Prof. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam - A Personal Reminiscence

-- Dr. M. Vidyasagar

Now that Bharat Ratna Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam will be the next President of India, I felt bold enough to peep into my memories and come up with this very personal reminiscence. Everyone knows about the various "public" incidents in Prof. Kalam's life, so this reminiscence is restricted only to incidents in which I personally participated.

Unlike many persons who consciously cultivate a public persona, Prof. Kalam is exactly what he appears to be: Truly humble, polite, and above all, patriotic and idealistic. He inspires everyone around him to give just that little bit extra. The journalists' portrayal of him, though laudatory for the most part, are often simplistic and one-dimensional. One of my aims in writing this article is to highlight his multi-faceted personality. Like all great persons, he has his detractors. This includes the lunatic leftists who feel threatened by Prof. Kalam's advocacy of a militarily strong and self-assertive India, and the self-styled "intellectuals" who cannot stand idealism and patriotism. He is a student of history and reflects deeply about historical events. An example of this is his oft-repeated rhetorical query as to why India has never invaded another country in its five thousand-year history while it itself has been invaded countless times. The unstated answer, of course, is that the philosophy of non-aggression and tolerance is in-built into the Indian ethos. This is one of the things he cherishes about India, which in turn makes him a role model for those of us aspiring to be patriotic ourselves.

While many Indians will be able to say that they know the President, I will be one of the lucky few who can say that "The President knows me." smile I had the privilege and pleasure of having Prof. Kalam as my direct boss between July 1992 and December 1999, when I was the Director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) in Bangalore, and Prof. Kalam was the Director General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Before that, Prof. Kalam was the Director of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad, and thus a fellow DRDO lab Director.

My first detailed exposure to Prof. Kalam was in 1987-88, when I spent nine months visiting DRDL, on sabbatical leave from the University of Waterloo, Canada. I spent my time giving lectures on modern control theory to the various scientists of DRDL. During my time there, the first successful launch of an Indian missile took place, the Prithvi in February 1988. At that time I was trying to make up my mind whether I wanted to return to India on a permanent basis. I had no hesitation about living in India, but I was not sure whether I would enjoy working in India. During my tenure in DRDL I saw at firsthand that when persons get the kind of inspirational leadership given by Prof. Kalam, they are willing to work extraordinarily hard. This type of "government servant," who was willing to work evenings and weekends, was quite unfamiliar to me as I am sure it is to most Indians, accustomed as we are to the uncaring babus in most government offices. My exposure to the Kalam-led DRDL was a decisive factor in my decision to take up the Directorship of the newly-created CAIR. I have not regretted it at all. In fact, I consider it a turning point in my life.

After taking up the Directorship of CAIR in June 1989, I used to talk to Prof. Kalam quite frequently, for guidance, advice, comfort, what not. Once I asked him what his "style of management" was. He naturally denied that he had any "style" at all. Finally he said that it was important to create an atmosphere in which it was easy for people to admit their mistakes and to learn from them. By now everyone knows the story of how the first launch of the SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) was a failure, while the next launch was successful and firmly "launched" India into the space age. I have seen many instances where Prof. Kalam practiced the above style of management, and I tried in my own small way to emulate it.

At that time the DRDO Directors' Guest House was in the Asiad Village. Prof. Kalam and I had a "standing deal" whereby we would check the guest register, and if we both happened to stay there overnight, we would meet at 10:30 PM to go for a long walk around the Asiad Village. Even at that time there were significant threats to Prof. Kalam's life from our friends across the border. So whenever we two went out, a security guard would try to follow us. Prof. Kalam was quite embarrassed by this and used to tell the guard to go away, telling him "I am just going for a walk with my friend." But I always insisted that the guard should come along - I had no illusions about my ability to protect Prof. Kalam! Many of the insights I have into Prof. Kalam's "world view" were gained during those late-night walks.

In early 1992 one of our missile launches failed, and a post-flight analysis team was constituted. At the explicit request of Prof. Kalam, I was included as a member of the team. When the team went to Balasore (from which the various Indian missiles were launched at that time), the team members and Prof. Kalam were all assigned to various rooms in the Guest House. Originally I was supposed to share a room with Prof. Ghosal of Jadavpur University. But Prof. Kalam knew that I was quite particular about doing my sandhyavandanam twice a day, so he told the manager to put me in the main cabin. That manager was quite astonished, and when I saw the "cabin," I realized why. The "cabin" as a separate house, meant to be occupied by the Scientific Adviser to Raksha Mantri (SA to RM), who also served as the Director General of DRDO! The next morning Prof. Kalam asked me how I liked my accommodation. When I told him it was wonderful, he pulled my leg saying "See what you will get if you become SA?"

In July 1992 Prof. Kalam took over as the SA to RM and Director General of DRDO. Immediately there were many noticeable changes in the functioning of DRDO Headquarters. For one thing, for the first time when I called the SA and left a message, he actually called back! He also brought a much more "hands on" style of management to the DG-ship, inquiring minutely into all aspects of one's work. It was not at all unusual for either the Headquarters-based persons or for lab Directors like myself to get calls from him late at night or on weekends, asking for some specific piece of information. Fortunately I myself am pretty well-organized, so these inquiries caused no difficulties for me, but more than a few HQ-based johnnies were discomfited by this approach. The story is told about one HQ-wallah (whose name I will omit) who got a call one night from Prof. Kalam asking for some information. This HQ-wallah said that he did not know offhand but on the morrow he would call his subordinate and find out. Prof. Kalam is supposed to have said "Never mind. I will call him myself." He probably did too!

Anyone who has worked in any branch of the government knows the mystique associated with "going abroad." It is not unusual to see, in any government department, that there are "favourite sons" (and daughters too, no doubt) who seemed to hog the lion's share of overseas trips, while for the rest a foreign deputation remains a distant dream. One of Prof. Kalam's first acts was to demystify the entire process by setting up a proper procedure, consisting of an application by the scientist who wishes to go, followed by the recommendation of the Director, and finally a decision by an apex body called DRDO Research Council (instituted by Prof. Kalam). The entire process took no more than two or three weeks and was quite transparent. The transparency of the process largely put to rest the "conspiracy theories" that are always in abundant supply in any government department. As a part of rationalizing the decision process for foreign deputations, Prof. Kalam instituted a special "quota" specifically for young scientists to go overseas to attend international conferences of high quality. He had observed that a disproportionate number of foreign deputations were used by senior scientists and/or for so-called "training missions." Over the years, several of my CAIR scientists benefitted from this innovation, not to mention young scientists in all of DRDO.

When Prof. Kalam became the DG-DRDO, Sharad Pawar was the Defence Minister. The two of them used to meet once a week at a predesignated time, come what may. Shortly after Prof. Kalam took over, I wanted to attend a meeting in Singapore, while one of my scientists wanted to attend a meeting in Japan. I put up both applications, hoping for the best. Immediately Prof. Kalam called me and told me there was enough money to support only one trip, and asked which one should he support. I told him to support the travel of my scientist, as I could somehow manage to get myself "invited" to Singapore. When I came back from Singapore, he called me again and asked how my trip was. I said it was fine, and then he said "Because of you I got Rs. 20 lakhs from the Minister." When I asked how, he said "I told the Minister that one of our most famous Directors, a world-famous researcher, had to go to a meeting in Singapore with his own money. (I did not tell him you were invited.) So the Minister said this was very bad and immediately asked me to put up a proposal to increase the DRDO travel budget by Rs. 20 lakhs!" This way of giving constant feedback to his scientists was a hallmark of Prof. Kalam's "management style."

I am a very unusual case in that my parents still live in Canada, even though I now live in India. In late 1996 my father was to undergo some surgery, and I wanted to be at his side to provide some moral support. Even though my trip to Canada was to be paid by myself, there were still lots of onerous government "procedures" to be gone through, including such gems as "clearance from the political angle." The need for his surgery manifested itself quite suddenly, so I had just one week to complete all these formalities. As could have been foreseen, in fact I could not complete all of them before my scheduled departure date. Prof. Kalam told me "Just go - we will see later." He meant it too - If I had got into some trouble about my "unauthorized" trip he would have taken the rap, not I. As soon as I got back, he again called me and inquired about my father's health. When I thanked him for letting me go even though some formalities were pending, he replied "You never mind all that! You could go in time - that is the important thing." He really does not want any thanks or compliments, and detests anything he considers to be flattery. Moreover, he has a prodigious memory for people and events, and genuinely cares for people. Many celebrities feign an interest in people, but in the case of Prof. Kalam it is quite real.

If I can jump ahead in time to amplify this point, my decision to quit the DRDO was prompted entirely by the fact that Prof. Kalam had finally relinquished the DG-ship in December 1999 at the age of 68, long past the normal retirement age for government servants. On my last day in DRDO, Prof. Kalam called me in the afternoon to thank me for all my contributions to the organization. It was more than I got from his successor. He again called me on my first day in my present job (Tata Consultancy Services) to wish me success. The point is not that I am somehow close to him. Rather the point is that he does this kind of thing for many, many persons.

Prof. Kalam has tremendous respect for professors of all kinds. Whenever a person is both a "Doctor" and a "Professor" (like myself, for example), he always makes it a point to address him as "Professor." To this day he still calls me "Professor Vidyasagar," which I find extremely embarrassing. One day Prof. N. Balakrishnan of the Indian Institute of Science (a very close friend of Prof. Kalam) and I were supposed to meet him in his office. We had to wait for a little while as he was otherwise occupied. When we finally got in, he asked us how long we had been waiting. When we said about fifteen minutes, he remarked that he would go straight to hell, since he had kept two such distinguished professors waiting. He was sincere about it too! Anyway, until he went to Anna University I used to address him either as "Sir" or "Dr. Kalam." But since he went to Anna University I have tried to return the favour and address him as "Professor Kalam."

Prof. Kalam is a prodigious reader and is always interested in new technology, like a kid. Thanks to his encouragement, my lab CAIR was a trail-blazer in introducing many areas of technology into DRDO, ranging from very humble things like e-mail and Internet access for all to cutting-edge technologies like virtual reality (VR). In principle the following project was "Secret," but since Prof. Kalam has talked about it publicly in several fora, I suppose I can make bold and talk about it here. During the Kargil war in 1999, CAIR took the lead in putting together a "fly through" of the Kargil-Dras sector, using a combination of VR and satellite imagery. The team working on the task was given a very simple brief by Prof. Kalam: Get the fly through working in two weeks, and don't bother about procedures. If there is a problem, he is there to protect the team. Of all the things I had to leave behind when I left the Ministry of Defence, I miss this Kargil fly through the most. It was truly state of the art work.

Whether it was telling me to get on the plane to be by my father's side during his surgery, or telling DRDO scientists to put together a fly through of the Kargil area, Prof. Kalam was very clear that procedures were just a means to an end and not an end in themselves. Here is a man who is the ultimate nonconformist, who has simply demolished every bureaucracy and "system" he has ever encountered. But his way of doing it is unobtrusive and carries everyone along, so no one notices what he is doing! Certainly he is a far cry from all the self-styled "nonconformists" who hog newspaper headlines.

In 1997 I was given an award as "DRDO Scientist of the Year" (see image) The next year Prof. Kalam deviated from his idealism to introduce a cash prize of Rs. 1 lakh to go with this award. (All I got was a handshake from the Prime Minister and a medal.) He asked me what I thought of the idea and I told him I was all in favour of it provided he made it retroactive! smile It did not happen, however! sad

In 1997 Prof. Kalam was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award that the Government of India can confer. Naturally, people immediately started referring to him as "Bharat Ratna Dr. Kalam." Shortly thereafter, all of us DRDO lab Directors got a rather strange circular from DRDO Headquarters, informing us that civilian awards such as Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan etc. could not be used as titles, so it was incorrect to refer to someone as "Padma Shri Mr. X" or even as "Mr. X, Padma Shri." It was Prof. Kalam's rather gentle way of reminding us that he did not want us to refer to him as "Bharat Ratna Dr. Kalam."

Gentleness is one of Prof. Kalam's hallmarks. Whenever I used to discuss any issue with him and suggest various alternatives, he would ask "What would you like to do?" I would tell him my preference and if he agreed, he would say "You go ahead." (Incidentally, "You go ahead" instead of the more common"Go ahead" is an example of "Kalam-speak" with which I expect the nation to become more familiar in days to come.) If he disagreed, he would say something like "Well, if that is what you want to do, then that is OK," or "Well, I leave it to you." This was about the strongest disagreement he expressed, even though he must have been presented with some pretty stupid ideas during his time.

Shortly after the government announced that he would be awarded the Bharat Ratna, it was also announced that M. S. Subbulakshmi would also be accorded the same honour. As it happened, both of them were invested at the same time by President K. R. Narayananan. The Bangalore edition of the Indian Express published a beautiful photograph on the occasion, showing Prof. Kalam and MS talking with their heads close together. I called to ask Prof. Kalam whether he had seen the photo and he hadn't, so I sent it to him. As soon as he received it he called me to say how glad he was to see the photo, as none of the Delhi-based newspapers had published it (including the Indian Express). I asked him "What were you saying to MS?" He replied "I was asking her what her favourite ragam was, and she told me it was Sree ragam." I said "Sir, I don't think anyone cares for Sree ragam as such. It is that song they all like - Endaro mahanubhavulu." He replied "I agree with you." Endaro mahanubhavulu is one of Prof. Kalam's favourite songs, as it is for most persons familiar with Carnatic music.

When I got promoted to the grade of Distinguished Scientist (equivalent to Special Secretary to the Government of India) in 1999, he called me personally one Sunday night to tell me the news. That night I was in the office, working. He first called home and after my wife told him I was in the office, he called me there and asked what I was doing in the office on a Sunday night. I told him "Well Sir, I am picking up some of your bad habits." He replied in mock horror "No, don't do that!" There are many far lesser beings on this planet with whom I would not dare to take such liberties, but somehow with him I feel quite comfortable talking freely, making jokes, etc. I can imagine President Kalam still dialing his own calls during nights and weekends, because he is too polite to impose (as he sees it) on his staff.

In June 2000, after I left DRDO, Prof. Kalam addressed a group of bright young high school students who took part in the final training session of the Mathematics Olympiad. It was essentially a kind of "Valedictory address." I too had given a technical lecture to them on that occasion, which took place in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay, Mumbai. As we were both leaving immediately after the function, I decided to trade the comfort of my private sector air-conditioned car for the pleasure of riding with Prof. Kalam to the airport (in a non-a/c Ambassador car, naturally!). By this time Prof. Kalam had a police escort wherever he went, so sure enough our Ambassador car was accompanied by a pilot escort, consisting of a jeep with a couple of policemen inside and a siren on top. Prof. Kalam has always disliked (what he saw as) this manner of drawing attention to himself, so he insisted that the "pilot" should travel behind our car! Anyone familiar with Mumbai knows what a colossal mess the traffic is between Trombay and Sion. So after a while it was pretty obvious that unless we made effective use of the pilot car, he was going to miss his flight. Only then was I able to persuade him to let the pilot car go ahead of us and clear a path through the traffic. To Prof. Kalam, amenities such as a police escort and a pilot car are meant to be endured, not exploited.

After the news broke about his being the NDA's nominee for President, I called him to congratulate him. I said "What does one say to a future President of India?" He replied "You say hello" and broke out with his characteristic laughter. I said "OK, then hello" and offered my services to him in whatever capacity he saw fit. He told me "The nation needs you, but now you are an international man! I called you last week and they said you were abroad." This is a continuation of his standing joke about me ever since I moved to the private sector, namely: implying that I am always abroad. I have spoken to him even after this, and found no trace of a change in him. He is one man who will remain the same even if he is made President of the universe.

Prof. Kalam is sure to be a cartoonists' delight. With his unkempt grey hair (which he used to get cut twice a year, but he may have to increase the frequency as the President) and ever-present full-sleeved blue shirt, he is instantly recognizable, which in turn makes it easy for cartoonists to caricature him. In speech too, he has a number of obvious mannerisms, which enable those around him (including this humble writer) to pull off a more than passable imitation of him. I expect that it will only be a matter of time until the persons in Rashtrapati Bhavan pick up various "Kalam-isms" such as "Fantastic," "Funny guys, why did they do that?" and "What's happening?" During his "administrative" days, his conversations with people like me would often begin with the question "What breakthroughs?" But perhaps as President he won't expect those around him to come up with "breakthroughs" on a regular basis.

He is quite serious about his dream of India becoming a developed nation. When speaking in public, he deliberately puts on an inarticulate manner, but one-on-one he is extremely articulate, clear, and inspiring. I consider him the greatest living Indian. Though it sounds odd, I cannot help feeling that "merely" being the President of India is somehow beneath him. Here is truly a case where the position is honoured by the person occupying it, not the other way around.

(Dated: June 22, 2002)

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Acknowledgement: My thanks to B. G. Mahesh of for suggesting that I write this article, and for formatting it so nicely. The words are all my own.

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Disclaimer: The contents of this article represent solely my views and not those of my employer.