Remembering Dr. Kalam


I remember a conversation I had with my father 12 years ago. When my efforts to go abroad to pursue a PhD were repeatedly being thwarted for one reason or the other, I asked my father despondently, ‘ Are those who try and try to go abroad for a PhD and fail, second-grade individuals?’

My father looked at me, gauged the turmoil in my mind and calmly said, “Think of Dr. Abdul Kalam when such depressing thoughts come to mind.” I did not ask him to explain. Perhaps, he meant that Dr. Kalam scaled great heights without having studied abroad for a PhD, or perhaps he was alluding well in advance prophetically to the ‘I will become the captain of problems, defeat them and succeed’ quote. Either way, that advice from my father proved to be an elixir. I made it eventually to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, obtained my PhD in Industrial Ecology, and I am penning this piece in my capacity as Senior Lecturer at Karlstad University in Sweden.

abdulTalking of Industrial Ecology, having worked in the field of water/wastewater for 8 years in Norway and now switching focus to energy, I recall Dr. Kalam’s exhortation to students of Shri Jayachamarajendra College of Engineering’s Golden Jubilee Celebrations – Work and work for removing the problems faced by the Earth in the areas of water, energy, habitat, waste management and environment, through science and technology….Well, I never had the good fortune of attending one of Dr Kalam’s lectures, or meeting him and talking to him in person (I recall having once been invited to a Waste Management Conference in Thimpu at which he was the Chief Guest, but could not make it there), but I must say that he played a very crucial role through my father, indirectly, in goading me towards progress. And incidentally, Wings of Fire was the first book I received as a gift from my fiancée, who later became my wife.

Several reams of newsprint may already have been dedicated to him by now, and perhaps a good deal of what readers get to read in this piece, may just be repetition. However, yours sincerely thought that some nuggets heard on Tamil TV channels, in interviews and newscasts, could well be brought forth to readers. The raw materials for this piece were sourced from YouTube videos.

Tamil film-star Vivek (non-Tamilians would know him as Rajnikant’s uncle/sidekick in the movie Sivaji-The BOSS) while offering his condolences, pointed out that while the vast majority of Indians possibly know him as a space scientist, associated with the launch of AGNI, PRITHVI, AKASH etc, and with the nuclear tests carried out in Rajasthan, and as a former President of India, he has several useful innovations to his name, all of which have improved the lives of many. He talks of the Kalam stent used in bypass surgeries and the lightweight-metal calipers which polio-afflicted boys and girls find very useful. The latter, he pointed out, as his best and most memorable contribution! The tears of joy which streamed from the eyes of mothers who saw their boys and girls benefitting from the calipers were possibly several Bharat Ratnas to him!! In Vivek’s words, these smaller inventions were byproducts en route to the main tasks he was handling at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). A lesson here for budding scientists and inventors who may be reading this piece – an open mind, total awareness and a keen desire to solve the problems faced by human beings and surmount challenges posed by Nature and Fate from time to time with the aid of science and technology, pleases Serendipity! When Vivek quizzed about global warming, Dr. Kalam did not dwell on what must not be done. Rather, he focused on what can be done – planting trees! He had set for himself a target of witnessing 10 million trees planted in India. This, he said, would help India to contribute to the cause of mitigation of global warming. Of course, he also pointed to Rahimabad in Uttar Pradesh, where jatropha-derived biodiesel was the fuel of choice. It has replaced coal, petroleum and natural gas totally in that town, not far from Allahabad.

Cleanliness is next to godliness, they say. Dr. Kalam shared some of his experiences in Singapore and California with Vivek. In Singapore, when a car-driver saw something fall out of the car in front of him, braked, stopped (while of course making other vehicles behind him also stop), picked up what had fallen down and drove on….the ‘who cares?’ mentality was not to be seen. If it had been a purse it would have reached the owner; if it has been trash, it would have been recycled…In California, Dr. Kalam witnessed a car-driver notice gasoline leaking out of the tank of the car in front of him. He stopped, got off, while the car in front raced ahead, wiped the petrol stains off the road, made a call to the authorities, so that the necessary cleaning could be undertaken. Well, minor things one may say, but how many of us have the inclination to pick up someone else’s trash from the streets and deposit it in a nearby trash can? Well, if more and more people would do that, it would well be a good practice that will spread like a forest fire. But one needs to start and sustain and keep on, in order to bring about a real difference. As Dr. Kalam advises, ‘Dream but also make those dreams come true’.

Tamil poet and lyricist – Vairamuthu – while offering his condolences on a Tamil TV channel, quoted Dr. Kalam – ‘When it rains crows and sparrows seek shelter in their nests; but eagles dare to aspire to heights above the clouds which are showering down water on the earth’. The message – Strive to rise above problems to defeat them!

The 2010-movie ‘I am Kalam’ which I watched half a dozen times (Sanjay Chauhan, a family-friend, being one of the writers of the same), if I am say so, is a fictitious representation of an undeniable fact – that Dr. Kalam has been and will continue to be an inspiration to students of all ages, just as Swami Vivekananda will be to youth in general. These two, certainly, are the bulwarks of India, whose progress and prosperity will be moulded and sustained by strong minds, tireless bodies and noble souls, who will ‘awake, arise and not stop till the goal is reached, till problems are defeated and success is attained’. Everyone, young and old, may have been touched by Dr. Kalam’s life, words and deeds, precept and practice, in the past, and if not, he/she will be, in the future. Mahatma Gandhi would have been very proud of Dr. Kalam. The former believed in being the change he wanted to see in the world (a quote which has become very famous and which also rests on the office-table of yours sincerely)….Dr. Kalam did the same!


G. Venkatesh

G. Venkatesh is Senior Lecturer, Department of Chemical and Engineering Sciences, Karlstad University, Sweden.