Dr Kalam would have been 92 this month. There are many epithets used for him: Inspirational, People’s President, Sui Generis Manager of People and Programs and a Staunch Swadeshi. I worked with him as Director (Finance) , when he was DRDO Chief; and the nation was on a new high with the missile programs , and was the butt of attack from myriad stakeholders for the ambitious and uncertain Light Combat Aircraft & Main Battle Programs . The finance guys were not making life easy for him with their inane and insane questions. He was no easy boss to work him as like Napoleon he will never take no for an answer. But my memory of him is of a human being, whose compassion transcended class, and qualities of head and heart towered over everybody else I had the privilege of working with. Let me start with his tryst with an old, tattered jacket which he wore for receiving the highest civilian honor Bharat Ratna in 1997.
Kalam was a blind acolyte of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and space was his first odyssey in life. I noticed in 1996 that the blazer that he was wearing had patches all over and looked completely frayed. When I asked him as to why he was not going for a change, he recounted how it was gifted by Sarabhai when he was going to the USA for the first time during winter. On return from USA when he tried to return it to Sarabhai, he asked him to retain. He said in Delhi’s blustery winter and its mercurial men, he feels very assured in this sartorial protection and the warm armor of his mentor on his body! He wore the jacket for receiving the Bharat Ratna. I clearly recall how the function was attended by Mrinalini Sarabhai and how Kalam fell prostrate before her on her arrival. When I met him in 2011 I saw him wearing the same blazer and the glint in his eyes connected us to our old conversation; of the jacket he should discard and the warmth that connected him to his mentor. When I saw Rocket Boys in Sony Liv , the Kalam of yore flashed in my inward eye!
Like Nehru, Kalam had this habit of getting interesting paper cuttings from friends colleagues every day. He used to send them back next day with his remarks which were generally illegible. His handwriting was so poor, there was a cottage industry of a small group of people to decipher his hand writing and remarks. Once my son sent him to read an article on how the Ridley Turtles were dying in great numbers during missile test firing at Chandipur, Odisha . The cutting came back a week later with a typed reply which said why “Science & nature have to coexist.” Kalam wrote: We have decided to stop test firing during the breeding season. I know, it’s a suboptimal solution. Hope you will bear with us”. Dr. Kalam came to my office in PCDA (Navy) in 2010, when he was no longer the President, to address the staff members and their children. He was as great draw, when he was not the President, if not more. They simply adored him hung on to every word he uttered. When I introduced Spandan to him; he said “Oh, the Ridley Turtle Guy”! That was his memory and fondness for children and concern for a sustainable world torn asunder by war.
Kalam, was possibly most humane person I have seen in his concern for the hoi polloi. I recall how one of our Industrial Employees from NSTL, Vizag who died during a test firing in the Cavitation Tunnel at Kirghizstan. It was a Saturday & our Ambassador had thrown up his hands saying that the body can be sent to India only on Monday as there was no direct flight on Saturday and Sunday. The family was understandably distraught. Kalam came to know about it while in midst of a meeting. He asked to check up the name of the Prime Minister he was Dr. Apas Jumagulov. He recalled that he was an old friend of him whom he had met in a science conference in Moscow in 1988. Lo & Behold. the connection worked and the mortal remains of an industrial employee was carried by Kirgy PM’s aircraft to Vizag in few
hours’ time. And Kalam was there to receive the casket. No wonder he is called the People’s President, who cared for the common Indian.
He was hugely respected by all, and by people who were senior to him. I recall how the most venerated Air Force Officer Marshal of the Air, Arjan Singh at the age of 96 rose from his wheel chair to salute the mortal remains of this great son of India. Kalam used to say: An ignited mind is more powerful than anything over the earth, on the earth and below the earth. When I asked him to explain he said: the Light Combat Aircraft for the skies, the MBT for the ground and the nuclear submarine program under the seas. His vision was of a self-reliant India in critical technology where our Self Reliance Index improves from 30% to 70% in a decade’s time. He adored Einstein and kept long hair and played the Veena with felicity. He was a cross between Gandhi and Sarabhai, conflating concern for the common man with the vision of a space scientist! He was proudest Indian I have seen.
Prof Misra is writing a biography of Kalam & worked with him closely.
“The author served him as Director, Finance, DRDO,
Government of India, 1995-1998