I don’t have an APJ Abdul Kalam story. Except perhaps for that one time in middle school when a quiz qualifier question asked his full name and left me slightly red-faced. But I may be in a minority.
As soon as the news of Kalam’s death hit us, as expected, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with RIP messages. However, this wave of mourning was strikingly different from the usual waves of RIP updates that course through social media when a famous personality dies. These RIP messages were accompanied by anecdotes – some personal, some second-hand, some remembered from books and speeches. These were real stories, not just Googled quotes.
Swati Jain, a former colleague remembered how as an intern with a newspaper many years ago, she found herself somewhat tongue-tied during an interview. “The nervous intern was just able to murmur her question as he crossed. Kalam sir stopped, gave a gentle pat on her shoulder and gestured her to repeat her question while walking towards the exit. She repeated her question to which he humbly said, ‘I don’t comment on political issues but if you have any other question then ask that.’ The intern said, ‘No other questions’. To her surprise Kalam sir said, ” You all (Youngsters) are the future of India, ask more questions.” Jain, now a mother of two based out of Rajasthan, shared that story on Facebook.
What was amazing was how many had pictures of themselves with Kalam at convocations or other events. Many of them remembered how Kalam, during their brief interactions didn’t seem like a political figure with a huge presidential chip on his shoulder. Someone started a thread on Quora called, “What are the best stories about Kalam?’. It was not a very ambitious thread at the outset. But stories about interactions with the president kept pouring in, making it a thread tracked and followed enthusiastically throughout the day.Kalam, who began his career as a scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), was truly an aam aadmi icon, much before aam aadmi became a vote-bait. We have had leaders who used the history of their humble beginnings as political tools – to lure voters, to accuse the opposition of nursing biases, to suggest that the aam aadmi too can aim for the kind of power they have amassed.
A chaiwallah’s son, an ordinary government servant, a woman in floaters – our country has romanticised the origins of our politicians with obsessive zeal as the ‘success stories’ of the aam Indian in our democracy. However, that infatuation with the ascent of the aam aadmi in India’s political leadership, misses one crucial point. Does the aam aadmi leave those aam qualities well behind as they climb up to the top? And the unspoken fact that the success of these figures has not made politics feel less intimidating to the truly ordinary Indian citizen.
Shashi Tharoor, in an obituary for the BBC, perhaps sums up why, in his death, Kalam seems to have reminded India that he was the the truest aam aadmi icon India has had in the recent times.
Tharoor writes, “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 he did so not through the conventional route of a political career but through the dint of hard work as a scientist in government service.”
That’s the impression that the rest of us have of Kalam too – a man who rose to the top by sincere hard work and playing by the rules. And never forgot the little people once he entered the grand portals of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Harish Sankar, writes on a Quora thread, “When I was in my seventh standard, I made a collage of all published articles and photographs of Abdul Kalam from Dinamalar and sent it to Rashtapathi Bhavan,Delhi. Guess what? The then President of India, replied to this silly student with a signed post, saying he was happy with my humble effort and as a student, asked me to work towards making India better!”
Another commenter Syed Naser writes, “He narrated how, as a kid, he used to catch newspapers thrown by his cousin from running train everyday, predawn, so that he is the first newspaper boy in the whole village to deliver paper to his consumers – He taught us how even a menial job should be done with dedication.”
Kalam, like many of our political leaders, spoke at length about his childhood in Rameswaram as a boatman’s son. His anecdotes about his childhood, however, are not made out as tragic struggles – events that should be remembered with either pity or outrage. His accounts of his own life don’t simmer with discontent about class. He was not claiming his success in the name of pride for the boatmen of Rameswaram. As a result, his story is never told from a class point of view – a favourite trope of every ambitious politician. That is why the story has a warm and reassuring feel rather than being one of anger and bitterness. And that is why during his life whenever a Kalam story surfaced during a conversation, it was usually as a counterpoint. A counterpoint to the unbridled pomp of India’s political class.
What Kalam does in effect, is restore dignity to human labour, express faith in the ordinary and see hope in humdrum lives, led by the likes of you and me. He doesn’t ask you to blame someone else for your what you don’t have because honestly, that makes for good outrage but not much progress. And his life bears testimony to what hard work can earn you. At least, the Kalam stories we will nurture and cherish all say that. And it says that for an aam aadmi hard work is a plausible way to live with dignity. Good guys don’t have to finish last. That’s the message of Kalam that resonates in our aam lives.