Tribute to a dear friend, a great host

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After the initial shock of television headlines screaming “Dr Kalam is no more,” I said to myself, he is no more with

PRIP Rajendra K Saboo being conferred the Padma Shri award by President APJ Abdul Kalam.
PRIP Rajendra K Saboo being conferred the Padma Shri award by President APJ Abdul Kalam.

us physically, but he has taken permanent place in all our hearts and no one can take that away.PRIP Rajendra K Saboo being conferred the Padma Shri award by President APJ Abdul Kalam.

And then memories came flooding in of our association with Kalam for over four decades. My husband, the late Prof P V Indiresan, Director of both Madras and Delhi IITs, was officially associated with Kalam in several projects. A major project they worked on together was the Vision 2020 document. Their common interests, vision, concern, commitment and a positive approach to finding solutions to problems brought them very close.

There were several common features between them. Both came from very humble backgrounds. Whenever anyone asked Kalam who had inspired him the most, he would always refer to his mother and teacher Subramania Iyer. Similarly, Indiresan would always refer to his mother’s blessing: “Live with Dignity.” Personally, their requirements were very few and they led very simple lives. Both lived for others, and interestingly, had similar ends. Kalam loved being with students and his life

TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta being conferred the Padma Shri award by President APJ Abdul Kalam.
TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta being conferred the Padma Shri award by President APJ Abdul Kalam.

ended abruptly while addressing students in Shillong. Indiresan was always fascinated with the challenges of technology and collapsed in Pune where he had gone to finalise the paper trail issue of the Electronic Voting Machine.

Both firmly believed that India can progress only when the quality of life of the vast population in rural India improved and were both passionate and fascinated by PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas).

My association with Kalam related to his concern about the challenges, development and uplift of disadvantaged and marginalised communities. I was closely associated with a project commissioned by the then undivided Andhra Pradesh on Mainstreaming Madrasa Education under the Sarva Shiksha ­Abhiyan programme being implemented by CAP Foundation in Hyderabad. We had covered nearly 1,000 Madrasas in Andhra Pradesh. Feeling that just giving them formal education and taking them through high school will not lead them anywhere, we decided to provide vocational education with life skills to make them employable.

My organisation knew about our association with Kalam and asked me to invite him to inaugurate the training centre donated by a philanthropist. At first Kalam was not happy about accepting this invitation, for he felt there are too many things in big cities and said he’d gladly come if this was a rural area. When we told him that this training centre is in a rural area, he readily agreed to come.

There were over 300 students from disadvantaged sections from all communities. He interacted with them freely, and invited them to ask questions. Some questions were funny, some personal, some serious. He patiently responded to all the questions; some of his answers were funny and made the students laugh. Others were very serious and made the students think. Some answers were very inspirational. The students were thrilled and just mobbed him. The security staff had a tough time but Kalam was happy as he was with students!

Kalam had a very fine sense of humour. I watched him once on a live TV relay, while addressing the faculty of the Anna University in Chennai, he regaled the audience with a modified story of the genie who was able to count in a flash the number of stars in the sky and sand particles in the world, but was stumped when God asked him to count the number of political parties in India! At that time, he was seriously propagating the idea of a two or three party system for India.

Passionate about children

As everybody knows, Kalam loved interacting with youngsters. When he got the Bharat Ratna award, we invited him home for dinner. He agreed, provided we made it a simple and quiet affair. We had our grandchildren, then in their early teens, and their friends. Kalam sat on the sofa, and the children squatted on the carpet at his feet and looked up to him with fascination. He asked each of them his favourite question: ‘what are your dreams?’ He told them stories, incidents from his life, how his teachers motivated and inspired him to accept challenges, and said that is what makes life worthwhile. It was fascinating to watch the kind of ease he displayed with children and relaxed in their company, becoming a child himself!

Other memorable times were when Kalam was the President, and we’d make our bi-monthly journey to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan to attend the Indra Dhanush cultural programme at the small and cosy auditorium. Everybody knows his passion for music, especially Carnatic classical music. Being a player of the veena himself, he used to thoroughly enjoy the cultural evenings. Quite often we had the pleasure of sitting in the front row with Kalam, who would comment on the finer nuances of the music, being a great connoisseur of classical music.

On one occasion, on the lawns of the Moghul Garden, a huge stage was constructed and on it there was a large ensemble of percussion instruments, huge drums and so on. After the scintillating performance, when Kalam was invited to the stage to felicitate the artists, he went up to the stage and started playing on the drums to the delight of the audience! This is another example of the child in him taking over ­spontaneously and his uninhibited joy in simple things of life.

After cultural programmes, at the high tea, Kalam would always mingle with his guests, personally offer them the snacks, pose for photographs, always wearing his charming smile. Rarely have I seen such a gracious and delightful host.

I can go on and on, as the pleasant memories are numerous. Kalam used to refer to us as teachers of teachers. As the cliché goes, once the teachers open their mouth, you cannot stop them for one hour!

Dr Kalam’s aide, Srijan, reminiscing the discussions he had on the last journey, talks about Kalam’s concern on the frequent disruption of Parliament. He wanted to pose this as a surprise assignment to the IIM Students he was addressing. But before he could do that, he has gone. Perhaps Kalam and Indiresan, who was also deeply concerned about this issue, will jointly take up this important assignment in the peaceful Paramdham and send a workable solution to save our democracy. Good luck to both of them.

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