, rather than cataloguing the events of his life. But when the focus is more on the memories, events, and experiences of a person, it becomes a memoir. Wings of Fire is more akin to an autobiography, whereas My Journey is more of a memoir.
Confirming this viewpoint, Abdul Kalam says: “And I began to wonder if these memories and experiences should stay with me or if I must share them with my numerous readers… My Journey focuses more on the smaller, lesser-known happenings in my life”.
Dreams and actions
The subtitle given to this book is “Transforming dreams into actions”. Explaining this, he says: “…one must keep dreaming at various phases of life, and then, work hard to realize those dreams … Dreams are not those that we see in our sleep; they should be the ones that never let us sleep.”
Apart from “Introduction”, the book contains 12 chapters. In four chapters spread over the volume, Abdul Kalam pays homage to his parents, sister, and her husband for their benign influence in shaping his character and disposition. In another chapter, he talks about how Rameswaram, being a coastal town, has been subject to the ravages of the seasonal cyclones.
That had brought home to him a lesson, which stood him in good stead in his later life. “…that there is a larger energy and force that can crush our ambitions and plans in the blink of an eye, and that the only way to survive is to face your troubles and rebuild your life.” Drawing a sense of stoicism and deriving consequent courage in despair, he could keep his cool every time a crisis arose, especially when rockets failed and missiles missed their mark.
Another phenomenon that impacted on him during those days was the profound degree of communal harmony engineered by three local leaders — his father, a devout Muslim who was also the “imam” in charge of the mosque; the Hindu high priest of the famous Rameswaram temple; and a Christian preacher attached to the parish church. Their different faiths never came in the way of the triumvirate working hand in glove to preserve and propagate peace among the people of the town.
Talking about “My favourite books”, he says: “They are like friends who have led me by the hand and guided me through life.” A complete chapter has been dedicated to describe his association with his mentor, Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, and how “…time and again he placed his faith in me…to take India…on her course to becoming a self-reliant nation, in terms of science and defence.”
The penultimate chapter, “A Life in Science”, presents a bird’s-eye view of the genesis and growth of his unrivalled career in science and technology — the story of the “Missile Man”, as the public popularly referred to him. The last chapter is a recount and reflection of his life hitherto: “…a resting place on a long and winding road … where you veer away … and mull over the journey you have taken so far”.
The language employed by Abdul Kalam is as simple as the man. The writing is no different from the writer. He is an incurable optimist. The gospel truth and moral lesson that his life dictates is that while the road to success is paved with pitfalls and potholes, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. The man is his message.
(R. Devarajan is a management consultant)