Why India would miss Kalam

I had two absolutely polar, but extreme reactions to the same news today.

I had just started working on the day's work-plan in the lab, when I got a text message from my dad - 'APJ has passed away'. Unlike half of other Indians (or perhaps much like them), I sighed, put the phone back in my pocket, turned up the volume on some Audioslave and quietly resumed work. I had a long day ahead of me and I definitely needed to get on with it. Moreover I had skipped coffee today morning as I was late to work.

I'm not much of an amiable person without coffee in the morning.

There are a lot of designations and honors that apply to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. President of India. 'Missile Man'. Scientist. Writer. MTV youth icon (twice, notably). Bharat Ratna. Many many more. This eminent personality passed away yesterday, owing to a massive heart-attack, while giving a lecture to the students at IIM Shillong. Poetic, one would say. He passed away doing what he much loved doing in his later life - inspiring the youth of the country.

I've had two instances at least, as far as I can remember, where I met Dr. Kalam face to face - one, at my school for an occasion I don't remember anymore. It would be sometime in 2008 or earlier. He might have been the President of India still, or had just stepped down from office. Next time I met him - and this time, I was much closer to have even touched his feet (something I do not much do naturally, much to my father's ire) - I was in IIT Bombay and he had come to inaugurate the new Biology Research building.

I do not know if I did that out of respect as the Indian-ness took over me overwhelmingly, or I just did it to feel some kind of an awe-inspiring connection with this charismatic figure. One thing that I could tell this last time was that he was really comfortable among students, who thrived to catch a glimpse of this 80 year old man. To us, this grandfather of a man was the coolest dude alive in India! (Ha-ha.. there's a weirdly healthy irony here). I stopped working for a while and smiled at myself as these thoughts passed my mind. The only Indian in my lab stepped in and asked me if I had heard the news of his passing away.

"Well, he was old. So it shouldn't come as a surprise, right?" I said, very much nonchalantly.
"I guess you're right.." she said quietly and returned to her work.

I don't get so touchy with natural death. The 'circle of life' philosophy runs deep in my understanding, since The Lion King still is my most favorite movie of all time. But something told me that I was borderline rude about my nonchalance, which mildly surprised me.

Before Kalam was an Indian youth icon, he was the country's few success stories. Born poor, forced to work on his own much earlier in life, he was very much an average person like us - average marks, average progress, the dean threatening to revoke his scholarship if he doesn't improve - well like I said, just like us. The most important step in his career, like it would be in anyone's life, was the identification of Aerospace Engineering as his field of interest. There, he found great teachers and leaders in Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Prof. Satish Dhawan and voila! he learned as much as he could from them to slowly, but steadily become the leading figure in India's ballistics, missile and space programs. Very soon, his involvement in many key projects heralded him as the Missile Man of India.

If you think about it, most of everything that India has right now in the DRDO's military missile technologies and ISRO's launch vehicle capabilities, it is due to the efforts of this man. He may or may not have been involved at the most technical level for all of them, but he played pivotal roles in organizational and more importantly, a political role in prioritizing them. Influencing the Prime Ministry into allocating secret funds into India's aerospace research projects, much against the discretion of the Union Cabinet is a big thing to achieve for a scientist in any country. This single-handedly showcases his influence in the 'push' that our defense system needed in the post-Independence era.

His role has also been critical in pushing India towards becoming a fully-fledged nuclear state with the Pokhran-II tests. And boy, that was a whole new level of escalation! Many see his involvement in developing Weapons of Mass Destruction or WMDs for India as anti-human, but think of where we'd be in and after the Kargil war? Who would we be to have a say in the Indo- and South-China sea conflict?

Kalam was certainly not an ideal 'politician' (although there's much debate if one should adjudge the Presidency to be having much of a political role in India). His tenure as the President of India was riddled with his silence on the Gujarat riots (which at his time was kind of an elephant in the room) and his inability to look into the mercy plea of quite a few death row prisoners. There's a counter-post doing rounds on the internet, criticizing him for backing the efforts for nuclear weaponization and missile development, and how uncritical media is wrongfully eulogizing him in the public eye now that he has passed away. But I don't think the writer appreciates why he is being revered in the first place. Every scientific endeavor requires funds - large amounts of funds. But there is an obviously large gap of understanding between the scientific community and the 'men in the black suits' which limits the amount of money and in effect, slows down the scientific pursuits and progress of a country.

If Dr. Sydney Farber had not collaborated with socialite Mary Lasker, whose sole aim and purpose was to drive the Congress into sacrificing multi-million dollars into the earliest steps of cancer research, where would we be right now? Much like the earliest drive of cancer research, India's earliest efforts into space and missile defense technology research found a Mary Lasker in Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. And a whole lot of Sydney Farber too. He drove and delivered. All this, while remaining accessible and humble towards the general Indian populous.

This man will be missed, that's for certain. Not because he was a scientist, nor because he was the President. It was because his efforts lifted the self-esteem of our country and put it alongside that of other big nations. India became a primary power in the subcontinent and certainly a major player in global politics. To every young blood in India, who takes even a minor interest in politics and political news of the world, Abdul Kalam became an icon overnight. How many politicians do you know who is really above corruption? How many personalities are so humble that they are globally loved?

And again, remember how Abdul Kalam, an old man, has been heralded as MTV's youth icon twice!

Later in the day, when I came back home and finally took some rest, I thought back on dad's message and decided to send a reply to his message that he'll see in his morning. It was now that I started thinking about how Kalam was perhaps the last person who inspired the Indian youth to pursue science. Pure science. Kalam made science cool!

Only a few years back, when I chose to pursue science and everyone else around me (well, not everyone) were giving their IIT-JEEs and state-level JEEs and medical entrance examinations, I was told by a lot of people - known or unknown - that I was making a mistake. That engineering was the way of life! Over the years, I've found the internet meme that proclaims that 'In India, people first become engineers, then think about what they want to do with their lives' to sadly be true. While we definitely need engineers and medical practitioners in the country, there's an increasing saturation that's abound in those fields and issues like unemployment, unsatisfactory job expectations and aimless ambition are taking their toll.

While more recently the prospects of start-up projects and ideas have boomed, I wonder how much of this change is a direct result of the incessant encouragement that eminent personalities like Dr. Abdul Kalam provide. His life and his speeches inspire the youth to listen to their heart and to never stop dreaming till they realize what they want to do in life and then go achieve it. With his death, those didactic inspirations will be heard no more.

We did not lose a President or a scientist, we but lost a great teacher. At this note, I found myself extremely sad and felt really disconsolate - and that's a feeling, I last felt perhaps only when Sachin Tendulkar had retired.

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