Newspaper boy who became president of his country

By ‘Femi Asu

Before December 30, 2010, I did not know him from Adam; I got to know him as a result of my tendency for impulse buying when it has to do with books, and it has always done me a world of good.

That afternoon, as I am wont to do, I stopped by to check out the books displayed by a roadside vendor. One of the books that caught my fancy was “Ignited Minds – Unleashing the power within India” by APJ Abdul Kalam. Having browsed through its pages, I decided to buy it. And I did. To be sure, I was glad I did because I relished it to bits. The central theme of the book is to motivate India’s people, and its youth.

I had cause to refer to it this week. Reason: On Thursday, I stumbled on the story of a newspaper boy who became a president. Not just a president, but a president who impacted positively on his country. While I was reading the story, the name of the boy rang a bell. But I could not put my finger on where I had come across the name until I read the part that mentioned the books he has written. The book I bought two years ago from the roadside vendor is one of them. I wondered why I did not know that he was once a president. I later discovered that he wrote the book before he became president.

I am ever so delighted to share with you the story of the boy who rose above the odds that were stacked against him while growing up to become a man of vision, a change agent and one of the finest presidents India has had.

It was the English bard Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who said:

“Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.”

I sincerely hope this story will leave you with some nuggets of inspiration. Enjoy.

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, usually known as Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, was the 11th President of India, serving from 2002 to 2007, he is one of the few presidents who have touched the hearts of the people that is why during his term as President, he was popularly known as the People’s President. In India he is highly respected as a scientist and as an engineer. He is popularly known as the Missile Man of India for his work on development of ballistic missile and space rocket technology.

Abdul Kalam was born in Rameshwaram presently Tamil Nadu in British India in 1931. He spent most of his childhood in financial problems and started working early in his age to supplement family’s income.

His father, a humble boat owner, Jainulabdeen, was a devout Muslim and a close friend of the Rameswaram temple priest. Kalam was brought up in a multi-religious, tolerant society; one with a progressive outlook. His father often quoted from the Quran to make the young Kalam see the world without fear. He had seven siblings, and a doting mother who, at times, made chappatis (a simple wheat flatbread typically baked on a hot griddle) for Kalam, while the others were given rice as Kalam’s day would start at four in the morning and end at 11 pm.

His father wasn’t educated, but he wanted Kalam to study. Kalam would get up at 4 am, bathe, and then go for his mathematics class, which was taught by a teacher who took only five students in the whole session; and bathing before class was a condition he had laid to all his students.

After his morning class, Kalam along with his cousin Samsuddin went around town distributing the newspaper. As the town had no electricity, kerosene lamps were lit at his home between 7 pm and 9 pm. But because Kalam studied until 11, his mother would save some for him for later use.

Being a bright student, Kalam always had the support of his school teachers. Schwarzt High School’s Iyadurai Solomon often told Kalam that if he truly, intensely desired something, he would get it. “This made me fearless,” said Dr Kalam. And outside school, Ahmed Jallaluddin, who later became his brother-in-law, and Samsuddin, encouraged Kalam to appreciate nature’s wonders. So at once, while growing up, he was exposed to a religious and a practical way of looking at the world.

The flight of birds had fascinated him since he was a boy, but it was years later he realised that he wanted to fly aircrafts. After finishing school, he took up Physics at St Joseph’s College, Trichi, but towards the end he was dissatisfied. When he discovered aeronautical engineering, he regretted having lost three precious years. But he was glad to have discovered Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and F Scott Fitzgerald and other English poets in his college years.

At Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), Chennai, where Kalam studied aeronautics, he learnt an important lesson: the value of time. He was leading a project on system design, when one day the principal walked into the class to see his work. He appeared dissatisfied and told Kalam that he wanted the project finished in the next two days; else his scholarship aid would be withdrawn. That unsettled Kalam; years of his father’s hardships would come to naught. Kalam worked without food and sleep. On the last day, his professor came to check on his progress. He was impressed and said: “I was putting you under stress and asking you to meet a difficult deadline,” recounted Dr Kalam.

Although Kalam has led several projects in his professional life, he’s treated each like his last. Such was his passion. No wonder, he’s always led projects. His advisor, Major General R Swaminathan explained Kalam’s success as a leader. “He has this unique capability of being a boss as well as a worker. He can take on any role with ease.”

When Dr Kalam’s first major project SLV-3 failed the first time, he was almost shattered. Also, around this time, Kalam’s childhood mentor, Jallaluddin, died. “A part of me too passed away…” said Dr Kalam. But he never thought of quitting after SLV-3. “I knew that for success, we have to work hard and persevere.” And so, SLV-3 was launched again, this time with success. He drew strength from philosophy, religion and literature to tide by his professional setbacks; also a life with few companions. In time, he also learnt to deal with professional jealousy and uncooperative team members.

Success followed Dr Kalam. Prithvi, Agni, Akash, Trishul and Nag missiles were huge successes. He is one of the most distinguished scientists of India with the unique honour of receiving honorary doctorates from 40 universities and institutions. He has been awarded the coveted civilian awards – Padma Bhushan (1981) and Padma Vibhushan (1990) and the highest civilian award Bharat Ratna (1997). He is a recipient of several other awards and Fellow of many professional institutions.

Dr. Kalam took up academic pursuit as Professor, Technology & Societal Transformation at Anna University, Chennai from November 2001 and was involved in teaching and research tasks. Above all, he took up a mission to ignite the young minds for national development by meeting high school students across the country.

In his literary pursuit, four of Dr. Kalam’s books – “Wings of Fire”, “India 2020 – A Vision for the New Millennium”, “My journey” and “Ignited Minds – Unleashing the power within India” have become household names in India and among the Indian nationals abroad. These books have been translated in many Indian languages.

He is always full of ideas aimed at the development of his country. He is one of the few presidents who have touched the hearts of so many poor children in the country. Because he also came from a poor background, he knew the power of education in changing one’s future. His focus is on transforming India into a developed nation by 2020.

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