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Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam

As a child, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam remembers being fascinated by the flight of seagulls. He grew up on the island of Rameshwaram in south India, where his father was a boat builder. Kalam's interest in flight led to a degree in aeronautical engineering, and eventually to his supervising the development of India's guided missiles. Along the way, he found time to write Tamil poetry and learned to play the veena, an instrument similar to the sitar. Today Kalam, 67, who is India's best known scientist, heads the mammoth Department of Defense Research and Development. He played a key role in the nuclear tests at Pokharan in the Rajasthan desert on May 11 and 13. "I remember the earth shaking under our feet," he recalls of that fateful experience.

Perhaps all frontiersmen are like that. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam has spent all his life near the three water frontiers of India. The newspaper boy of Rameswaram coast on the Indian Ocean spent 20 years dreaming of space frontiers at Thumba space centre on the Arabian Sea. The dreams of the next 20 years were mostly conjured up on the shores of the Bay of Bengal at Chandipur where he test-launched missiles and checked on vehicles that re-enter the atmosphere from space.

The dreamer of these oceanic frontiers is also one of India's frontiersmen in technology. A technology that not only fired Agnis, ignited Prithvis but also can green the barren lands, provide foods to the starving, and profit in world commerce. A First World dream for a third world nation.

It is a dream he shares with Yagnaswami Sundara Rajan, another technologist who had his stints in the Indian Space Research Organisation, the department of space contributing significantly to the communication satellite programme, the remote sensing programme and satellite metorology and mapping systems.

From the sea frontiers and space frontiers, the duo are now dreaming up frontiers of technology-driven prosperity for one billion people. In this they are inspired as much by the grain-rich fields of the green revolution as by the successes of remote-sensing satellites and re-entry vehicles. They see infinite energy that can be released not only from thermonuclear explosions but also from the human resource latent in the ordinary people of India.

Dr Kalam and Rajan believe that as a nation India should aim to reach at least the fourth position by 2020. And nobody is going to help us reach there, except ourselves. As the globe is shrinking into a village, there is also simultaneous denial of technologies.

But the same sense of purpose that made Pokharans and Prithvis possible can propel whole populations into prosperity. In the book India 2020, A Vision for the New Millennium, published by Viking-Penguin India, they identify exactly the bricks of technology that could build the dream. (Incidentally, Dr Kalam even otherwise seems to have the perfect 20-20 vision.

Things you didn't know about kalam

That Dr. Abdul Kalam is a bachelor and a teetotaler?

That he recites the Holy Quran and the Bhagvad Gita daily and is equally at home with both Holy Scriptures?

That Dr. Abdul Kalam has gone abroad for studies only once in 1963-64 to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States?

That as a young boy, he sold newspapers to enhance his family's income?

That he is so modest about his achievements that at every felicitation ceremony he gives full credit for India's success to his colleagues?

Childhood and Career

Oct 15, 1931 : Born at Dhanushkodi in Rameswaram district,Tamil Nadu. His father had to rent boats to pay his school fees. He studied at the Schwartz High School in Ramanathapuram.

1954-58 : After graduating in science from St. Joseph's College in Tiruchi, he enrolled for Aeronautical Engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology in 1954.

1958 Kalam joined the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and served as a senior scientific assistant, heading a small team that developed a prototype hovercraft. But the project, never took off.

1962 : Following the lukewarm response to his hovercraft program, Kalam moved out of DRDO and joined Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

1963-82 : Kalam joined the satellite launch vehicle team at Thumba, near Trivandram and soon became Project Director for SLV-3.

1980 : Rohini put into orbit in the month of July

1981 : Kalam honoured with the Padma Bhushan

1982 : Kalam returns to DRDO as its Director. Takes charge of India's integrated guided missile development program. The program envisaged the launch of five major missiles.

1992 : Kalam takes over as the Scientific Advisor to Union Defence Minister.

1997 : Kalam honoured with "Bharat Ratna", india's highest civilian award.

May 11, 1998 : Adorning a Gorkha hat in the Rajasthan deserts, he orchestrated India's underground nuclear tests. The scientist from a small hamlet in Tamil Nadu who had dreamt of India as a nuclear power many years ago had finally achieved it!

2002 : Kalam takes over as the President of India.

WINGS OF FIRE by Dr. APJ ABDULKALAM


I have three visions for India. In 3000 years of our history, people from all over the world have come and invaded us, captured our lands conquered our minds. From Alexander onwards. The Greeks, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Dutch, all of them came and looted us, took over what was ours. Yet we have not done this to any other nation. We have not conquered anyone. We have not grabbed their land, their culture, their history and tried to enforce our way oflife on them. Why? Because we respect the freedom of others.

That is why my first vision is that of FREEDOM. I believe that India got its first vision of this in 1857, when we started the war of independence.It is this freedom that we must protect and nurture and built on. If we are not free, no one will respect us.

My second vision for India is DEVELOPMENT. For fifty years we have been a developing nation. It is time we see ourselves as a developed nation. We are among top 5 nations of the world in terms of GDP. We have 10 percent growth rate in most areas. Our poverty levels are falling, our achievements are being globally recognized today. Yet we lack the self-confidence to see ourselves as a developed nation, self reliant and self assured. Isn't this right?

I have third vision. The India must stand up to the world. Because I believe that unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. Only strength respects strength. We must be strong not only as a military power but also as an economic power. Both must go hand-in-hand. My good fortune was to have worked with three great minds. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai of the Dept. of space, Professor Satish Dhawan, who succeeded him, and Dr. Brahm Prakash, father of nuclear material.I was lucky to have worked with all three of them closely and consider this the great opportunity of my life. I see four milestones in my career:

ONE : Twenty years I spent in ISRO. I was given the opportunity to be the project director for India's first satellite launch vehicle, SLV3. The one that launched Rohini. These years played a very important role in my life of a Scientist.

TWO : After my ISRO years, i joined DRDO and got a chance to be the part of India's guided missile program. It was my second bliss when Agni met its mission requirements in 1994.

THREE : The Dept. of Atomic Energy and DRDO had this tremendous partnership in the recent nuclear tests, on May 11 and 13. This was the third bliss. The joy of participating with my team in these nuclear tests and proving to the world that India can make it. That we are no longer a developing nation but one of them. It made me feel very proud as an Indian. The fact that we have now developed for Agni a re-entry structure, for which we have developed this new material. A Very light material called carbon-carbon.

FOUR : One day an orthopaedic surgeon from Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences visited my laboratory. He lifted the material and found it so light that he took me to his hospital and showed me his patients. There were these little girls and boys with heavy metallic calipers weighing over three Kgs. each, dragging their feet around. He said to me: Please remove the pain of my patients. In three weeks, we made these Floor reaction Orthosis 300 gram calipers and took them to the orthopaedic center. The children didn't believe their eyes. From dragging around a three kg. load on their legs, they could now move around! Their parents had tears in their eyes. That was my fourth bliss!

Why is the media here so negative? Why are we in India so embarrassedto recognize our own strengths, our achievements? We are such a great nation. We have so many amazing success stories but we refuse to acknowledge them. Why? We are the second largest producer of wheat in the world. We are the second largest producers of rice. We are the first in milk production. We are number one in Remote sensing satellites. Look at Dr. Sudarshan, he has transferred the tribal village into a self-sustaining, self driving unit. There are millions of such achievements but our media is only obsessed with the bad news and failures and disasters.

I was in Tel Aviv once and I was reading the Israeli newspaper. It was the day after a lot of attacks and bombardments and deaths had taken place. The Hamas had struck. But the front page of the newspaper had the picture of a Jewish gentleman who in five years had transformed his desert land into an orchid and a granary. It was his inspiring picture that everyone woke up to. The gory details of killings, bombardments,deaths, were inside in the newspaper, buried among other news. In India we only read about death, sickness,terrorism, crime. Why are we so negative?

Another question: Why are we, as a nation so obsessed with Foreign things? we want foreign TVs, we want foreign shirts. We want foreign technology. Why this obsession with everything imported? Do we not realize that self-respect comes with self-reliance? I was in Hyderabad giving this lecture, when a 14 year old girl asked me for my autograph. I asked her what her goal in life is:

She replied: I want to live in a developed India. For her, for you, we will have to built this developed India. You must proclaim.

Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.