I first met A P J Abdul Kalam in the summer of 1984. I had just joined National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) and was staying in one of NAL’s new apartments on the campus. Being still unmarried, dinner remained a perennial problem … till NAL’s guest house graciously agreed to serve me dinner in what was then just a tiny dining hall.

One night when I showed up for dinner, I saw a short gentleman with long hair on the next table. When I looked curiously at the manager to ask who he was, he whispered  “Director of DRDL, Hyderabad”.

Kalam, who was watching smilingly on the next table, gestured that I should join him at his table. I walked across and was soon subjected to a detailed interrogation about my family and education. When he discovered that I was a young ‘foreign-returned Ph.D.’ of Hyderabadi origin, he promptly offered me a job at Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL). “We’re starting a national programme to build missiles and I need everyone’s help”, he told me.

I declined politely because I was quite happy to remain in Bangalore. Kalam didn’t seem upset by my response and complimented me for returning back to work in India. I saw him again a few times (he was spending a week at NAL to look at collaboration possibilities) but didn’t have any more conversations.

KalamAsISawHimI didn’t see much of Kalam again till the end of the 1980s. He wasn’t so high profile in that decade — it was the decade of Sam Pitroda, C N R Rao and NAL’s Director Roddam Narasimha, all of whom enjoyed the confidence and respect of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

It was in 1989 that Kalam burst spectacularly on the national scene with the successful launch of the Agni missile. Agni was the superstar because it was India’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. That year we invited Kalam to deliver the NAL Foundation Day lecture. I still remember the thunderous applause as Kalam entered our packed auditorium to deliver the talk. It wasn’t just for the man; it was also an expression of national pride.

At the Q&A session that followed the lecture someone asked Kalam why India needed intercontinental missiles. “You want to know why? My answer is very simple”, he said in his delightful Tamil accent,”because strength respects strength!” Once again there was tumultuous applause. It was clear to me at that instant that Kalam, not Pitroda, would become India’s true technological messiah.

As the applause for the Agni success in the NAL auditorium refused to die down, Kalam did something remarkable. He said: “Don’t praise me for Agni, praise R N Agarwal who led the Agni programme; I’m merely looking after all missile programmes!”. The applause grew louder after this humble announcement.

[There’s a story behind Kalam’s acknowledgement. Almost exactly a decade earlier the first launch of ISRO’s satellite launch vehicle SLV, a project led by Kalam, had failed. As Kalam dreaded the prospect of meeting the media, his boss, Satish Dhawan, publicly took all the responsibility for the failure. A year later, when the second launch was successful, Dhawan didn’t bother to join the media meet. “It is your success, you talk about it”, he told Kalam.]

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Director-General – and therefore Kalam’s boss – during Kalam’s early years of success was Dr V S Arunachalam. Arunachalam used to be a successful scientist at NAL in the 1970s, but rose rapidly to become Director of Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) and, very soon thereafter, the DRDO boss. It was whispered that Arunachalam gained from his proximity to R Venkataraman, first India’s Defence Minister and then the President, but he was undoubtedly a scientist of mettle and an even more capable R&D visionary and manager.

Looking back, one of Arunachalam’s bigger achievements was the way he ‘enabled’ Kalam and set him up for big success. While Kalam was grateful to Arunachalam, he once told me in a brief interview that his three top idols were Vikram Sarabhai (“for his vision”), Satish Dhawan (“mission”) and Brahm Prakash (“goal”).

[I did that interview with Kalam for TIFAC News in Delhi in 1990 while driving in a jeep from South Block to Yojana Bhavan. The jeep ride was bumpy, but Kalam happily sat behind with me to do the interview. Luckily there was a visitor to Rashtrapati Bhavan and police stopped all traffic for 10 minutes. “Now we can talk peacefully”, Kalam told me. The irony of the event seems delicious today, but that afternoon I was just relieved that I could write down my notes more comfortably without the bumps.]

As DRDO boss, V S Arunachalam brought in very big money into DRDO labs. A large number of new defence labs were opened. In Bangalore he managed to gain possession of a lot of land — not far from the old HAL airport — to create a new defence township named C V Raman Nagar. Arunachalam also successfully argued that DRDO should have full control of the light combat aircraft (LCA) development programme; something that we in NAL didn’t quite appreciate.


Flowers for Kalam as he shows up to greet Narasimha in 1993

It was therefore a splendid ‘set-piece’ that Kalam inherited when he succeeded Arunachalam as the DRDO boss in 1992. Kalam’s affable style (and clout) ensured that he had several admirers in NAL. And Kalam could turn on the charm! When he heard that NAL was organizing a one-day seminar in honour of its outgoing Director Roddam Narasimha in 1993, he insisted on participating although he wasn’t originally on the invitee list. And during this event he paid a moving tribute to Narasimha’s intellect (saying that he wished he could’ve written a thesis under his supervision).

This wasn’t an idle wish. Scientific prowess was never Kalam’s strongest suit; he was much more the technology enabler. Kalam could motivate people and teams enormously well, he worked incredibly hard, and he was personally of frugal habit and impeccable honesty. I remember I once asked Narasimha what was Kalam’s top skill. He told me that he had an engineer’s sixth sense and could make excellent technology choices: “When required to choose one technology option out of several available ones, Kalam almost always gets it right”.


He couldn’t fly planes, so he helped build them

Although based in Delhi now, Kalam was on a plane to Bangalore every week when he was DRDO boss. A lot of the LCA design and development work happened at NAL and Kalam stayed in constant touch. Kalam would often show up unannounced after midnight at NAL — and find people busily at work on the fabrication of the LCA fin or rudder. He even popped up unexpectedly in 1994 as NAL handed over a giant autoclave to HAL. Such impromptu appearances ruffled protocol but made Kalam hugely popular at NAL.

“That’s why I respect NAL so much”, he would say after such surprise visits, “you guys are a class apart!” It is probable that he lavished such compliments because DRDO critically needed LCA work from NAL – but he did it with such charm!

However the charm could also be occasionally switched off: when NAL once approached Kalam to fund its parallel computer development project, he remained cold and silent – because DRDO had a similar project! As a last resort, we requested Narasimha to put in a word to Kalam. Kalam ignored him too after an initial polite reply.


India’s technology messiah in the desert with PM Vajpayee and R Chidambaram

As the years went by, Kalam’s clout and influence continued to rise; his popularity zoomed when PM Gujral’s government awarded him the Bharat Ratna in 1997. Soon thereafter Kalam showed up in the desert, wearing a stylish cap, in the company of the new PM Vajpayee after the Pokharan-2 blast in 1998. This was a project of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and it was puzzling to see the DRDO boss enjoying all the adulation. Looking back, I have no doubt that Kalam’s desert appearance bolstered his image as India’s top technology messiah, and planted a thought in the BJP government that this man – often also called ‘Kalam Iyer’ – could be a future President.

When Kalam’s innings at DRDO ended, he decided he would become a fulltime technology evangelist. This choice was vindicated when his 1999 book “Wings of Fire” became a surprising bestseller. Kalam’s popularity was sky-rocketing!


Signing a copy of Wings of Fire

[I recently re-read chapters of the book, and the narrative is not always lucid. But the book has tremendous candour; Kalam openly talks of his failures and acknowledges his lapses. It was the first time that a top Indian scientist wrote with such honesty and simplicity.]

Kalam also began accepting invitations to lecture all over the country because he enjoyed these interactions and they contributed to his ever-growing adulation. In these lectures, Kalam talked more like a guru or clairvoyant and less like a hard core technology manager. He stressed on issues about society, welfare, heritage and spirituality

The only institution that didn’t succumb to Kalam’s cascading charm was probably Indian Institute of Science (IISc). After retiring from DRDO end-1999, Kalam apparently asked to be appointed a professor at IISc. IISc – or so the grapevine goes – was cold and told him that he didn’t have a proper Ph.D. and was therefore not eligible to be professor. This must have hurt Kalam, but he never uttered a word. Almost instantly Anna University came to his rescue by offering him a lavish professorship.

During 2000-2002 NAL had an opportunity to renew its association with Kalam because we made him the Chairman of our Research Council (RC). Once again we saw Kalam in the NAL guest house, but this time escorted by gun-toting security staff because he was seen as a terrorist target. Curiously enough, the Z class security made him an even greater celebrity.

As Chairman, Kalam seemed brusque and impatient. He didn’t encourage deep technical discussions (it was magical to be present in the RC meetings in the 1980s and 1990s when Satish Dhawan was the Chairman; in comparison Kalam seemed somewhat shallow), but made sure that decisions were made quickly and followed up rigorously.

In one meeting, Kalam made a specific reference to me: “Where’s that guy who prepares such good annual reports?”, he asked the Director, and smiled affectionately at me when I raised my hand. “When I was in DRDO, I had instructed all labs to follow the NAL design and style … I hope they are implementing my order!”

Soon we started hearing rumours that Kalam was a dark horse for President. We didn’t believe it would happen, and thought that even if it happened Kalam might refuse. Then I heard that Kalam was indeed interested in the position, but would only accept if there was greater unanimity over the choice.

PM Vajpayee was quite keen to have Kalam as President (he liked Kalam’s simplicity, met with him frequently and even invited him more than once to join his cabinet) and when Advani and the rest of BJP backed him strongly, there was suddenly a tumultuous surge in his favour. Kalam would go on to become India’s most popular President.

I last met Kalam a fortnight after he became President to do an interview for a newsletter of the Aeronautical Society of India. Kalam was arriving from Delhi and, being Kalam, it was no surprise that the Raj Bhavan appointment was at 11.30 pm.

At 11.10 in the night, I was hanging out on the road waiting for the LCA boss Kota Harinarayana’s  security-cleared car to pick me up. A cop told me to clear off from the road since the President’s convoy was expected. I told him I was actually supposed to meet the President in 20 minutes. “I too am supposed to meet Veerappan (the dreaded Karnataka dacoit) in 30 minutes”, he replied sarcastically, “so vanish quickly!”.

Luckily Kota’s car came just at that moment. I got in. We entered Raj  Bhavan after being politely interrogated. Soon the wireless lines were buzzing: “President landed. Now  crossing ISRO”. Kalam arrived 10 minutes later, not in the decoy limousine but in a stuffy Ambassador car sitting next to the driver! Kalam was still wearing his trade mark blue shirt and was unbelievably informal (later Rashtrapati Bhavan officials would insist that he wear the more formal “band gala” jacket). He bounced up the Raj Bhavan stairs like a fleet-footed athlete and charmed the staff by greeting them in Tamil. Kota introduced me to Kalam.”I think I’ve seen you before”, he told me, “come, sit next to me”.

The interview, while sipping tender coconut water, started well. Kalam even briefly turned poetic as he talked of the beautiful birds and trees of Rashtrapati Bhavan, and of his joyous interactions with school children. But then he suddenly stopped talking. I was puzzled by his sudden silence and didn’t know whether to linger or disappear. Finally Kota gestured that my time was up and I should leave. I would never meet this great Indian again.

Prof Roddam Narasimha’s tribute to Kalam has now appeared in Current Science. Please do also read Prof M Vidyasagar’s tribute in Swarajya, and Raj Chengappa’s obituary in India Today.

5 thoughts on “Kalam as I saw him

  1. Well written and very enjoyable article. You have subtly and very respectfully exposed the chinks in the armour of the great man. Kudos for being honest instead of only singing paeans like other obituary articles.

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