He seemed entirely at ease during the 40 minutes we spent in each other's company discussing myriad topics

How a peacenik came to know nuclear Kalam as a remarkable humanist - a personal storyImage: Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Facebook page
Blog Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 05:30

  I first met Dr.Abdul Kalam in 1992. He was at the time an advisor to the Indian government and I was a very active member of a scientist group that was opposing nuclear proliferation and working in the United States. I distinctly remember the impression he made upon me.  Logically we should not have got on well; here was a man who had been entrusted to build India's nuclear arsenal conversing with a peace activist. A more antagonistic position would be difficult to conceptualize.  But human actions frequently defy logic. Not only did I find him most receptive to my ideas but he succeeded in making a very deep impression upon me through the limitless sincerity that exuded all through our interaction! So much so that he convinced me that in his own way he was as much of a peacenik as anyone including myself. It was difficult to counter his logic and I could see that his commitment to international amity was second to none.  His vision which became widely known only after his elevation to the presidency of the nation was all too obvious to anyone who was prepared to discuss philosophy with him. I had a delightful exchange on the validity of Rumi (my ultimate ideal) in the preset day context where human discord was consuming so many lives. He seemed entirely at ease during the 40 minutes we spent in each other's company discussing myriad topics like the six darsanas of the Hindu philosophy, the Gandhian vision and the Sufi doctrines. Not known to many, he was an ardent admirer of Albert Schweitzer and confessed that he used to read his works every now and then. He was equally comfortable discussing another of my childhood heroes, Bertrand Russell. We also discussed the seminal influences in his life . Much of what he revealed at the time is already public knowledge now through his writings. His mentor-in-chief was Professor Satish Dhawan whom I had met a couple of times. I can never forget what Dhawan once told me - "Publicity if the biggest enemy of scientific progress!" How faithfully his protege adhered to this precept is a matter of record. Despite being feted with numerous honorary doctorates, he never sought admission to those apex scientific learned societies. Trappings power remained alien to him; it was a trait that he faithfully practiced even when living at the most prestigious address in India. In the truest and orthodox sense, he was not a scientist - he did not have a record of 2000 peer reviewed articles. But he succeeded in giving impetus to science the way very few have in India. An avid music lover, he also discussed the merits of different ragas and their designated times. Being an avid classical music lover myself, this perhaps more than any other assertion convinced me that here was a person who had no time for superficialities that frequently govern our lives and also that he was fundamentally an international humanist of the first order - someone who loved his nation because he felt that his nation had a message of international humanism to convey. Towards the end, he took down my address and asked me to convey his fraternal greetings to Linus Pauling whom I was going to meet in the next few days. He promised to remain in touch. I came out of his very spartan office feeling reassured that India was been safely and sensibly steered towards peace and amity. I, of course, did not expect to hear from him. Lo and behold- a congratulatory message was there on my desk when I was conferred honorary doctorate by the University of Natal in South Africa in 2000. I was deeply touched that he had remembered me after all those years. During my next visit to India - which was post Pokharan- when he was very busy, I could speak to him on the phone and he was as warm as he had been during our tete-a-tete several years ago. He apologized for not felicitating me on my elevation as an A=academician and implored me to relocate to India. We then remained incommunicado for years. He had become the President and had started on his unique mission to energize the youth of the country. Out of the blue I received another letter from his secretary at the Rashtrapati Bhawan expressing his pleasure at the inclusion of my name in Philip Barker's TOP 1000 SCIENTISTS FROM THE BEGINNING OF TIME TO 2000 AD which he had been able to peruse after learning that it was in the reference section of the Nobel Library. He invited me to come over to the Rashtrapati Bhawan promising to take care of the travel arrangements. This gesture truly touched me in a way few other acts of kindness have in my life.  After demitting office, he remained busier than ever and we only managed to speak twice on the phone, the last on the death of a renowned scientist. But despite the paucity of our contacts, he remains one of the most remarkable persons I have been associated with - and I have known over 30 Nobel laureates during my career. Like all humanists his sense of wicked childish humour made itself very obvious.When asked once why he remained a bachelor, he in an impish manner stated, "It is much easier to understand rocket science than marriage." Now that he has left this word physically, we all owe it to him - one who gave all of us so much - to keep his legacy alive! I recall Rajdeep Sardesai once stating that Dr Radhakrishnan was the best president we have had. I would take issues with him. In terms of the impact and accessibility, Dr Radhakrishnan came nowhere close to Dr Kalam who has my vote. Let us salute him with these lines from Rudyard Kipling:   If you can keep your head when all about you        Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,     But make allowance for their doubting too;    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,     Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,     And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:   If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;        If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster     And treat those two impostors just the same;    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken     Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,     And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:   If you can make one heap of all your winnings     And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings     And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew     To serve your turn long after they are gone,    And so hold on when there is nothing in you     Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’   If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,        Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,     If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute     With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,        And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!