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A Man of Simplicity, a Man of Inspiration……Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam
* Srishti Bhatia
India has lost his pearl. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam, the ‘Missile Man’ who became popular as ‘People’s President’ died after a massive cardiac arrest and collapsed during a lecture at the IIM Shillong. Born in humble circumstances in a Muslim family in rural Tamil Nadu, a young boy who sold newspapers as a boy to help his family make ends meet rose to the highest office in the land. And they did so not through the conventional route of a political career but through the mark of hard work as a scientist in government service.

They spent nearly four decades as a scientist and science administrator,at the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and was intimately involved in India's civilian space program and military missile development efforts and popularly known as the Missile Man of India for his work on the development of ballistic missile and launch vehicle technology.

Kalam was also part of the INCOSPAR committee working under Vikram Sarabhai,the renowned space scientist. They were at ISRO where they were the project director of India's first Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III) which successfully deployed the Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit. They visited NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton,Virginia,Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt,Maryland and Wallops Flight Facility. They also directed two projects,Project Devil and Project Valiant, to develop ballistic missiles from the technology of the successful SLV programme.

Kalam played a major part in developing many missiles under the mission including Agni and Prithvi. They played a critical organizational, technical and political role in India's Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998, the first since the original nuclear test by India in 1974. Known as the people’s President, he was the first occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhawan who connected to masses, particularly the youth, who accessed him via the internet. Kalam set a target of interacting with 100,000 students during the two years after his resignation from the post of scientific adviser in 1999.

He explained, "I feel comfortable in the company of young people, particularly high school students. Henceforth, I intend to share with them experiences, helping them to ignite their imagination and preparing them to work for a developed India for which the road map is already available."Combining idiosyncratic power-point presentations of his vision for India's future with instructional poems for children, lecturing on everything from solar energy to the importance of broadband connectivity for India's villages, Abdul Kalam "ignited minds", to use the title of one of his five bestselling books (he published 17 in all).

Kalam launched a programme for the youth of India called the What Can I Give Movement, with a central theme of defeating corruption. After leaving office, Kalam became a visiting professor at the IIM Shillong, the IIM Ahmedabad and the IIM Indore, an honorary fellow of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Chancellor of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology Thiruvananthapuram, professor of Aerospace Engineering at Anna University. He taught information technology at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad and technology at Banaras Hindu University and Anna University.

In his book India 2020, Kalam strongly advocated an action plan to develop India into a "knowledge superpower" and a developed nation by the year 2020. Kalam's 79th birthday was recognised as World Student Day by the United Nations. He has also received honorary doctorates from 40 universities. They were honoured with the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan and finally received India's highest civilian honour,the Bharat Ratna, for his contribution to the scientific research and modernisation of defence technology in India.

In 2005,Switzerland declared 26 May as "Science Day" to commemorate Kalam's visit to the country. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Von Braun Award from the National Space Society "to recognize excellence in the management and leadership of a space-related project." As a Muslim steeped in Hindu culture,they were too many an oddity - a scientist who could recite classical Tamil poetry, who played the rudra-veena,a traditional South Indian instrument,and listened to Carnatic devotional music every day,but performed his namaz with no sense of incongruity.

In melding the Islam into which they were born with a strong sense of the traditions in which their civilization was anchored, Abdul Kalam was a complete Indian, an embodiment of the eclecticism of India's heritage of diversity. With his long silver hair unfashionably combed back and his thick Tamilian accent, he was an unlikely pop culture idol, but that was what he became.