India’s tryst with socialism had disappointed, becoming stale in rhetoric and heading towards a dead end. Corruptionandsocio-politicalcynicismhadpeaked. The
Emergency and a failed Janata experiment reduced expectations from the ideals of the Preamble to a mere slogan, Garibi
Hatao, and when that too did not materialize, we made an
icon of the Angry Young Man.
The economic liberalization era heralded a new hope, laying the foundation for a new middle-class nation with its
unique values, aspirations and thirst for new heroes. A whole
new pantheon was built in the 90s and included heroes like
Sachin Tendulkar, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Rajinikanth and
Narayana Murthy. But the biggest of them was to be a nation
building icon who could inspire us to reclaim our stolen
dreams. That idea, whose time had come, was the People’s
President, A P J Abdul Kalam.
The values these middle-class heroes shared were perfect.
They came from humble backgrounds, inherited nothing,
rose by the sheer dint of their hard work, had a passion for
excellence and, with impeccable character and integrity,
commanded the aam janta’s affection due to their nature,
which was humble, simple, warm and open.
None of them had the looks or physical attributes necessary in an age that was increasingly conscious of packaging.
As a result, they represented the aspirations of millions.
Despite their success, they never appeared too sophisticated
They were no ordinary heroes, they were our heroes.
As far as the citizens of India were concerned, Abdul
Kalam had the perfect credentials — he came from a humble
background, had studied hard to achieve strong academic
credentials, was a simple person with an unimpeachable
work ethic who never sought global approval and was proudly Indian. He worked in a missile program that had a mysterious aura and, in defying global hegemony, made us feel
über nationalist and proud.
His work for India found global response.
Politicians, looking for an astute move, made him the
President of India, and he transformed the office to that of a
Here was an Indian like you and me, who reached the
country’s highest office without compromising on his integrity or values. Here was a politician who was not a Muslim, or
Tamil, or a boatman’s son — but an Indian President, who
opened his office to all Indians.
Jawaharlal Nehru loved children but, like the roses that
adorned his coats, it stopped there. Not for Kalam — he
loved to interact with their minds, igniting them. He was, in
a historic linage of a different order, a combination of S
Radhakrishnan and Pandit Nehru — a teacher and a favorite
When he spoke at gatherings of engineering college students, management students, software engineers, government employees, politicians and bureaucrats, he was a
teacher too. Direct, using questioning methods, he probed
and, instead of giving answers, made them find their own.
Middle classes don’t like humans as heroes and soon, upon
every hero they adopt, they force a divine attribute.
God bats at No 3 for Indian cricket.
Narayana Murthy invented everything from software out-sourcing to offshore development to the software ark campus
Jokes inspired by Rajni and quotes about Kalam were
legion. Only, in Kalam’s case, he was truly inspirational and
said many of the things we say he did.
There were many questions the liberals raised against him
— from what kind of a scientist was he, did he present
papers, was he a project manager of applied technology to
did his Brahmin values endear him to the BJP under
Vajpayee and make him acceptable to the RSS, which made
it possible for him to become President?
Most Indians did not care. He was the original Bajrangi
Bhaijaan, acceptable to all, like a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai
Baba — a Muslim saint who Hindus worship.
I met Dr Kalam when he came to speak to Satyam employees. He was not the President then, but people adored
Kalam, the scientist. He presented the work done at the
DRDO and the Indian missile program. He floored the
house with his unique manner of answering questions. He
connected with everyone.
It was a magical feeling.
When I began writing my novel — Autobiography of a Mad
Nation — I needed him.
The plot has a young man wrongly sentenced to death writing to the President, who would respond very warmly,
strongly and resolutely. It had to be the People’s President.
Thousands of people had told me about the emails they
wrote to him, the books they sent him and the advice they
had asked for — and how he replied.
Secondly, I needed a President who would break political
protocol for the sake of connecting with the common citizen.
In my novel, he invites his old friend and now retired CBI
chief Dr M Vidyasagar to investigate the merit in the death
sentence given to 24-year-old Vikrant Vaidya.
Dr M Vidyasagar was my colleague in real life at Tata
Consultancy Services. A globally respected technologist, Dr
Vidyasagar would tell us many stories about Dr Kalam. I
captured that in my character.
The man, 83-year-old A P J Abdul Kalam, is gone. The icon
will remain for a long time.
His books, his quotes, his imagery and personality will continue to have meaning for those who connect with him —
school children, people from humble backgrounds, people
who hope to rise in life with their own work.
He rescued us from the times when we had our dreams
stolen from us, our aspirations rendered nearly impossible.
He gave us our dreams back. And dreams, like ideas whose
time has come, don’t die.
Sriram Karri is the author of Autobiography Of A Mad
Here was a common Indian, who reached the country’s
Nation. President A P J Abdul Kalam inspired him to write.
highest office without compromising his integrity. Here
was a politician who was not a Muslim, or Tamil, or a
boatman’s son, but an Indian President, who opened his
office to all Indians, says Sriram Karri.
President Kalam, an idea
whose time had come
Two minutes into the speech, sitting behind
him, I heard a long pause after one sentence.
I looked at him, he fell down.
We picked him up. As the doctor rushed,
we tried whatever we could. I will never forget the look in his three-quarter closed eyes
and I held his head with one hand and tried
reviving with whatever I could.
His hands clenched, curled onto my finger.
There was stillness on his face and those wise
eyes were motionlessly radiating wisdom. He
never said a word. He did not show pain, only
purpose was visible.
In five minutes we were in the nearest hospital. In another few minutes they indicated
the missile man had flown away, forever.
I touched his feet, one last time.
Adieu old friend! Grand mentor! See you in
my thoughts and meet in the next birth.
As I turned away, a closet of thoughts
Often he would ask me, “You are young,
decide what will like to be remembered for?”
I kept thinking of new impressive answers,
till one day I gave up and resorted to tit-for-
tat. I asked him back, “First you tell me, what
will you like to be remembered for?
President, Scientist, Writer, Missile man,
India 2020, Target 3 billion... What?”
I thought I had made the question easier by
giving options, but he sprang on me a sur-
prise. “Teacher,” he said.
Then something he said two weeks back
when we were discussing his missile time
friends. He said, “Children need to take care
of their parents. It is sad that sometimes this
is not happening.”
He said, “Two things. Elders must also do.
Never leave wealth at your deathbed — that
leaves a fighting family. Second, one is
blessed if one can die working, standing tall
without any long drawn ailing. Goodbyes
should be short, really short.”
And he took his final journey teaching,
what he always wanted to be remembered
doing. And, till his final moment he was
standing, working and lecturing. He left us,
as a great teacher, standing tall.
He leaves the world with nothing accumu-
lated in his account but loads of wishes and
love. He was successful, even in the end.
Dr Kalam, I’ll miss all the lunches and dinners we had, will miss all the times you surprised me with your humility and startled me
with your curiosity, will miss the lessons of
life you taught in action and words, will miss
our struggles to race to make it into flights,
our trips, our long debates. You gave me
dreams, you showed me dreams need to be
impossible, for anything else is a compromise
to my own ability.
The man is gone, the mission lives on. Long
Goodbye, Teacher 3Page A6
Illustrations from autobiography of a Mad nation.