At the drop of a hat he could deliver a flawless, inspiring speech. He could wind himself up into blazing passion, his body leaning forward, his long white locks swaying over his brow, his fingers prodding the air, his whispering voice wavering with emotion as he called the faithful to serve his country…yet with a smile lingering on his lips. It is impossible to forget a man like Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.
Just before the fall of 2009, our documentary film on the National Defence Academy, My Flag, My Life was ready for release. I had taken great care to write it, often spending hours refreshing the entire script to match the sincerity and credibility that ran high with the institution. Long before the script was ready, I had placed two requests with the producers. First, India&’s first cosmonaut, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, should anchor the film and second, the film must be released at the hands of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.
Dr. Kalam&’s tenure as the president was already over. But none of us had an iota of doubt that president or no president, it would suit be the best to have the film released by him.
Getting the first cosmonaut aboard looked at little difficult initially. But being a graduate of the NDA, Wing Commander Sharma readily agreed. He liked the script and then there was no looking back.
As far as Dr. Kalam was concerned, the sponsors and producers thought it would be easier. So, it was a month before the release that the authorities and promoters decided to get in touch with his office. No one could have imagined that his schedule was packed until the middle of March next year – six months later.
Two years into retirement he was still crisscrossing the country and even the world talking to people, especially to the younger generation. His nonchalant disposition and his childlike exuberance juxtaposed with the content of his addresses complemented the thoughts that he wanted to share.
We lost all hope. After doing all the hard work in writing the script, I was disappointed. The request was still forwarded to him with a copy of the film.
As the producers started preparing for the release without pinning much hope on his acceptance, Dr. Kalam&’s office called us just a week before the release to confirm his participation as he liked the film and thought it would be of great importance to motivate the youngsters to join the services.
It was at Ganesh Kala Krida auditorium in Pune that the event was planned.
The event was scheduled to start at 10 a.m. and people were still entering the auditorium when at 9.45 a.m. Dr. Kalam&’s motorcade entered the premises. Chaos descended and a huge commotion took place backstage as the last thing we expected was the guest of honour being amongst the first to reach.
The majority of the audience was still queued up to get in and the ones supposed to be on the dais with Dr. Kalam were still on their way. While all of us were apologetic for the delay and were trying to bring to the fore all kinds of nervous excuses, Dr. Kalam by then was sitting in a corner, comfortable, smiling as everleast bothered about his position or protocol. Before anyone could say a word he looked up and said, ”Just give me a glass of water. I am comfortable here. Don’t worry. Carry on with your preparations.”
He waited patiently for the event to start. Soon Ms. Sumitra Mahajan, the current Lok Sabha Speaker, the recently retired Navy Chief, Admiral RK Dhowan, actor Nana Patekar and Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma arrived. But by then, the backstage was already crowded. As soon as people heard that Dr. Kalam was present, there was a serpentine queue of guests waiting to shake hands with him. He obliged all with a smile.
Dressed in a grey suit, his white locks falling over his forehead, he was in his element while talking to kids. He was comfortable with them and so were the kids. They were having their little chats and were bursting out into uncontrollable fits of laughter now and again. It was as if they were all of the same age and that they were sharing their little secrets with each other. You’d hardly believe that here was a man who had been the president of India and had been instrumental in designing missile technology laughing and joking away with kids as if they were his best buddies.
The event started with a short screening of the film and then, there were a few felicitations at the hands of Dr. Kalam before he would address the audience.
I was also scheduled to receive felicitations at the hands of Dr. Kalam. And as I walked up to him, he moved forward and held my hand tightly. His soft hands pressing against mine, he said in a low voice with his twinkling eyes fixed on me, “You have done a wonderful service to the country, my boy. I have seen the whole film and your words would definitely inspire a lot of young fellows to join the services and serve our country. God bless you, my boy.”
I went closer to him and said, “Thank you so much Sir… But Sir, it&’s a very small thing.” I couldn’t complete my sentence. I meant to say that someone whose contribution to the country was Himalayan was magnifying such a miniscule contribution. But he took both my hands into his own and said, “No contribution is small. You did it in your way, my boy. Keep up the good work… keep on contributing towards the good of this country in your own way. That will do”
My eyes welled up. Somehow I managed to walk off the dais.
It was a short conversation. But whenever I look back to that day, a blinding insight emerges. If anything, what struck me was just how modest the man&’s disposition was. At the age of 78, how hopeful he was of our character and ability, and how much of what he believed seemed to hold true for each one of us – to honestly contribute towards the growth of this country. Here was someone who still had faith in everything and thought that anybody willing should be able to deliver for his country, however negligible it might be.
After the felicitation, he spoke to the crowd. Around 3,500 students and cadets listened to him in absolute rapture. Once on the podium, he instructed the light men to put on all the lights so that he could see the students and the cadets. He wanted to have eye contact. There was pin drop silence and yet it was more a conversation than a lecture.
I don’t know how the rest who heard him speak on that day remember him. But even today, a year after Dr. Kalam passed away, whenever I find my shoulders drooping, I take a walk along Marine Drive and most of the time I think of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and how his warmth, his words inspired me. Sometimes I push on…sometimes I imagine it to be way too absurd to have met someone like him. He was so unimaginably out of the world. Almost divine, yet so real.
The writer is an independent,