What Happens When A Rocket Scientist Becomes the President of a Democracy?
Truly irrelevant question, true story — nevertheless.
When I was young, the beautiful blue picture of earth from the sky captured my imagination –“the tiny pea, pretty and blue” as eloquently described by Neil Armstrong. I was often transfixed whenever movie scenes zoomed in from that view of earth and eased into the daily life in some real location on earth.
A teacher who planted a seed
From the space above, I would like us to zoom in to the southern most tip of India — an island called Rameswaram. 10 year old A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was listening to his science teacher. In Kalam’s words — the topic of discussion in our class of 65 was ‘how birds fly’. The teacher went to the blackboard and drew a sketch of a bird with a tail, wings and head and explained how a bird flew. The same day he took us to the Rameswaram seashore where we saw dozens of seabirds flying. My teacher said, “Look how the birds are flapping their wings, now see how they change direction using their wings and tail. What is the locomotive force behind this flight — it is the life energy of the bird.”
“What I learnt that day was unique. My teacher gave me an aim in life. Later I realized how important it was to study physics. I chose physics. I opted for aeronautical engineering, and then became a rocket engineer. Then a space technologist.”*
His teacher inspired him with the principles that make an aircraft fly. What did Kalam do in turn? The following conversation snippet is powerful in its imagery.
“Decide what will you like to be remembered for?”
Fast forward to recent times- Abdul Kalam in his late 70’s/early 80’s. A conversation between him and his trusted advisor Srijan Pal Singh is shared below. In Srijan’s words:
Often he would ask me , “You are young, decide what will you like to be remembered for?” I kept thinking of new impressive answers, till one day I gave up and resorted to tit-for-tat. I asked him back, “First you tell me, what will you like to be remembered for? President, Scientist, Writer, Missile man, India 2020, Target 3 billion… What?” I thought I had made the question easier by giving options, but he sprang on me a surprise. “Teacher,” he said.
That conversation in essence defines Abdul Kalam — a quick Wikipedia scan would give you his background and achievements, the conversations above gives you his story.
Presidents of nations will come and go, a president from impoverished background may be a rarity.
Yet, I believe Abdul Kalam’s life mission to exhort the young to greatness — the intersection of inspirational intellectual and incredible human spirit made the sobriquet “People President” all his alone.
I found it very moving, when I saw pictures of children lining up the roads in sweltery summer heat to wish him farewell on his last journey, solid 70 years age difference notwithstanding. The teacher in him is an inspiration to all.
Summary: Remembering a teacher
Genius are abound who are revered but we can count with our fingers the geniuses who were liked by humanity, at-least a billion of them. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam would be one of them. He may be known for many achievements yet remembered for one — a genius scientist who made his name by soaring high up in the sky and yet was magnetically liked for being grounded in his simplicity. His words “students should never be kept waiting” speak more about him than any. It behooves him that he breathed his last perched at the lectern, stimulating his students.
Great teachers plant seeds of thought and when those seeds grow — it rejuvenates the world with its nobleness, building character, caliber and above all a bright future. I often wonder — are great teachers, great leaders or vice versa.
This great teacher, inspired by his own teacher, knew how he wanted to be remembered. The question that remains is “Do you?” Share your answers as a tribute to this great teacher in the comments section.
*excerpts from his book, Reignited: Scientific Pathways to a Brighter Future
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