Published: 27th July 2019
From the shores of Rameshwaram to the Rashtrapati Bhavan — Kalam, through his grand nephew's memory
The grand nephew of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam speaks to us about the roots of the late President and his wings of fire
One day on the beautiful shores of Rameshwaram, a young boy and his teacher walked along, their feet deep in the sand. The teacher pointed out to the birds and explained to the young boy about how they fly. It was then that the little boy knew that he also wanted to fly. He decided then that he would become a pilot when he grew up. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to fulfill that dream He was placed ninth in the qualifiers but only eight positions were available at the IAF.
So instead he became an aeronautical scientist, a science administrator, a part of India's space and missile programme, part of the Pokhran nuclear tests and then, eventually he became the President of India. That young boy, as you might have guessed by now was Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. The man who died while on stage, doing what he loved best of all the things he had done — teaching.
The story of a young Kalam going to the beach with his teacher was told to us by his grand nephew, APJMJ Sheikh Dawood, who is also the co-founder of the APJ Abdul Kalam International Foundation.
Dawood's grandfather, Mohammed Muthu Meera Lebbai Maraikayar was Kalam's eldest brother and the two had a 17-year gap. "So my grandfather was like a parent to him and watched him grow up. Since he was the youngest in the family, my grandfather was very fond of him," Dawood told us. Kalam was born on October 15, 1931 to Jainulabdeen and Ashiamma in Rameshwaram. His father owned a boat and was an imam in the local mosque while his mother was a housewife. His father would ferry Hindu pilgrims between Rameshwaram and Danushkodi.
"In Rameshwaram, there was the gurukul style of education and so Kalam went to a Gurukul. From first to the fifth standard, he studied in Rameshwaram and then moved to Ramanathapuram for the rest of his schooling," Dawood said. But he was never really obsessed with studies, Dawood's grandfather had told him. He, however, enjoyed studying and was always asking his questions a ton of questions when it came to science and math, "Since he went to a gurukul, he never felt divided by religion," Dawood added.
"He once ran into a wrong classroom when he was in the 6th or 7th standard by mistake. His mathematics teacher yelled at him for being so careless, later he managed a 100 on 100 in the math paper. He was a very unique character, he was calm and quiet but also naughty. He enjoyed studying, never felt pressurised by it," Dawood said.
After his schooling, Kalam joined St Josephs's College in Tiruchirappali for his BSc in Physics and then went to Madras Institute of Technology to study aerospace engineering. After that, though he went from one level to the next all the way to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Throughout his life, he remained close to his family. Dawood remembers fondly all his visits to the Rashtrapati Bhavan where Kalam often invited the entire family. "He would always ask about my dreams and say I should always aim to achieve whatever I set out to do. He was extremely encouraging of all our dreams, mine and my cousins'," he recalled.
The former President also had plans of moving back to the coastal town, "After his term as a President, we told him to move back to Rameshwaram and said we would take care of him. He also agreed, he wanted to come back here and continue his research, he wanted to set up a sustainable revenue model and encourage sustainable living. Unfortunately, he passed before he was able to move back," Dawood said.
"There was one time when I was with him and he had seven programs to attend. I asked him how he was able to do so much at that age. He told me that there were students who were waiting to listen to him speak and it was his responsibility to make them better citizens," the grand nephew said.
Today, his childhood home has been converted into a memorial and gets about 1000-2000 visitors every single day. Kalam once said that he wanted to be remembered as a teacher and while he maybe is respected for all his other outstanding achievements he will always be loved for the teacher that he was and continues to be.