A. P. J. Abdul Kalam wanted nothing more than to be a pilot. Fate had other plans, however. How did this son of a boatman become the "Missile Man of India," the "People's President," and a beloved icon for India's youth?
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was born on October 15, 1931, in Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, India, to Muslim parents. He was the youngest of five children. His father, Jainulabudeen, owned a ferry business and was also the imam of a local mosque, but the family was poor. His mother, Ashiamma, managed the household.
As a young boy, Kalam watched his father rebuild his boat after a cyclone destroyed it. From this experience, Kalam learned lessons about optimism and persistence.
Even at the age of eight, Kalam was disciplined - he kept an impressive schedule. Starting at 4:00 A.M., he attended math tutoring and Arabic class, then he worked a paper route. Before he distributed the papers, he studied the front page for images of fighter planes and news about World War II. After this early-morning routine, he joined his classmates for a full day of school.
Kalam's father, a Muslim, regularly held discussions at home with a Brahmin friend and a Christian priest. Kalam learned what he would call "true secularism" by listening to these discussions. When Kalam's teacher at school asked him to sit in the back of the class, because he was Muslim, his father visited the school with his Hindu and Christian friends, to put an end to such segregation.
Kalam attended the Schwartz Higher Secondary School, Ramanathapuram, then in 1954 he graduated with a degree in physics from Saint Joseph's College, Tiruchirappalli.
Starting in 1955, Kalam studied aeronautical engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology on a scholarship. Once, when he fell behind on a project, the dean threatened to take away his scholarship unless Kalam could finish the project in three days. Kalam succeeded, and the dean later explained that he was trying to teach a lesson about managing stress and deadlines. Kalam graduated from the institute in 1960.
Kalam planned to be a pilot in the Indian Air Force. He later said, "Over the years, I had nurtured the hope to be able to fly; to handle a machine as it rose higher and higher in the stratosphere was my dearest dream." Unfortunately, when he applied for pilot's training he was ranked in ninth place and only eight recruits were needed.
At that point he decided to become a scientist. He once said, "Science is global. Einstein's equation, E=mc2, has to reach everywhere. Science is a beautiful gift to humanity, we should not distort it. Science does not differentiate between multiple races."
Kalam joined the Aeronautical Development Establishment of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, or DRDO, where he designed a helicopter for the Indian Army. In 1969, he joined the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, where he served as the project director of India's first Satellite Launch Vehicle team. In July of 1980, during his tenure, the Rohini satellite went into orbit.
Kalam witnessed India's first nuclear test, Smiling Buddha, but he was not directly involved in that project. He directed Project Devil and Project Valiant, however, to develop ballistic missiles for India. Those projects - classified at the time - were secretly funded by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
From 1992 to 1999, Kalam served as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of the Defence Research and Development Organisation. He supervised the Pokhran-II nuclear tests and, as a result, became a famous figure in India. He said, "When a nation is surrounded by weaponized nations, she has to equip herself." From 1999 to 2001, he was the Principal Scientific Advisor to the government of India.
Kalam wrote "India 2020," in which he laid out a plan for India to become a developed nation by the year 2020, with help from educated and engaged young people. He began meeting with groups of high school students, hoping to ignite their minds for the good of India. His goal was to meet with 100,000 students.
In 2002, the National Democratic Alliance encouraged Kalam to run for president - a largely ceremonial office with some political responsibilities. After the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party endorsed Kalam, the incumbent, K. R. Narayanan, decided he would not run for re-election. Kalam was victorious and was sworn in as India's eleventh president on July 25, 2002. He said, "The President's post should not be politicised. Once a president is elected, he is above politics."
President Kalam moved into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the world's largest residence for a head of state. He became known as the "People's President," not only because of his charisma, but also because he but he opened the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the public. He soon installed a "thinking hut" in the Mughal gardens behind the residence, as a retreat for writing and contemplation. He also commissioned a musical fountain and a special garden where visually challenged visitors could smell and touch the flowers.
Kalam served one term as president - he declined to run for a second term.
Kalam's ancestors were wealthy traders, known by the title, "Mara Kalam iyakkivar," or "wooden boat steerers." They transported groceries to and from Sri Lanka; they also ferried passengers between mainland India and Pamban Island. The family's business failed after the Pamban Bridge opened in 1914, eliminating the need for ferries.
During Kalam's tenure with the DRDO, he rejected a proposal to increase security for an important building by coating it with broken glass. He was worried that the jagged edges would injure local birds.
Kalam received many prestigious awards, including the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. In 1997, Kalam received the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honor, for his efforts to modernize India's defense technology.
Despite his success, popularity, and charisma, Kalam never married. He said, "Regarding marriage, it somehow it didn't happen. One fellow in such a big family not getting married is not an issue."
Kalam helped to develop a coronary stent in 1998, partnering with cardiologist Soma Raju. The two also designed the Kalam-Raju Tablet, a computer that could withstand rough handling by medical professionals working in rural areas.
Kalam enjoyed classical Tamil poetry. He explained, "Poetry comes from the highest happiness or the deepest sorrow." He also enjoyed Carnatic devotional music and played the rudra-veena, a South Indian string instrument.
After Kalam learned that the Indian government would take care of his daily needs as a former president, he founded a trust and donated his savings to bring rural amenities to rural areas of India. He once said, "Almost half of the population of the world lives in rural regions and mostly in a state of poverty. Such inequalities in human development have been one of the primary reasons for unrest and, in some parts of the world, even violence."
In 2007, on Children's Day, Kalam launched an e-paper for children, called "Billion Beats."
Kalam authored or co-wrote seventeen books - some scientific, some inspirational. He held honorary doctorates from 40 universities.
Kalam was famous for his gray hair, cut in a bob and curled in front. He once commented, "My hair grows and grows; you cannot stop it - that fellow grows, it grows wild."
During Kalam's term as president, he attended a gathering in which his chair was noticeably larger than the others. He refused to be seated until that chair was replaced with one that matched all of the others.
Kalam was so popular with young people that MTV nominated him for a Youth Icon of the Year award - twice.
After his five-year term as the "People's President" ended in 2007, Kalam focused on teaching and writing. He became a visiting professor or adjunct at a number of universities and research facilities.
In 2012, he started a program called "What Can I Give," to encourage young people to fight against corruption. He said, "Where do the evils like corruption arise from? It comes from the never-ending greed. The fight for corruption-free ethical society will have to be fought against this greed and replace it with 'What Can I Give' spirit."
On July 27, 2015, Kalam started to give a lecture at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong. During the speech he collapsed and died from cardiac arrest, at the age of 83.
As a young boy, Kalam was inspired by the flight of birds. He wanted to fly as well. He once said, "The bird is powered by its own life and by its motivation."
Kalam never fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot, but he soared in the hearts of the Indian people. He inspired young people, in particular. He was their teacher. "Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, caliber and future of an individual," he said. "If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me."
A. P. J. Abdul Kalam got his wish.