Life Is Not Rocket Science
Rocket man, president and inspiration for generations of Indians, Abdul Kalam finally tells his story. Excerpts from his forthcoming autobiography.
Living on the island of Rameswaram while I was growing up, the sea was an important part of our lives. Its tides, the lapping of the waves, the sound of trains passing on the Pamban bridge, the birds that always circled the town and the salt in the air are sights and sounds that will always remain linked with my memories of childhood. Apart from its sheer presence around us, the sea was also a source of livelihood for our neighbours and us. Almost every household had some connection with the sea, whether as fishermen or as boat owners.
My father, too, operated a ferry that took people back and forth between the islands of Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, which is about 22 kilometres away. I still remember the time when he got the idea for this, and how we built that boat.
Rameswaram has, since antiquity, been an important pilgrimage destination. Rama is believed to have stopped here and built the bridge to Lanka when he was on his way to rescue Sita. The temple of Rameswaram is dedicated to Shiva, and houses a lingam fashioned by Sita herself. Some versions of the Ramayana say that Rama, Lakshmana and Sita stopped here to pray to Shiva on their way back to Ayodhya from Lanka.
People visiting our town would go to Dhanushkodi as part of their pilgrimage. A bath at Sagara-Sangam here is considered sacred. The sangam is the meeting place of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Dhanushkodi is now connected by road and vans take pilgrims there, but way back when I was a child, a ferry was also a good way of reaching the island.
My father, looking to supplement his not very substantial income, decided to start a ferry business. He started building the boat that we needed for this, all by himself initially, right there on the seashore.
Watching the boat come to life from pieces of wood and metal was perhaps my first introduction to the world of engineering. Wood was procured and Ahmed Jalalluddin, a cousin, arrived to help my father out. Every day, I would wait impatiently till I could go to the place where the boat was taking shape. Long pieces of wood were cut into the required shape, dried, smoothened and then joined together. Wood- fires seasoned the wood that made up the hull and the bulkheads. Slowly the bottom, then the sides and the hull began to form in front of our eyes. Many years later, in my work, I would learn how to make rockets and missiles. Complex mathematics and scientific research would be the bedrock of those engineering marvels. But that boat coming up on a seashore, which would take pilgrims and fishermen back and forth...who is to say it was not as important or momentous in our lives then?
The Bay of Bengal is hit frequently by cyclones. The months of November and May in particular are dangerous in this regard. I still remember the night of that terrible cyclone vividly. The wind had picked up speed for days, till it became a howling gale. It screamed and whistled in our ears and pulled and hacked at the trees or anything that stood in its way. Soon, a torrential rain started. We had retreated into our houses much earlier. There was no electricity in those days, and the lamps barely managed to stay alive. In that flickering darkness, with the wind working itself into a frenzy, the sound of the rain lashing down outside, we huddled together and waited for the night to pass. My thoughts travelled again and again to the open seas. Was anyone trapped there? What was it like to be in a storm such as this without your mother’s comforting presence close by?
The next morning, after the storm died down, we saw the unbelievable destruction that had been wrought all around us. Trees, houses, plantations were uprooted and devastated. The roads had disappeared under the water and debris blown in by winds that had come in at speeds of over 100 miles an hour. But the worst news of all was the one that hit us like a punch to the stomach. Our boat had been washed away. Now, when I think of that day, I realise that perhaps my father had known this would happen the night before, while we waited for the storm to pass. In his life he had already witnessed so many storms and cyclones. This was just one of them. Yet, he had tried to calm us children down and had made sure we went to sleep without infecting us with his worries. In the light of the morning, seeing his drawn face and the worries lining his eyes, I tried to gather my thoughts. In my mind I mourned our lost ferry boat fiercely. It felt as though something I had made with my own hands had been gathered up and tossed away thoughtlessly.
Cyclones and storms struck us again and again. I even learnt to sleep through them. Many years later, in 1964, when I was no longer living in Rameswaram, a massive cyclone struck. This time, it carried away a part of the landmass of Dhanushkodi. A train that was on Pamban Bridge at the time was washed away, with many pilgrims inside. It altered the geography of the area, and Dhanushkodi became a ghost town, never really recovering its former character. Even today, remnants of buildings stand there as monuments to the 1964 cyclone.
Every morning a large pile of newspapers, both in English and Tamil, is delivered to me. During my travels abroad I like to stay in touch with news from India, which I do by going online to read news articles and editorials in different magazines and papers. The wealth of information now available at the click of a finger amazes me. As a person closely involved with engineering and science, the march of technology should not surprise me, but when I juxtapose our lives today with what it was like 70 years ago, in a small south Indian town, the difference is startling even for me.
I was born in the year 1931. When I was about eight, World War II broke out. Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and despite the Indian Congress’s opposition, India too, as a British colony, was involved in the war. India’s war effort saw a record number of Indian soldiers being deployed in various war zones around the world. Daily life, however, remained fairly unaffected initially, particularly for us in the southern tip of the country. As I have mentioned, Rameswaram in the 1940s was a sleepy little town that came alive with the arrival of pilgrims. The inhabitants were mostly tradespeople or small businessmen.
The town was dominated by the temple, though there was a mosque and a church too. The inhabitants went about their way fairly peacefully, and other than the normal altercations that break out in any town or village, nothing much of importance happened.
The only source of information about the outside world was the newspaper. The agency that distributed newspapers was run by my cousin Samsuddin. Along with Jalalluddin, he was a big influence in my early life. Though he could read and write, Samsuddin was not well travelled, nor highly educated.
Samsuddin’s newspaper distribution agency was the only one in Rameswaram. There were about a thousand literate people in the town, and he delivered newspapers to all of them. The papers carried news about the Independence movement that was heading towards a crescendo at the time. These news items would be read and discussed with great gusto with everyone else.
There would also be news from the war front, about Hitler and the Nazi army. Of course, there were many mundane matters too, like astrological references or bullion rates, which were consulted with utmost interest. The Tamil paper, Dinamani, was the most popular of all these papers.
The way the papers reached Rameswaram was quite unique. They came by morning train and were kept at Rameswaram station. From there, they had to be collected and sent to all the subscribers. This was Samsuddin’s business and he managed it effortlessly. However, as World War II raged, we no longer remained isolated from the world, and it affected my life and the newspaper delivery business in a strange new way.
The British government had placed a number of sanctions and rations on goods. Something like a state of emergency now prevailed in the country. Our large family felt the difficulties acutely. Food, clothes, the needs of the babies of the household, all became difficult to procure and provide for. In our family, there were five sons and daughters, as well as my father’s brothers’ families. My grandmother and mother had to stretch every resource to the utmost to keep everyone fed, clothed and in good health.
However, my new job had to be fitted into my regular routine. My studies and school had to continue as before, and the delivery business had to be accommodated amidst all these other activities. Among my siblings and cousins, I had shown an early aptitude for mathematics. My father had arranged for me to take tuitions from our mathematics teacher. However, my teacher had a condition that I, along with the four other students whom he had accepted, needed to reach his home at dawn after having taken a bath. So for a year, which was the duration of the tuition, I started my day while it was still dark outside, with my mother shaking me awake. She herself would have risen before me and got my bath ready. She would then help me bathe and send me on my way to my teacher’s home. There I would study for an hour and return by 5 am. By then my father would be ready to take me to the Arabic School nearby, where I learnt the Quran Sharif.
I then picked up the bundles, divided them up into batches according to the neighbourhoods in which the papers had to be distributed and off I went. For about an hour I tore around Rameswaram, delivering the papers to everyone. Soon I began to identify people by the papers they read. Many would be waiting for me, and there would always be a friendly word or two. Some would tell me fondly to hurry back home so I would not be late for school! I think most enjoyed being handed their papers by a cheerful eight-year-old.
Our town being on the east coast, by the time the work was over at 8 am, the sun would be high up in the sky. Now I headed back home, where my mother waited with breakfast. A simple meal would be served, but how hungry I was usually! My mother made sure I ate every morsel before sending me out to school. But my work did not end there.
In the evening, after school was over, I would do the rounds of Samsuddin’s newspaper customers again, collecting their dues from them. Then I would meet him, so he could work out the accounts of the day.
When I Failed
In my life, which has been long and eventful, I have seen great heights of success. I have been part of ventures that have contributed to the growth of our nation in the field of science and technology; I have also had the privilege of occupying the highest office in the country. There are many achievements to look back upon—some of my own doing and some where I had the privilege of being part of teams that were immensely talented. Yet, I firmly believe that unless one has tasted the bitter pill of failure, one cannot aspire enough for success. I have seen both sides of the coin and have learnt life’s toughest lessons when I have stared into the pit of despair that failure brings with it. These lessons are well worth recounting and remembering, as they have helped me work my way through many difficult situations.
That day I learnt two lessons: a teacher who has his or her student’s progress in mind is the best possible friend, because the teacher knows how to make sure that you excel. And second, there is no such thing as an impossible deadline. I have worked on many tough assignments, some of which had the country’s top leaders watching over my work, but the assurance I gained in my capabilities at MIT thanks to Professor Srinivasan helped me later in life too.
I first halted in Delhi for my interview at DTD&P. I was confident and the interview was an easy one, not requiring me to push the boundaries of my knowledge too far. I spent a week in Delhi and then proceeded to Dehradun for my interview at the Air Force Selection Board. Here, I should mention that at the time, as a young man in my early 20s, I was just beginning to understand how to conduct myself in the wider world. When I had first moved from Rameswaram to the bigger cities for my studies, I was a shy, tongue-tied boy. I had to work hard to develop some assertiveness in my personality. I did this by trying to communicate with different people from all kinds of backgrounds. It was not easy, of course, and there were many moments of frustration and disappointment. However, by the time I finished my studies and headed out to look for a job, my personality was better developed and I was able to articulate my thoughts well enough in English and Tamil.
To return to my interview at the Air Force Selection Board, as I started answering the queries put forth to me, I realised that along with qualifications and engineering knowledge, they were also looking for a certain kind of ‘smartness’ in the candidate. Physical fitness and an articulate manner were what they were seeking. I gave it my best. I had wanted this job for so long and so deeply that I was determined yet anxious, confident and at the same time tense. Finally the results were announced. I had stood ninth in a batch of twenty-five. There were only eight places available. I had failed to realise my dream of becoming an air force pilot.
I still remember the ache in my heart as I attempted to make sense of what had happened. When a dearly held desire begins to break up, one can feel nothing but despair and emptiness as one tries to come to terms with the end of a dream. I could not bear to be indoors after seeing the result. I had to go out for air and be in the open, because all around me the walls seemed to close in. I walked around for a while till I reached the edge of a cliff. I stood there looking down at the shimmering waters of a lake and wondered what I should do next. Plans needed to be changed and priorities reassessed. I decided to go to Rishikesh for a few days and seek a new way forward.
In this way I started my working life. Like me, I am sure almost every person who sets out with a goal has had to face unexpected obstacles. We’ve had to rethink our goals, reorient our paths. Each setback teaches us a new facet of life and something about our own personalities. When we tackle obstacles, we find hidden reserves of courage and resilience we did not know we had. And it is only when we are faced with failure do we realise that these resources were always there within us. We only need to find them and move on with our lives.
***My Favourite Books
- Light from Many Lamps: Edited by Lillian Watson; contains the writings/inspiring stories of many authors. The book has brought me solace in my hours of sadness and uplifted me when I needed advice.
- Thirukkural: Written by Thiruvalluvar over 2,000 years ago, it's a collection of 1,330 rhyming Tamil couplets or aphorisms (kural). To me, it's provided a code of conduct for my life. It is a work that truly elevates the mind.
- Man the Unknown by Alexis Carrel: His description of the human body—how it is an intelligent, integrated system—is explained brilliantly. This work should be read by everyone, especially those studying the medical sciences.
- The Gita: It says, ‘See the flower, how generously it distributes perfume and honey. When its work is done, it falls away quietly. Try to be like it, unassuming despite all its qualities.’
- The Holy Quran: I have worked with many brilliant engineers/leaders. The words from the Quran ring in my ears when I think of them: ‘Light upon light. Allah guides His light to whom He will.’