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For God and his country

WINGS OF FIRE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY·A P J Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari·University Press, Hyderabad·1999·pp196 Rs 200

By M Zeyaul Haque
Published: Wednesday 15 December 1999

-- imagine what A P J Abdul Kalam would be doing today had he not been making Prithvi and Agni . He would, in that case, be certainly mediating in a sufi shrine in some remote corner of India or doing yoga with some hoary sadhus in the Himalaya. Nuclear warhead carriers like Prithvi are difficult to be associated with sufis and sadhus , but life's truths do not always seem logical.

Abdul Kalam is an engineer by training but a spiritualist by temperament, and there does not seem to be any dichotomy between the two. What is even more important is that he does not recognise denominational distinctions.

Kalam talks fondly of his childhood days in Rameswaram, an idyllic island in Tamil Nadu, where his modest ancestral home is situated in Mosque Street. A famous temple stands close to the mosque where his father used to pray. The temple priest, a respected holy man, was a friend of his father.

He talks about a touching incident in Rameswaram. He used to sit in the front row in his classroom, but when a new teacher joined he was shocked to see a Malechcha boy sitting in the front row. Kalam was ordered to go and sit at the back of the class. When the temple priest learned of the incident, he reprimanded the teacher for his communal behaviour. After that Kalam resumed sitting in the front row. Much later, at St Joseph's College at Tiruchi, Christian teachers inculcated in him the spirit of inquiry.

Because of the various religious influences, he sees God's hand in everything. Kalam seems to be above worldly needs as he leads a spartan existence (he is a vegetarian). It is difficult to fathom why a man like him should devote his entire life to the development of weapons of mass destruction. He thinks that these weapons can promote India's development by deterring aggression and ensuring India's security. Thus, an India reassured about its security, would direct all its energies towards development.

In the scientific community Vikram Sarabhai took him under his wings. Kalam did not disappoint his mentor. On Sarabhai's death, Satish Dhawan and Brahm Prakash became his bosses, and gave him all the support he needed. Whether he succeeded in his efforts or received momentary setbacks, these men stood by him. In return, Kalam says that his success was because of the guidance of these seniors, the relentless hard work of his colleagues, the love of his old friends, relatives, teachers, his parents, the temple priest and God.

An appreciating nation honoured him with the Padam Vibhushan, and finally, with the greatest national award, Bharat Ratna. On his part, Kalam gave everything he had to the nation. He says about his life's journey, "This story will end with me, for I have no inheritance in the worldly sense. I have acquired nothing, built nothing, possess nothing no family." Kalam, a bachelor, is right when he says he would not leave behind a family or material possessions. But he will certainly leave behind a nation that will remember him with reverence and affection.

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