Riti Bhalla, an Indian-Americanhighschool teenager, who had been organizing her own annual Indian Independence Day
telecast, proudly called the Riti Bhalla Special,
invited, in 2010, India’s former president, Dr A P
J Abdul Kalam, as a guest onto the show, which
she hosted herself.
On that edition of Riti Bhalla Special, Kalam,
who from a simple background rose to the highest
office in India, shared his fantastic life story with
Bhalla. The show was picked up by a few channels
and widely viewed. Kalam shared special memories with the audience. Joining Kalam on the show
that day, five years ago, were also five American
governors and several US congressional leaders of
the United States.
Riti, who is now a senior at New York University,
was fascinated by what the Missile Man of India
had to say, then. As Indians around the world
mourn the loss of this great son of India, Riti presents excerpts from that memorable interview on
India’s Independence Day, August 15, 2010.
Riti Bhalla: Sir, on August 15, 1947, you were
only 16 years old. Where were you on that particular day? How did people react in the streets? How did they
celebrate the sudden freedom of India, from the centuries
old bondage of British rule?
Dr A P J Abdul Kalam: Well, it’s a beautiful question.
I was born in a small island town, Rameswaram, and I
completed my primary school education at Punjait School. I
went to (another) small town, a slightly bigger (than
Rameswaram) of course, 40 minutes away, for my high
At that time only, the great event took place for the nation.
My teacher, Reverend Iyer Teri Soloman, told our class
boys they must attend the midnight celebration, 15th August
1947, in the quadrangle of the school, Ramanathapuram
Schwartz Matriculation School.
Since I was the school leader, I was asked to organize the
assembly of all the students. As I recollect, two events got
imprinted in my young mind.
First, one flag was lowered and the great Indian tricolor
flag was rising. My teacher Reverend Soloman Sir said, “Oh
my students, look at the flag which has been flying for over
200 years. It indicates we were ruled. Now, our Indian flag is
It was exactly at 12 midnight.
All of our teachers (were overjoyed). We all students (were
overjoyed). Then Pandit (Jawaharlal) Nehru, the first prime
minister of India, spoke on the radio. All of our teachers and
all the students clapped. Every student got a sweet packet.
We started eating.
Of course, the freedom was in front of us. My school was
awake, everywhere lights, lights, lights, like Deepawali.
The spirit of freedom entered in the hearts of every Indian,
and manifested itself in smiles on every face.”
Riti Bhalla: Mr President, Dr Rajendra Prasad was sworn
in as the first president of India January 26, 1950. Did you
ever think then, or later, that you could someday become the
president of India? Please share with our viewers your rise to
the highest office in the nation. How did this all come about?
Dr A P J Abdul Kalam: Well, that dream was not there, not
My younger age dream was to fly, as inspired by my primary school teacher, Subramaniam Iyer Sir. One day, he
taught us how a bird flies. The way he taught us how a bird
flies led me to like something to do with flight. Of course, he
injected in me an ambition that I must fly in life.
After my aeronautical degree, it was a disappointment that
I was not selected for the Air Force. I was fortunate that the
space program got started by the visionary Dr Vikram
Sarabhai then. I was interested in the project for the design
and development of the first satellite launch vehicle for the
country. That led me to my initiation into the integrated mis-
sile development program.
Both these programs gave me insight on putting technology and people — under (one) organization —
together for realization of complex missions. I was
also getting exposed to some societal needs, particularly through integration of medical and engineering disciplines. Then came the exciting experience of evolving India Mission 2020 with the help
of great team.
That led me to a lifetime passion of interacting
with the youth. I took up a teaching assignment at
Anna University (Chennai) on technology for societal transformations.
At that time, the nation offered me the opportunity of serving as the president of India. I saw in
this call a duty for me to spread the message of
vision 2020 for an economically-developed nation.”
Riti Bhalla: Sir, I was born in New York. But my
parents originally came from India. Each year, I
celebrate two independence days — one on the
Fourth of July, as an American. The other on
August 15 as an Indian. What advice would you like
to give NRIs (non resident Indians) in America
(with respect to) to their country of birth and their
country of adoption?
Dr A P J Abdul Kalam: Riti, I am glad you celebrate independence days of both USA and India.
My greetings to you and your family!
My advice to all NRIs — whichever country they are working and living in — they should all contribute their best for
the welfare of the country where they are living. Regarding
their nation of origin, NRIs can share their knowledge and
experience of success in life.
The message on this greatest day of the year, for the biggest
democracy of the world, is: Wherever you are you can contribute to peace and prosperity of humanity as a whole,
which will lead to global happiness.
I heard a hymn in my country, ( whose) message I would
like to convey to the youth, and the experienced, of India and
America, and other parts of the world, (about) the righteousness in the heart.
Where there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in
Where there is beauty in the character, there is harmony in
Where there is harmony in the home, there is order in the
Where there is order in the nation, there is peace in the
The entire interview of Riti Bhalla with late Dr APJ Abdul
Kalam can be watched on You Tube.
"Ifirst met President Kalam in 1985, when he visited Stanford, said Arogyaswami J Paulraj, Stanford
professor emeritus. “I was a visiting scientist
on leave from the Indian Navy," recalled Dr
Paulraj, who served as one of the Indian
Navy's top scientists for many years, retiring
as a commodore before joining Stanford at
48. Awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2010,
Professor Paulraj invented the MIMO (
multiple input, multiple output) technology,
which has made WiFi possible.
When Dr Kalam visited Stanford he had
just launched the integrated guided missile
development program for India’s ministry of
defense. “While visiting the memorial
church on campus, he surprised me by drop-
ping to his knees and praying. Later, he con-
fided that he had prayed for the success of
the program and that again came as a sur-
prise,” remembered Paulraj.
Paulraj again met Kalam after he was
assigned to head the defense electronics and
research laboratory, a large electronics warfare lab in Hyderabad. Dr Kalam was then
the director of the sister lab where he built
“Dr Kalam took me under his wing and
advised me on the best ways to run a large
institution. I did not ultimately join DLRL
and went on to start a new lab for Indian
defense. Around this time, he asked me to
look at every aspect of the missile program
and submit a personal report to him, which
“The missile program delivered on many
of its promises with the Prithvi and Agni
class of missiles, and his prayers on the
Stanford campus were indeed answered. I
kept in touch with Dr Kalam after he rose to
head all of defense R&D.
“I was, at that time, back at Stanford, and
he would quiz me about Silicon Valley and
how things worked here. Later, he went on
to become the most beloved president of
India. We would still meet at conferences,
but he was now surrounded by the press and
scores of admirers; it was harder to connect,”
“Dr Kalam’s contributions to contempo-
‘Freedom was in front of us’
rary India are a legion, but in my mind his
biggest legacy is the inspiration he has been
to the youth of India. His simple lifestyle, his
optimism, his hard work and his genuine
humility made him an authentic role model
to millions of children in India, many of
them growing up in challenging circum-
“He made them dream about a better
India, and as he often said, ‘You have to
have a dream before dreams can come
true.’ He embodied the highest values on
which India was founded — a democratic,
secular and pluralistic country which val-
ued and nurtured all its citizens. He was
truly a Bharat Ratna — India’s gem. Dr
Kalam will be sorely missed,” a nostalgic
Professor Paulraj said.
A P J Abdul Kalam recalls his memories of August 15, 1947 to Riti Bhalla.
‘he made them dream about a better India’
Dr a P J abdul Kalam appeared on riti Bhalla’s Independence Day special show from his residence at 10 rajaji Marg in new Delhi. CoUr TeSy rI TI BhaLLa