Adieu Mr President, but the missiles were not my thing…
I had to get to know Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and everything about his life in a hurry. I had just been hired by Doordarshan (DD) News, India’s national broadcaster as a Senior Anchor/ Correspondent on an annual contract beginning 10 June 2002, and I had already been given my first big assignment- a full-length documentary charting the life and times of Dr Kalam- who was about to be sworn-in as the 11th President of India in only a month’s time- by July, 2002. It was rare for DD to hire outsiders. It was even more rare for the national TV channel to hire an entry-level employee as a senior resource. I had been chosen for the job after a lengthy round of interviews and screen tests by a panel led by SY Qureshi- then the Director General of DD, because of my past experience. I had spent more than 5 years in Mumbai, in various jobs from ad-filmmaking to working on TV serials, documentaries and corporate films apart from devoting two years to radio, and the next big thing- internet. So there I was, all of 27 years old, in the national capital New Delhi, hundreds of miles away from home in Bangalore, sitting in a small barsati in Defence Colony with no support system, staring at a huge responsibility, an impossible deadline and compelled to get it right, if I had to prove to my employers and somewhat doubting colleagues that I was upto the task entrusted to me. Whether or not I liked it, I had to get to know Dr. Kalam real fast and have a film ready in time to air, to show for it. That was my introduction to India’s ‘missile man’ and the only person to earn the sobriquet ‘People’s President’, who quite suddenly departed last night- 27 July, following a heart-attack. He didn’t outlive his father- Jainulabudeen’s 103 years, or his mother’s 93. He surprisingly clocked only 83 years, collapsing quite suddenly while getting ready to deliver a speech to students of IIM, in Shillong, where amongst other things, he was going to ask for suggestions on how to get our parliamentarians to do their job.
While researching Dr. Kalam’s early life I was amazed to discover the rise and rise of a person from the most humble background- son of a boatman, who went house to house distributing newspapers after school to supplement his income, now become a contender for the highest office in India. The man who narrowly missed his ambition of becoming a fighter-pilot, went on to spearhead several pioneering projects- putting powerful missiles in India’s arsenal. He also had a role in India’s entry into the ‘elite’ and until-then impenetrable nuclear-club following the Pokhran II tests in 1998. These ‘achievements’ made Dr. Kalam India’s ‘missile man’. I travelled from Delhi to Bangalore, Hyderabad and other places to interview his former colleagues and friends to get a sense of the man as they knew him up-close. 13 years later I don’t remember all of it very clearly, but what I recall is the sense that I came away with. I felt he didn’t have too many friends. Yes, there were many who gave me the right soundbites to use in the documentary, but there were only a few who spoke with genuine warmth. I felt he was something of an outsider within the scientific community. It was a somewhat closed group and many felt he had superseded them in a sense, to fame and fortune. But Dr Kalam went from presidential nominee to being formally elected India’s eleventh President, beating his nearest rival Lakshmi Sehgal by a thumping 4,152 votes to 459 without much trouble. There certainly was surprise when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) announced Dr Kalam’s name as their preferred candidate for the post, even though he was Muslim. The non-Congress and non-BJP alliance, the People’s Front, faced a major crisis- it was split over the issue of the presidential candidate with the Samajwadi Party declaring support for A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and the Left parties expressing reservation over his candidature. The Congress at first adopted a wait and watch approach, but eventually came around to supporting his nomination.
A.P.J Abdul Kalam took office in July 2002 setting many precedents. He became the first President of India to have been honoured with a Bharat Ratna before being elected to the highest office. He was also the first scientist and first bachelor to occupy Rashtrapati Bhawan. And he was the third ‘apolitical’ figure to become President of India.
Interestingly, before Dr. Kalam took office, he got himself a makeover. It was pure coincidence that at the time I should have visited the salon of celebrity hairstylist Jawed Habib to get something of a makeover myself! My curly mop of hair had unfortunately become the subject of discussion and debate at the ‘post-mortem’ meetings after the 9pm prime time newscasts at the DD News headquarters in Asiad village. Presided over by the then Additional Director General (ADG) News Swagat Ghosh and attended by senior officials from the Indian Information Service, the subject of these meetings would invariably veer around my ‘hair-style’ or the lack of it, instead of focusing on the content of the news. I suppose it really wasn’t what they wanted to put on air, at prime time. As a Keralite, my naturally curly hair was not quite telegenic. We had no stylist then, so I did my own thing- tied it into a bun or a pony-tail, which just didn’t work for the 9 pm news, especially not with the little springs on my head, the cameras would invariably catch, without really wanting to distract from the news itself. So, I had no choice but to tame the unruly mane and seek help from Mr Habib. But who knew that the stylist was reworking Dr Kalam’s hair too! Yes, as it turns out, the ‘look’ APJ Abdul Kalam came to have, in his many years facing the cameras, was given to him by the Habib family.
So, to cut a long story short, through our various trysts with destiny, I got my documentary on Dr Kalam from the drawing board to tape, done and delivered in record speed with very modest resources at my disposal, doing the research, the interviews, the scripting, even the narration myself. It aired to coincide with the time Dr Kalam took office as President of India and by the end of it all, we both had ‘hair-styles’ too! I went from a head of curls to a more manageable straight-haired schoolmarmish look, while Dr Kalam lost his side-parting and regular length hair to get his long-haired style with centre-parting look, we all remember today. But I’m not sure how my documentary was received. Not adversely, I imagine, because my contract was renewed the following year. I kept the job for two and half years and did quite well.
13 years and some experience later, I’m a changed person today. I was always a moderate, a peace-lover who always found conflict avoidable and unpleasant. But almost 7 years into motherhood, I’m a confirmed peacenik. I oppose conflict and those who cause it. Quite naturally missiles are not quite my thing. I find the word ‘nuclear’ bothersome. This whole business about how the big N-test brought India on par with the rest of the N-powered world, and put us on the ‘high-table’ as a ‘force’ to ‘reckon-with’ may all sound very fancy, but honestly, its just a pile of nonsense to me. Politics is for politicians, and if they market the idea of a N-powered India as a world-power, it is no more than marketing. As long as basic indices of development are down, we are anything but a super-power.
Earlier this month Dr. Kalam himself lamented that the greatest regret of his life was not being able to provide facilities like 24-hour electricity to his parents during their lifetime. “My father lived 103 years and my mother 93 years. My brother now is 99. For my brother I have ensured that he gets 24 hours of electricity even when there is a power cut. I have installed a solar panel,” he said. And that’s our reality. Not at any imaginary ‘high-table’, but struggling to provide basic amenities to our people. Solar power is quite certainly where India’s focus should be, given the obvious reasoning that we are abundantly blessed with it as a natural resource. Why as a nation we insist on grovelling to secure access to high-tech nuclear technology from the US, refusing to learn from the disasters in our lifetimes at Chernobyl and Fukushima, is a mystery to me. Why our government’s sign over the safety of its citizens to earn perceived political brownie points and why we let them get away with it, will always remain a mystery to me. While its great to see an outpouring of sympathy for the sad demise of Dr. Kalam, I wonder where our priorities really are. Yes, he was extraordinary. Yes, he achieved extraordinary things. Yes, he was one of the best Presidents India has ever had. He was clean, patriotic, sincere, intelligent and committed to national welfare. He will always be remembered as a President who did not misuse his office. As one who brought dignity to it and set a yardstick not many can match up to. But I shall always be concerned about the way in which we continue to celebrate his legacy as ‘missile man’. Its not something everyone will get immediately. If you are a parent and worry about leaving a planet worthy to inherit for your children, then I guess, you might start to see where I’m coming from. I might be a hopeless romantic in the face of the harsh realities of a weaponised world, imminent threats, fears of first-strikes, terrorist indoctrination and what have you… but hey, what’s life without some hope in the face of hopelessness? Wasn’t that the message of the ‘missile man’ too? Long live the ‘People’s President’.