A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, A Life


Author: Arun Tiwari
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2015.
Pages: 576
Price: Rs. 799

AP.J. Abdul Kalam – A Life, a biography of this unique man, a ‘godsend-to-earth’, by Arun Tiwari, was published by Harper Collins Publishers India not very long ago. What M.K. Gandhi was in the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Kalam was in the last part of the 20th and the first decade and half of the 21st.

I have often heard from people that ‘It is not possible to emulate Gandhi in modern times…it is a crooked world we are living in.’ Well, who said that it was not a crooked world when Gandhi walked upon the earth? Perhaps it was more so. When you read about Kalam’s life in this book, you at once know that that popular belief is to be challenged.

If the Thirukkural – by sage Thiruvalluvar (one of Kalam’s four favourite books), is a treatise on virtuous and purposeful living, this biography is an application of the theory expounded in the Thirukkural. Kalam started off learning physics and then moved on to the ‘applied sciences’ (engineering), and finally to the application of this knowledge during his work-life at HAL, DRDO, ISRO and TIFAC. Quite like learning the Thirukkural by rote, believing firmly that ‘knowledge without action is useless and irrelevant’, and putting the sage’s precept to practice.

This six-part biography which runs into over 500 pages, has a foreword by Sadhu Brahmaviharidas of Ahmedabad. In a wonderful blend of the spiritual, scientific, managerial, and ‘cradle-to-cradle cyclical thinking’. Tiwari has titled the six parts as: Simulation, Creation, Realisation, Expansion, Dispersion and Emancipation. The epigraphs of the parts and the chapters have poignant quotes from the likes of inter alia, Seneca, Aristotle, Plato, GB Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Swami Vivekananda, Lao-Tzu, Leo Tolstoy, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ferdinand Foch, Robert Oppenheimer, Vincent van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, St. Francis of Assisi, FDR and the Holy Bible. Quotes from accomplished greats to embellish the story of Abdul Kalam, a good-to-great genial giant, who has left behind a legacy which needs to be honoured, preserved, and most importantly, lived!

The biography takes you from Kalam’s birth and childhood on Pamban Island, graduation from the Madras Institute of Technology, before he started his work-life at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and moved on subsequently to work for the ISRO, DRDO and TIFAC. While he was President of India, he promoted technology as an instrument that can be put to good use for sustainable development of all the nations of the world, not just India. He believed that conflicts must be replaced by collaboration, coercion by concord, confrontation by cooperation and religiosity must metamorphose into ‘nameless’ and ‘formless’ spirituality. A top-rated scientist, he was a realist who believed that technology must be transferred, absorbed and applied to the needs of the hoi polloi for development to be complete.

Readers would have read the other books by Dr. Kalam written before this one – starting from Wings of Fire, which was a birthday gift from my wife to me, just after we got married. This one, which is being reviewed, has excerpts from several speeches, lectures and addresses given/delivered by Dr. Kalam in his multiple capacities as scientist, teacher, philosopher, reformer and statesman. Here are some of them:

  • Thinking is progress, non-thinking is stagnation.
  • Education systems around the world will have to work to create enlightened international citizens.
  • Spirituality has to be introduced to young students without bringing in religious terms.
  • Physical connectivity, electronic connectivity, knowledge connectivity and financial connectivity need to be pursued in an integrated manner so that economic connectivity will emerge leading to a self-actuated people and economy.
  • I have no doubt that the future of the nation is in the hands of the younger generation.
  • All religions in their true form are one and the same.
  • You pick the book and follow his life from Pamban Island in the south to Rashtrapati Bhavan in the north, and beyond, becoming one with the Gods, whose will he carried out on Mother Earth from 1932 to 2015. Like Mahatma Gandhi, he was born in October. And though there have been many after Gandhi who laboured hard – in thought, word and deed – to make the ‘Unity in Diversity’, that has often tended to slip away, an unshakeable reality. Dr. Kalam’s efforts to knit religions together to form something transcendental – spirituality – and encourage and inspire children to think of themselves as custodians of a prosperous and noble India in the future, as a writer, orator, teacher, scientist and philosopher, makes him a smiling beacon (take a look at the book cover), a guiding light to look up to, to read about and to listen to (Youtube videos), whenever the going gets tough.

    Buy or borrow it. Read it. Ponder over it. Apply it. Treasure it and share it.

    G. Venkatesh

    G. Venkatesh is Senior Lecturer, Department of Engineering and Chemical Sciences, Faculty of Health, Science and Technology, Karlstad University, Sweden. He is also a freelance writer for several magazines around the world.