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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > Abdul Kalam

One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century

Abdul Kalam

[see also Abdul Kalam.Com ; A P J Abdul Kalam;
Indians of 20th Century - A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
and *Wings of Fire: An Autobiography of A.P. J Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari]

Dr Avil Pakir Jalaluddin Abdul Kalam, pioneer of India's missile programme, was awarded the country's highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, in 1997, for his immense and valuable contribution to the scientific research and modernisation of defence technology. Kalam was born on October 15, 1931 in the temple town of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. Kalam went to the Schwartz High School, Ramanathapuram. A graduate of St. Joseph College, Tiruchi, Kalam specialised in aero engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology, his only stint abroad was a four-month visit to NASA in the United States. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was born on October 15, 1931.Kalam was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1990.

Excerpts from *Wings of Fire: An Autobiography of A.P. J Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari: (*denotes link to Amazon.com bookshop)

"I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a role model for anybody; but some poor child living in an obscure place, in an underprivileged social setting may find a little solace in the way my destiny has been shaped. It could perhaps help such children liberate themselves from the bondage of their illusory backwardness and hopelessness?.."

Abdul Kalam"On Republic Day 1990, the nation celebrated the success of its missile programme. I was conferred the Padma Vibhushan along with Dr Arunachalam. Two of my other colleagues, J.C. Bhattacharya and R.N. Agarwal, were also decorated with the Padma Shree awards. It was the first time in the history of free India that so many scientists affiliated to the same organisation found their names in the awards list. Memories of the Padma Bhushan award given a decade ago came alive.

I still lived more or less as I had lived then , in a room ten feet wide and twelve feet long, furnished mainly with books, papers and a few pieces of hired furniture. At that time, my room was in Trivandrum and now it was in Hyderabad. The mess bearer brought my breakfast of idlis and buttermilk and smiled in silent congratulations for the award.

I was touched by the recognition bestowed on me by my countrymen. A large number of scientists and engineers leave this country at their first opportunity to earn money abroad. It is true that they definitely get greater monetary benefits, but could anything compensate for this love and respect from your own countrymen?

I sat alone for quite some time in silent contemplation. The sand and shells of Rameswaram; the care of Iyadurai Solomon in Ramanathapuram; the guidance of Rev. Father Sequeira in Trichi and Prof. Pandalai in Madras, the encouragement of Dr Mediratta in Bangalore; the hovercraft ride with Prof. Menon, the pre-dawn visit to the Tilpat Range with Prof. Sarabhai; the healing touch of Dr Brahm Prakash on the day of the SLV-3 failure; the national jubilation on the SLV-3 launch; Madam Gandhi's appreciative smile, the post-SLV-3 simmering at VSSC, Dr Ramanna's faith in inviting me to DRDO; the IGMDP, the creation of RCI, Prithvi, Agni... a gust of memories swept over me. Where were all these men now? My father, Prof. Sarabhai, Dr Brahm Prakash? Could I meet them and share my joy with them?

In a state of trance, I acquired my double status, as a child of heaven and of earth. The paternal forces of heaven and the maternal and cosmic forces of nature embraced me as parents hug their long-lost child. I scribbled in my diary:

Away! fond thoughts, and vex my soul no more!
Work claimed my wakeful nights, my busy days
Albeit brought memories of Rameswaram shore
Yet haunt my dreaming gaze!

I went to Madurai Kamaraj University the same month to deliver their convocation address. When I reached Madurai, I enquired about my high school teacher Iyadurai Solomon, by now a Reverend and 80 years old. I was told that he lived in a suburb of Madurai. I took a taxi and searched for his house. Rev. Solomon knew that I was going to give the convocation address that day. He, however, had no way of getting there. There was an emotional reunion between teacher and pupil. Dr. PC Alexander, the Governor of Tamil Nadu, who was presiding over the function, was deeply moved on seeing the elderly teacher who had not forgotten his pupil of long ago, and requested him to share the dais.

"Every convocation day of every University is like opening the floodgates of energy which, once harnessed by institutions, organisations and industry, aids in nation-building," I told the young graduates. Somehow I felt I was echoing Rev. Solomon's words, spoken about half a century ago. After my lecture, I bowed down before my teacher. "Great dreams of great dreamers are always transcended," I told Rev. Solomon. "You have not only reached my goals, Kalam! You have eclipsed them", he told me in a voice choking with emotion......

....The year 1991 started on a very ominous note. On the night of 15 January 1991, the Gulf War broke out between Iraq and the Allied Forces led by the USA. In one stroke, thanks to satellite television invading Indian skies by that time, rockets and missiles captured the imagination of the entire nation. People started discussing Scuds and Patriots in coffee houses and tea shops. Children began flying paper kites shaped like missiles, and playing war games on the lines of what they heard on American television networks.

The successful test firing of Prithvi and Trishul during the course of the Gulf War was sufficient to make an anxious nation relax. The newspaper reports of the programmable trajectory capability of the Prithvi and Trishul guidance system, using microwave frequencies in virtually unjammable bands, created widespread awareness. The nation was quick to draw parallels between the missiles operational in the Gulf War and our own warhead carriers. A common query I encountered was whether Prithvi was superior to a Scud, whether Akash could perform like a Patriot, and so on. Hearing a "Yes" or a "Why not?" from me, people's faces would light up with pride and satisfaction.

The Allied Forces had a marked technological edge, as they were fielding systems built using the technologies of the eighties and nineties. Iraq was fighting with the by-and-large vintage weapon systems of the sixties and seventies.
Now, this is where the key to the modern world order lies, superiority through technology. Deprive the opponent, known and potential, of the latest technology and then dictate your terms in an unequal contest.....

After the Gulf War concluded with the victory of the technologically superior Allied Forces, over 500 scientists of DRDL and RCI gathered to discuss issues that had emerged. I posed a question before the assembly: was technology or weapon symmetry with other nations feasible, and if yes, should it be attempted? The discussion led to many more serious questions, such as, how to establish effective electronic warfare support? How to make missile development proceed apace with the development of equally necessary systems like the LCA; and what were the key areas where a push would bring progress?

At the end of a lively discussion spread over three hours, the consensus emerged that there was no way to redress asymmetry in military capability except to have the same capability in specific areas as your potential opponent. The scientists vowed to achieve a reduced CEP in the accuracy of Prithvi's delivery, perfecting the Ka band guidance system for Trishul and realising all carbon-carbon re-entry control surfaces for Agni by the end of the year. The vow was later fulfilled. The year also saw tube-launched Nag flights, and the manoeuvre of Trishul at seven metres above sea level at speeds which exceeded three times the speed of sound. The latter was a breakthrough in the development of an indigenous ship-launched anti-sea-skimmer missile.

The same year, I received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the IIT, Bombay. In the citation read by Prof. B. Nag on the occasion, I was described as "an inspiration behind the creation of a solid technological base from which India's future aerospace programmes can be launched to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century". Well, perhaps Prof. Nag was only being polite, but I do believe that India will enter the next century with its own satellite in geo-stationary orbit 36,000 km away in space, positioned by its own launch vehicle. India will also become a missile power...Even though the world may not be seeing its full potential or feeling its full power, no one dare ignore it any more.....

....On 15 October, I turned sixty. I looked forward to superannuating and planned to open a school for less privileged, but talented children. My friend, Prof. P. Rama Rao, who was heading the Department of Science and Technology in the Government of India, even struck a partnership with me to establish what he called a Rao-Kalam school. We were unanimous in our opinion that carrying out certain missions and reaching certain milestones, however important they may be or however impressive they might appear to be, cannot be the final sum of human life. But we had to postpone our plan as neither of us was relieved by the Government of India. It was during this period that I decided to put down my memories and express my observations and opinions on certain issues.

The biggest problem Indian youth faced, I felt, was a lack of clarity of vision, a lack of direction. It was then that I decided to write about the circumstances and people who made me what I am today; the idea was not merely to pay tribute to some individuals or highlight certain aspects of my life. What I wanted to say was that no one, however poor, underprivileged or small, need feel disheartened about life. Problems are a part of life. Suffering is the essence of success. As someone said :

God has not promised
Skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways
All our life through;
God has not promised
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.

I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a role model for anybody; but some poor child living in an obscure place, in an underprivileged social setting may find a little solace in the way my destiny has been shaped. It could perhaps help such children liberate themselves from the bondage of their illusory backwardness and hopelessness?..."

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