Former president of India, APJ Abdul Kalam has left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of Indians in a manner few other public figures have in recent memory. In material terms, the “People’s President”, it now transpires, owned precious little, save his 2,500 books, a wristwatch, six shirts, four trousers, three suits, and a pair of shoes. Kalam did not own any property, fridge, TV, car or AC. This, for a man who spent more than five decades in public service, including one stint as the president of the Republic. He neither died in penury, nor did he live a life of luxury. He survived on the royalty that he received from his books – he authored four of them – and his pension. The exact amount of his life savings are not known. “There wasn’t much to write home about,” says H Sheridan, his secretary for more than two decades.
Kalam lived a simple, frugal life. After he demitted office, the government allotted him a bungalow on 10 Rajaji Marg. The two-storey house lies desolate today. His integrity was his insignia. He was firm about not receiving any personal gifts, and even as the president, the smallest of gifts given to him by foreign governments were duly tabulated and sent to the government’s toshakhana.
“He was very, very particular about this. He would never accept a gift, save a book, and whenever somebody brought him a packed gift, and tried to pass it off as a book, he insisted on examining what was inside. Anything other than a book was politely returned,” says his former media advisor SM Khan.
The former president was extremely popular on the lecture circuit, both within the country and abroad. But, as was typical of him, he did not charge a paisa for it.
The former president’s love for technology is well known, and he kept himself abreast of the latest developments mainly through radio. Not television. “He did not have a TV in his living quarters, and hardly ever watched it. He got his news either from the radio or from the day’s newspapers. The only TV set at his Rajaji Marg residence was in the office, used by his staff. A strict vegetarian, he was happy with whatever was served to him.
President Kalam came from a very humble background; a boat man’s son, he sold newspapers as a young kid growing up in Rameshwaram. He was a god-fearing, pious man, who never forgot to say his morning prayers. But unlike many others in public life, neither did he ever play up his humble origins, nor did he wear his religion on his sleeves.
Kalam never got around to writing his will, but if the past is anything to go by, much of what he left behind will go to his 99-year-old elder brother APJ Marakia, and some to the grandchildren. Kalam held his elder brother in great esteem and had made full plans to celebrate his brother’s 100th birthday next year. Kalam would always call him before leaving for, or returning from an important lecture assignment.
In life, Kalam was conferred the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, and went on to attain the highest office in the country, that of the president of the Republic. In death, he achieved the kind of acclaim in people’s hearts that politicians covet but most never come close to attaining. No public person after Jawaharlal Nehru has ever evoked the kind of outpouring of emotion and goodwill that Kalam received.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
President Kalam wasn’t around when Wordsworth wrote these lines, but if Wordsworth was around when Kalam was, would he have written these lines for Kalam?
~Javed M Ansari @javedmansari