The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 23, 2002
Lead Article

On the wings of fire
by Prof APJ Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari

"I was born into a middle-class Tamil family in the island town of Rameswaram in the erstwhile Madras state. My father, Jainulabdeen, had neither much formal education nor much wealth; despite these disadvantages, he possessed great innate wisdom and a true generosity of spirit. He had an ideal helpmate in my mother, Ashiamma. I do not recall the exact number of people she fed every day, but I am quite certain that far more outsiders ate with us than all the members of our own family put together.

My parents were widely regarded as an ideal couple. My mother’s lineage was the more distinguished, one of her forebears having been bestowed the title of ‘Bahadur’ by the British.


Agni on the launch pad
Agni on the launch pad

I was one of many children—a short boy with rather undistinguished looks, born to tall and handsome parents. We lived in our ancestral house, which was built in the middle of the 19th century. It was a fairly large pucca house, made of limestone and brick, on the Mosque Street in Rameswaram. My austere father used to avoid all inessential comforts and luxuries. However, all necessities were provided for, in terms of food, medicine or clothes. In fact, I would say mine was a very secure childhood, both materially and emotionally.

I normally ate with my mother, sitting on the floor of the kitchen. She would place a banana leaf before me, on which she then ladled rice and aromatic sambhar, a variety of sharp, home-made pickles and a dollop of fresh coconut chutney.

The famous Shiva temple, which made Rameswaram so sacred to pilgrims, was about a ten-minute walk from our house. Our locality was predominantly Muslim, but there were quite a few Hindu families too, living amicably with their Muslim neighbours. There was a very old mosque in our locality where my father would take me for evening prayers. I had not the faintest idea of the meaning of the Arabic prayers chanted, but I was totally convinced that they reached God. When my father came out of the mosque after the prayers, people of different religions would be sitting outside, waiting for him. Many of them offered bowls of water to my father who would dip his fingertips in them and say a prayer. This water was then carried home for invalids. I also remember people visiting our home to offer thanks after being cured. My father always smiled and asked them to thank Allah, the benevolent and merciful.

Kalam receives the Bharat Ratna from President K.R. Narayanan
Kalam receives the Bharat Ratna from President K.R. Narayanan

The high priest of Rameswaram temple, Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, was a very close friend of my father’s. One of the most vivid memories of my early childhood is of the two men, each in his traditional attire, discussing spiritual matters. When I was old enough to ask questions, I asked my father about the relevance of prayer. My father told me there was nothing mysterious about prayer. Rather, prayer made possible a communion of the spirit between people. "When you pray," he said, "you transcend your body and become a part of the cosmos, which knows no division of wealth, age, caste, or creed……"

My father could convey complex spiritual concepts in very simple, down-to-earth Tamil. He once told me, "In his own time, in his own place, in what he really is, and in the stage he has reached—good or bad—every human being is a specific element within the whole of the manifest divine Being. So why be afraid of difficulties, sufferings and problems? When troubles come, try to understand the relevance of your sufferings. Adversity always presents opportunities for introspection."

"Why don’t you say this to the people who come to you for help and advice?" I asked my father. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. For quite some time he said nothing, as if he was judging my capacity to comprehend his words. Then he answered in a low, deep voice. His answer filled me with a strange energy and enthusiasm:

Kalam speaking at The Tribune’s 117th anniversary function
Kalam speaking at The Tribune’s 117th anniversary function

"Whenever human beings find themselves alone, as a natural reaction, they start looking for company. Whenever they are in trouble, they look for someone to help them. Whenever they reach an impasse, they look to someone to show them the way out. Every recurrent anguish, longing, and desire finds its own special helper. For the people who come to me in distress, I am but a go-between in their effort to propitiate demonic forces with prayers and offerings. This is not a correct approach at all and should never be followed. One must understand the difference between a fear-ridden vision of destiny and the vision that enables us to seek the enemy of fulfilment within ourselves."

* * *

I had three close friends in my childhood—Ramanadha Sastry, Aravindan, and Sivaprakasan. All these boys were from orthodox Hindu Brahmin families. As children, none of us ever felt any difference amongst ourselves because of our religious differences and upbringing. In fact, Ramanadha Sastry was the son of Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, the high priest of the Rameswaram temple. Later, he took over the priesthood of the Rameswaram temple from his father; Aravindan went into the business of arranging transport for visiting pilgrims; and Sivaprakasan became a catering contractor for the Southern Railways.

During the annual Shri Sita Rama Kalyanam ceremony, our family used to arrange boats with a special platform for carrying idols of the Lord from the temple to the marriage site, situated in the middle of the pond called Rama Tirtha which was near our house. Events from the Ramayana and from the life of the Prophet were the bedtime stories my mother and grandmother would tell the children in our family.

The house on Mosque Street where kalam grew up
The house on Mosque Street where kalam grew up

One day when I was in the fifth standard at the Rameswaram Elementary School, a new teacher came to our class. I used to wear a cap which marked me as a Muslim, and I always sat in the front row next to Ramanadha Sastry, who wore a sacred thread. The new teacher could not stomach a Hindu priest’s son sitting with a Muslim boy. In accordance with our social ranking as the new teacher saw it, I was asked to go and sit on the back bench. I felt very sad, and so did Ramanadha Sastry. He looked utterly downcast as I shifted to my seat in the last row. The image of him weeping when I shifted to the last row left a lasting impression on me.

After school, we went home and told our respective parents about the incident. Lakshmana Sastry summoned the teacher, and in our presence, told the teacher that he should not spread the poison of social inequality and communal intolerance in the minds of innocent children. He bluntly asked the teacher to either apologize or quit the school and the island. Not only did the teacher regret his behaviour, but the strong sense of conviction Lakshmana Sastry conveyed ultimately reformed this young teacher.

On the whole, the small society of Rameswaram was highly stratified and very rigid in terms of the segregation of different social groups. However, my science teacher Sivasubramania Iyer, though an orthodox Brahmin with a very conservative wife, was something of a rebel. He did his best to break social barriers so that people from varying backgrounds could mingle easily. He used to spend hours with me and would say, "Kalam, I want you to develop so that you are on par with the highly educated people of the big cities."

A view of Schwartz High School, Ramanathapuram
A view of Schwartz High School, Ramanathapuram

One day, he invited me to his home for a meal. His wife was horrified at the idea of a Muslim boy being invited to dine in her ritually pure kitchen. She refused to serve me in her kitchen. Sivasubramania Iyer was not perturbed, nor did he get angry with his wife, but instead, served me with his own hands and sat down beside me to eat his meal. His wife watched us from behind the kitchen door. I wondered whether she had observed any difference in the way I ate rice, drank water or cleaned the floor after the meal. When I was leaving his house, Sivasubramania Iyer invited me to join him for dinner again the next weekend. Observing my hesitation, he told me not to get upset, saying, "Once you decide to change the system, such problems have to be confronted." When I visited his house the next week, Sivasubramania Iyer’s wife took me inside her kitchen and served me food with her own hands.

* * *

On the topic of the inevitable hard work that goes with rocket development and the degree of commitment involved, he (German-American scientist and father of modern rocketry, von Braun) smiled and said with a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Hard work is not enough in rocketry. It is not a sport where mere hard work can fetch you honours. Here, not only do you have to have a goal but you have to have strategies to achieve it as fast as possible."

"Total commitment is not just hard work, it is total involvement. Building a rock wall is back-breaking work. There are some people who build rock walls all their lives. And when they die, there are miles of walls, mute testimonials to how hard those people had worked."

He continued, "But there are other men who, while placing one rock on top of another, have a vision in their minds, a goal. It may be a terrace with roses climbing over the rock walls and chairs set out for lazy summer days. Or the rock wall may enclose an apple orchard or mark a boundary. When they finish, they have more than a wall. It is the goal that makes the difference. Do not make rocketry your profession, your livelihood — make it your religion, your mission." Did I see something of Prof. Vikram Sarabhai in von Braun? It made me happy to think so...

With three deaths in the family in as many successive years, I needed total commitment to my work in order to keep performing. I wanted to throw all my being into the creation of the SLV. I felt as if I had discovered the path I was meant to follow, God’s mission for me and my purpose on His earth. During this period, it was as though I pushed a hold button — no badminton in the evenings, no more weekends or holidays, no family, no relations, not even any friends outside the SLV circle.

To succeed in your mission, you must have single-minded devotion to your goal. Individuals like myself are often called ‘workaholics’. I question this term because that implies a pathological condition or an illness. If I do that which I desire more than anything else in the world and which makes me happy, such work can never be an aberration. Words from the Twenty-sixth Psalm come to mind while I work: "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me."

Total commitment is a crucial quality for those who want to reach the very top of their profession. The desire to work at optimum capacity leaves hardly any room for anything else. I have had people with me who would scoff at the 40-hours-a-week job they were being paid for. I have known others who used to work 60, 80 and even 100 hours a week. They found their work exciting and rewarding. Total commitment is the common denominator among all successful men and women. Are you able to manage the stresses you encounter in your life? The difference between an energetic and a confused person is the difference in the way their minds handle their experiences. Man needs his difficulties because they are necessary to enjoy success. All of us carry some sort of a super-intelligence within us. Let it be stimulated to enable us to examine our deepest thoughts, desires, and beliefs.

Once you have done this — charged yourself, as it were, with your commitment to your work — you also need good health and boundless energy. Climbing to the top demands strength, whether it is to the top of Mount Everest or to the top of your career. People are born with different energy reserves and the one who tires first and burns out easily will do well to reorganise his or her life at the earliest.

The pursuit of science is a combination of great elation and great despair. I went over many such episodes in my mind. Johannes Kepler, whose three orbital laws form the basis of space research, took nearly 17 years after formulating the two laws about planetary motion around the sun, to enunciate his third law which gives the relation between the size of the elliptical orbit and the length of time it takes for the planet to go around the sun. How many failures and frustrations must he have gone through? The idea that man could land on the moon, developed by the Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was realised after nearly four decades — and by the United States, at that. Prof. Chandrasekhar had to wait nearly 50 years before receiving the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the ‘Chandrasekhar Limit’, a discovery made while he was a graduate student at Cambridge in the 1930s. If his work had been recognised then, it could have led to the discovery of Black Hole decades earlier. How many failures must von Braun have gone through before his Saturn launch vehicle put man on the moon? These thoughts helped to give me the ability to withstand apparently irreversible setbacks.

Early in November 1979, Dr Brahm Prakash retired. He had always been my sheet-anchor in the turbulent waters of VSSC. His belief in team spirit had inspired the management pattern for the SLV project, which later became a blueprint for all scientific projects in the country. Dr Brahm Prakash was a very wise counsellor who gave me valuable guidance whenever I deviated from my mission objectives.

Dr Brahm Prakash not only reinforced the traits which I had acquired from Prof. Sarabhai, but also helped me give them new dimensions. He always cautioned me against haste. "Big scientific projects are like mountains, which should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without urgency. The reality of your own nature should determine your speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become tense and high-strung, slow down. You should climb the mountain in a state of equilibrium. When each task of your project is not just a means to an end but a unique event in itself, then you are doing it well," he would tell me. The echo of Dr Brahm Prakash’s advice could be heard in Emerson’s poem on Brahma:

If the red slayer think he slays,

Or, if the slain think he is slain,

They know not well, the subtle ways

I keep, and pass, and turn again.

To live only for some unknown future is superficial. It is the climbing a mountain to reach the peak without experiencing its sides. The sides of the mountain sustain life, not the peak. This is where things grow, experience is gained, and technologies are mastered. The importance of the peak lies only in the fact that it defines the sides. So I went on towards the top, but always experiencing the sides. I had a long way to go but I was in no hurry. I went in little steps — just one step after another — but each step towards the top.

* * *

The biggest problem Indian youth faced. I felt was a lack of clarity of vision, a lack of direction. It was then that I decided to write about the circumstances and people who made me what I am today; the idea was not merely to pay tribute to some individuals or highlight certain aspects of my life. What I wanted to say was that no one, however poor, underprivileged or small need feel disheartened about life. Problems are a part of life. Suffering is the essence of success. As someone said:

God has not promised

Skies always blue,

Flower-strewn, pathways

All our life through;

God has not promised

Sun without rain,

Joy without sorrow,

Peace without pain.

I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a role model for anybody; buy some poor child living in an obscure place, in an underprivileged social setting may find a little solace in the way my destiny has been shaped. It could perhaps help such children liberate themselves from the bondage of their illusory backwardness and hopelessness. Irrespective of where they are right now, they should be aware that God is with them and when. He is with them, who can be against them?

But God has promised

Strength for the day.

Rest for the labour

Light for the way.

It has been my observation that most Indians suffer unnecessary misery all their lives because they do not know how to manage their emotions. They are paralysed by some sort of a psychological inertia. Phrases like the ‘next best alternative, the only feasible option or solution and till things take a turn for the better’ are commonplace in our business conversations. Why not write about the deep-rooted character traits which manifest themselves in such widespread, self-defeatist thought patterns and negative behaviour? I have worked with many people and organisations and have had to deal with people who were so full of their own limitations that they had no other way to prove their self-worth than by intimidating me. Why not write about the victimisation which is a hallmark of the tragedy of Indian science and technology? And about the pathways to organisational success? Let the latent fire in the heart of every Indian acquire wings, and the glory of this great country light up the sky.

Excerpted from Wings of Fire
An Autobiography: APJ Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari. Published by Universities Press, Hyderabad. Pages 180, Rs. 200