Humbling Lessons from a Gem of a Person, Promise Keeper

apj

My very first encounter with the ‘Missile Man of India’ happened sometime in the early 1990s when Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was engaged in the art and craft of designing and creating medium-sized ballistic missiles while dreaming of making giant ones that would someday take India up through the unknown to Mars, Jupiter and beyond. As one of the founder-scientists of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in suburban Thiruvananthapuram, ‘APJ’ as he was referred to by friends and colleagues, was leading a low-profile life, concentrating on the mission on hand, as also supporting certain noble causes dear to his heart.

One such cause was that of a group of mentally challenged children being trained in basic life skills at the Central Institute on Mental Retardation (CIMR), a globally acclaimed NGO based in the Kerala capital. Those days, I was associated with CIMR, helping Fr. Thomas Felix, its founder-director, in writing text books and teacher guidance literature as part of the syllabus.

One day, while we were discussing the tools needed to improve the physical movements of the mentally challenged, the lady at the reception announced over intercom the arrival of a visitor from VSSC, named ‘Kalam or something’. Fr. Felix instantly rushed to the entrance to receive the surprise visitor, Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam who had already evinced interest in the running of the institute and the welfare of its inmates.

During the visit we casually mentioned to him about the Canadian concept of employing horse riding as an effective means to improve the bodily movements of the retarded. Dr. Kalam smiled his trademark disarming smile and wondered aloud as to where he could find a horse to gift us!

“I may be a Padma Vibhushan, but as of now, I don’t see as to how I can help you out”, said Kalam in half jest. Soon he left VSSC to assume the all-important office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of India. In 1998, a year after the founding of Destination Kerala, we instituted the Tourism & IT Man of the Year Awards, focusing on the Kerala scenario. In 1998 and ’99 the awards were presented at glittering functions held on Chingom 1 (August 18), the vernacular New Year Day of Kerala, by the State Governor and the Chief Minister respectively. In 2000, I wanted to add a different kind of glamour to the event by having a Bharat Ratna as the chief guest. Accordingly, I wrote to APJ on June 7, soliciting his presence at our function on August 18.

Within a week, a letter from Kalam came, appreciating the unique awards, expressing delight at our invitation, and reluctantly excusing himself since, “I will be away in New York on August 18, and hence, I am unable to attend. I wish the function all success.”

In a country where all important people are too busy to respond to each communication, here was a genuine Jewel of India humbling us all with a personally signed letter conveying regret at disappointing us. I felt more than rewarded and wrote to him so. The function that year was graced by the Speaker of the House and the Minister for Culture.

And then, the humble simple Abdul Kalam was crowned the President of India on July 25, 2002. Destination Kerala of August 2002 celebrated the elevation with a page 1 story titled ‘India: Kalam’s Own Country!’ A couple of months later, a communication from the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, followed by another from the Indian Army headquarters reached Fr. Felix, carrying the good news that the President has ordered the gifting of two stallions from the Presidential stable to CIMR so that the mentally challenged may face and overcome their motility challenges with a helping hand from the head of the one billion-plus strong family called India.