APJ Abdul Kalam as a friend

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Much has been written by Abdul Kalam, the simple “People’s President” who passed away so suddenly while addressing students in Shillong. Many of the stories may be apocryphal and many may be true. It is easy to attribute qualities and quotes to a person who is known to have those qualities.

Dan (in vest) and Kalam in the 1960s fixing a sounding rocket
Dan (in vest) and Kalam in the 1960s fixing a sounding rocket

Kalam was a genuinely simple man who did not aspire to fame or high office. I knew him personally because he was my husband’s close friend and colleague in Trivandrum where they were all young pioneers working at the Thumba Equatorial Launch Centre in Trivandrum. My husband Aravamudan was dubbed “Dan” by the Americans when he went to train at NASA along with Kalam and five other engineers handpicked by Sarabhai in 1962. Later on he became universally known as Dan in ISRO as non-Tamilians found his name difficult to pronounce.

Dan, Kalam and Das (another of their bunch of seven) became the triumvirate at the launching station, taking care of everything from rocket assembly to launching and tracking. Those were the days of small sounding rockets. Later on each of the three developed his own expertise and took charge of larger projects. Kalam was put in charge of developing the Satellite Launch Vehicle, Dan was the tracking, telemetry and systems reliability man while Das took over the Rocket Fabrication Facility.

For seven years Dan and Kalam lived in Indira Bhavan Lodge along with other young bachelors from all over the country. They led very simple, almost Spartan lives eating vegetarian meals from local hotels and travelling to office which was 20 km away by public bus. Later on after Dan and I got married and set up house, Kalam continued to live in the Lodge, but was a frequent visitor to our home.

Kalam releasing Disappearing Daughters
Kalam releasing Disappearing Daughters

Once he told me how he had turned vegetarian. Apparently he happened to pass a slaughter house once and caught sight of animals being butchered. He said he could not get over the sight of so much blood and chunks of flesh. He vowed then to turn vegetarian. However he did enjoy eating eggs and one of his favourite dishes was Masala Eggs made at Xaviers in Trivandrum. He also loved cashew nuts fried in ghee which he would get at Seagulls and Uralakizhange Vadhakal (potato fry south Indian Style) from my kitchen!

Kalam loved the sea and would spend hours at Kovalam on a weekend. Those were the days when Kovalam was still just a cove used by fishermen. There was no five star hotels, just a small changing hut perched precariously on the rocks and a thatched café on the beach which sold Fish Fry. He would travel by public bus and spend the day soaking in the sea or basking on the beach. Evenings were often spent playing badminton at the Rocket Recreation Club where no liquor was served and all of us took “bonji” (Trivandrum slang for lime juice) bets.

Dan, Kalam & author sharing a joke at Rashtrapathi Bhavan
Dan, Kalam & author sharing a joke at Rashtrapati Bhawan

Soon most of his friends had got married and got involved with their families. Despite our best efforts we could not persuade Kalam to take the plunge. He was married to his work. He still lived in Indira Bhavan, did not own a car or any other means of transport. In fact, Kalam could not drive or even ride a bicycle. But it never bothered him.

He continued to come over some evenings and talk about his dream of building a hovercraft in his backyard. He had built one while working in DRDO Bangalore and even taken some VIPS on a small test ride. Now his plan was to take a house in the ISRO colony close to the Thumba beach and work on his dream project. However, that never happened and he moved from one orbit to another and by 1982 left Trivandrum.  At DRDL in Hyderabad he continued to live in the hostel.

We met a couple of times at Sriharikota where Dan was the Director of the launch station and later at Rashtrapati Bhavan. He had always followed my writing and in fact had even lent me his portable typewriter when I landed in Trivndrum and restarted my free-lancing. So, when I met him at Rashtrapati Bhavan I told him I was on my way to Chandigarh to do research on my book ‘Disappearing Daughters’. He got so carried away by the subject of sex selective abortion that he offered to write the foreword for my book and launch it at Rashtrapati Bhawan. He also carried copies of my book and distributed it to people who were in the field.

Our last major interaction with him was when we stayed as his guests in Rashtrapati Bhavan just before he laid down office. I realized then how little he had change. The perks of his office sat lightly on him. He still led a Spartan existence inside the palatial Rashtrapati Bhawan. The staff just loved him and so did the nation.

Watching his funeral on TV yesterday I knew that he was one President who was going to stay in peoples’ hearts for a long, long time.

Gita Aravamudan

Gita Aravamudan

Gita Aravamudan grew up in a small gold mining town in Karnataka, went to college in Bangalore taught high school for a year and squeezed her way into journalism. Worked as a trainee for Hindustan Times Delhi and then at the age of 21 became a full-fledged reporter for Indian Express Bangalore and became the first woman reporter in the city. Free-lanced for a long, long time, writing for a wide range of English language publications from different parts of the country. Her latest book of narrative journalism “Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy” (Harper Collins 2014) the first ever comprehensive book on the subject has already received excellent reviews and is being translated into Japanese. Her other books are “Colour of Gold” a mystery novel set in an Indian gold mining town (Harper Collins in 2013), “Disappearing Daughters: the tragedy of Female Foeticide” (Penguin 2007) (translated into Marathi & Japanese), “Unbound: Indianwomen@work” (Penguin 2010) and “The Healing” a novel set in Chennai (Harper Collins 2008).