APJ Abdul Kalam, who rose to dizzying heights, took birth in a Tamil Muslim family on 15 October 1931. His father, a boat owner Jainulabdeen, a devout Muslim, was proud of his friendship with the Rameshwaram temple priest.
Jainulabdeen rented out ships to fishermen and the little Kalam distributed newspapers to earn money for the family. An early riser, he went to distribute newspapers only after his maths class. But learning mathematics from his favourite teacher meant taking a bath before taking the class. His other preferred subject was physics. Later on he also took up aerospace engineering.
Kalam couldn’t afford to pay the Rs 1,000 admission fee to get admitted into Madras Institute of Technology, His sister mortgaged her gold bangles, as his father did not have the required money.
Vikram Sarabhai acted as Kalam’s mentor and guide. He adviced Kalam on how to reach for the stars. When Dr Kalam’s first major project SLV 3-failed for the first time, he was almost shattered.
When Kalam joined DRDO as a scientist, the first job of his career was to design a small chopper for the army. Though he continued in DRDO, he was dissatisfied with his job.
Kalam took care of his colleagues. Once his co-worker in DRDO promised to take his kids to the local carnival after work and also took Kalam’s permission to leave early. But the man was so involved in his work that he he forgot what he told his kids. He rushed home only to know that Kalam had taken his children to the carnival.
Another interesting anecdote, Kalam rejected the idea of putting broken glass on a wall when his team was discussing options to secure the perimeter of a building. In a small voice, Kalam said, “If we do that, birds will not be able to perch on the wall.”
Kalam was known to write his own thank you cards. Once when Quora user Naman Narain drew a sketch of Kalam and sent it to him, Kalam sent him a thank you card, with a short handwritten message and personalised it with his signature
Not many know that Kalam was a prolific writer. He wrote as many as 15 books on a variety of subjects ranging from nuclear physics to spirituality, Wings of Fire: An Autobiography was translated into 13 languages, including French and Chinese. There are also six other biographies penned by him. Inspired from Kalam’s life, Nila Madhab Panda made ‘I am Kalam’ in 2011.
Such was the modesty of the man that at a convocation of IIT-Varanasi recently, where Kalam was chief guest, he refused to sit on the chair designated for him as it was bigger than the other four on the stage and so offered it to the VC. Immediately, another chair was made available for Kalam.
Such was the popularity of Kalam that UN declared his 79th birthday as the World Students’ Day. Kalam, who received doctorates from 40 universities, was also nominated for MTV Youth Icon of the Year award in 2003 and 2006.