OPINION

The Kalam I knew

always popular:“India was fortunate to have had as its President a role model of integrity and devotion to duty.” File photo shows Kalam in a ceremonial chariot in New Delhi.— Photo: V.V. Krishnan

always popular:“India was fortunate to have had as its President a role model of integrity and devotion to duty.” File photo shows Kalam in a ceremonial chariot in New Delhi.— Photo: V.V. Krishnan  

A former Governor recalls the years when he worked with a “boss” who was a gracious host, a great leader, and absolutely dedicated to the goal of a developed India

‘Simple living and high thinking’ exemplifies the life of Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam more than of any other leader I have come to know in my more than five decades of public life. I got to know Dr. Kalam in 1992 when we used to sit in the official gallery of Parliament — he as Scientific Adviser of Secretary rank and I as Secretary in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs. I had a reserved seat, as I had to frequently go to the gallery to take note of the proceedings. One day, I saw Dr. Kalam in my seat, and someone pointed out to him that it was my seat. He immediately started to move to the next seat without any fuss and it was with great difficulty that I persuaded him to remain where he was. We became friends since then; he frequented the gallery as much as I did, to send information to the Prime Minister and Defence Minister concerning his subjects.

Years later, in 2000, when I was Governor of Odisha, I was invited by the Madurai Kamaraj University to deliver the convocation address. I jumped at the opportunity when they told me that Dr. Kalam was going to be conferred an Honorary Doctorate at the convocation. The two of us got a good opportunity to discuss many things, including the points I made in my address. He did not, however, accept my suggestion that he speak on the occasion. He said it was my day.

Distinguished guest

A few weeks before he became President, Dr. Kalam visited Bhubaneswar to deliver a lecture. The organisers asked if I would host him in Raj Bhavan, as there were security issues in putting him up elsewhere. I readily agreed. But Dr. Kalam insisted on staying in the simple home of the organisers rather than at Raj Bhavan. He felt that the people who wanted to meet him may not have access to him in Raj Bhavan. Later, when he found out that I had looked forward to hosting him, he insisted on personally calling on me to explain why he had not accepted my hospitality. It was again a great meeting during which we discussed several topics, particularly about the potential of the youth to shape the future of this country. After 45 minutes, I walked him to his car to see him off, little realising that he would soon be my boss.

I have pleasant memories of Dr. Kalam’s frequent visits to Wheeler Island in Odisha, when he was in charge of missile launches. He would often fondly recall the times he sat in his room listening to the chirping of birds. This, he said, gave him inspiration for the hard work that lay ahead. In one of his first visits to Odisha as President, he wanted me to organise a meeting with students without the teachers. He spent an hour interacting with them on various topics, particularly science, asking them questions and explaining concepts in great detail. He also encouraged the students to ask him questions and patiently answered them, much to their delight. He saw every student as a valuable potential resource for the development of the country, his primary goal. He wanted a developed India by 2020.

As Chancellor of Universities in Odisha, I had invited him to deliver convocation addresses in three universities, and he willingly accepted. In convocations, the practice is to seat important guests in the front rows and the graduating students behind them. After the convocation, Dr. Kalam went straight to the students, barely stopping to greet the other invitees. He also requested that in future students be seated in front, with important invitees at the side. After that, we meticulously followed this arrangement. The last convocation he participated in was at Sambalpur University, where his idea to start a herbal garden in each university — to make young students aware of the rich wealth of herbs in India — had been implemented. I invited him personally, but he had pressing commitments. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I scanned the appointment diary he showed me and found a date that was mutually acceptable. When he came, he was delighted with the herbal garden.

Another time, at a banquet held in his honour in Raj Bhavan, he relished a brinjal and curd preparation, saying it was his favourite dish. The Odisha Chief Minister told him that my wife painted Saura tribal art. He immediately said he wanted to see them, went to the lounge where they were displayed, and appreciated each painting keenly. The next morning, he mentioned one particular piece that he had liked very much and my wife promptly volunteered to paint a similar one for him. She later gifted it to him during one of our visits to Rashtrapati Bhavan, on the condition that he would treat it as a personal gift that he would take with him when he left.

A hospitable President

Though a strict vegetarian by choice, Dr. Kalam never imposed his preference on his guests. He threw a banquet in Rashtrapati Bhavan for the Governors attending the Governors’ Conference, and took care to see that the best meat dishes were served. I found out later from his personal staff that each item in the menu had been personally chosen by him. That was the kind of generous hospitality that he extended.

The two and a half years that we worked together, when he was President and I was Governor, were excellent. There are many things I have learnt from him. He was never overbearing, always listened to anyone who had a good idea, and was absolutely dedicated to achieving the goal of a developed and prosperous India. For this, he was willing to work for long hours, often past midnight, after which he would take a walk in the Mughal Gardens. This placed his security staff under great strain, but they would gladly accompany him, knowing how much their boss loved them.

Indeed, India was fortunate to have had as its President a role model of the highest integrity, diligence and devotion to duty. May his tribe increase.

(M.M. Rajendran is former Governor of Odisha and former Chief Secretary, Tamil Nadu.)



After the convocation, Dr. Kalam went straight to the students, barely stopping to greet the other invitees



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