There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.
Non est ad astra mollis e terris via.
One of my generation’s teachers just died. Or did he? He probably still lives a little in each of us. A little in every ISRO launch, in every Indian research paper, in every science textbook, on every blackboard. A little in every Indian nuclear missile too.
Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam is still alive. Our generation will pass on a little of APJ Abdul Kalam to the next, and they to the next, and it will go on. Don't worry Dr Kalam, if you’ve taught us right, you are close to immortal. Who said you can’t live forever? As long as a generation remembers your message, the idea of you is alive and smiling.
And what a message it was. Unlike many, his own life was his message. A message that valued inspiration with intellect, purpose with process, humility with hunger.
He was always from the future. When,as kids, most of us were living in the year 2000, he was already living in 2020. He was a regular Prometheus for many kids, travelling into the future and bringing back ideas, projects, goals and a coherent positive vision for the country and its citizens.
And he was a master at defining his target audience. He knew the right age to make an imprint into minds and plant the much needed values of my generation. He knew it was no use motivating people closer to his age, he knew how people are set in their ways after a certain age. He therefore focused all his energy towards the seeds, and not the trees.
Like inception, I'd like to think he basically hacked our minds and implanted some very basic but powerful ideas that unfortunately no one else bothered to do. On his death, I now understand how much he has affected our value system, which was unknown to many of us while he was alive.
As an adult, I now know that he was an accomplished scientist and project manager who changed the geopolitical context of our country.
I now know that he led the project to develop India's first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle, an integral part of India's space program today that allows us to launch our own and third party communication and defence satellites into space.
That he led India's ballistic missile program, persuaded the Government to classify and not reveal to the public the true nature and funds allotted to these projects, for the sake of national security.
That he was instrumental in the development of the Agni and Prithvi missiles.
That he was the chief coordinator of the Pokhran II nuclear tests. That he wore army uniforms during these test days to maintain secrecy of the impending nuclear test yields and their geopolitical implications, even concealing the same from the Indian army until a public announcement from the Indian government.
That he was a passionate low cost inventor, codeveloping rural low cost laptops and coronary stents.
Even that many of his projects overran costs and time, and a few outright failed their goals. But that many of India's critical Prithvi and Agni nuclear missile projects owe their success to those early failures.
India's defence technology ambitions in the seventies and eighties owe him a great debt. Without him, we would simply not have had the confidence and audacity to simultaneously take strides in indigenous development of so many variants of defence programs hitherto unheard of in the country.
I knew none of that as a boy, and I still found much of what he said, made sense to my little mind. That was the beauty and simplicity of his communication. He was definitely a deeply structured thinker, probably a profound technical mind, probably an astute defence project manager, and yet his communication never betrayed the seriousness and utter criticality of his pursuits. He spoke to kids, like a kid. Like being an actual rocket scientist was not rocket science at all. Like it was simple, fun, like playing in a park. Like it was so easy, that anyone, even we, could do it.
Interestingly, after my school years, I felt I had outgrown Dr. Kalam and his message. Over the years, and after he completed his Presidential term, I kept less track of what he was upto, and what he was pursuing.
I now realise he probably wanted it that way. He had already moved on to inspiring the next generation of kids, knowing that what he had taught kids like me would emerge, and trigger in us responses, at the right times in our lives.
When I heard of his death, the memories of him as President and so many others were accompanied by many memories of my own childhood. I was reminded of the science exhibitions, the quiz competitions, even my board exams. I realised I used to study really hard partly because he had taught us kids that it was important, that it was a way for us to build our minds, careers and eventually our country.
Over the years, we forget why we did what we did as kids, why we chose the subjects we chose to study well or what motivated us to choose the life paths we chose. His death has reminded me that he was always somewhere in the background in those years, sometimes on TV, sometimes on the radio, sometimes in the news, egging on young directionless kids like me to be good, to be better.
They say in space, genius is not inventing and writing with a gravity-defying ink pen. Genius is writing with a pencil. He was that pencil. Simple, to the point and direct to the point of being disarming.
Indian kids who were born after 2000 are just 15 or younger today, and most will easily live to 2070 or more. In other words, this unassuming man with a distinctly funny hairstyle has knowingly embedded his values into the minds of millions of young Indians who will live well into the next 50 years. If there’s an example of future proofing your message, this is one of the best.
He taught us that power and peace can coexist, that weakness was not a matter of pride, but a status quo to be challenged and overcome.
That the Indian mind was no less than the American or Australian or European one, that dignity came not with destitution, but with a defence policy and with nuclear deterrence.
That to earn the right to build missiles that protect your country with nuclear warheads that can strike deep into enemy territory, you do not have to be rich or have influence in the right places or be born in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore. You can be born in a village in Tamil Nadu, sell newspapers as a kid to support your education, and still grow up to have your thumb on the country's nuclear button.
That all you need is hard work, determination, and the spirit to dream beyond your immediate reality. He was not a top down motivator who simply spoke about these things without having direct experience of them. At each stage of his life, he had to think beyond his immediate reality and have the audacity to overcome his immediate situation.
Since he was used to doing it so many times for himself, he eventually realised he could do that for his country's and citizens' ambitions too.
For Indian kids in a generation which had no real living role models in the sciences, in research, in innovation and definitely not in nuclear technology and defence, he filled a very important gap. He was arguably the most publicly known Indian scientist of my generation, nuclear or otherwise.
Ironically, we enjoy largely peaceful borders because we are a coherent nuclear power. He truly believed in the maxim that India should 'talk softly and carry a big stick'.
He was, and always will be, one of the most iconic products to be Made in India.
And everything made after him, owes a little to this tiny genius from Rameswaram, who taught us that Taking is good, but Making is better.
He looked up to Vikram Sarabhai, and now an entire generation looks up to him. Years later, when we narrate how we were the lucky generation to be kids when someone named Sachin Tendulkar batted for India, I am sure we will mention Dr Kalam in the same sentence. When we were kids, Dr Kalam built nuclear missiles for India. We will be proud to say that Dr Kalam was our President when we were in school and college. I am now as much the Kalam Generation as the Sachin one.
On behalf of many in my generation, if you're listening, I'd just like to say that, take a much needed break, sir. Your students will take it from here.
Kalam Batch of 2000-2015