Living on the island of Rameswaram while I was growing up, the sea was an important part of our lives. Its tides, the lapping of the waves, the sound of trains passing on the Pamban bridge, the birds that always circled the town and the salt in the air are sights and sounds that will always remain linked with my memories of childhood. Apart from its sheer presence around us, the sea was also a source of livelihood for our neighbours and us. Almost every household had some connection with the sea, whether as fishermen or as boat owners.
My father, too, operated a ferry that took people back and forth between the islands of Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, which is about 22 kilometres away. I still remember the time when he got the idea for this, and how we built that boat.
Rameswaram has, since antiquity, been an important pilgrimage destination. Rama is believed to have stopped here and built the bridge to Lanka when he was on his way to rescue Sita. The temple of Rameswaram is dedicated to Shiva, and houses a lingam fashioned by Sita herself. Some versions of the Ramayana say that Rama, Lakshmana and Sita stopped here to pray to Shiva on their way back to Ayodhya from Lanka.
People visiting our town would go to Dhanushkodi as part of their pilgrimage. A bath at Sagara-Sangam here is considered sacred. The sangam is the meeting place of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Dhanushkodi is now connected by road and vans take pilgrims there, but way back when I was a child, a ferry was also a good way of reaching the island.
My father, looking to supplement his not very substantial income, decided to start a ferry business. He started building the boat that we needed for this, all by himself initially, right there on the seashore.
Watching the boat come to life from pieces of wood and metal was perhaps my first introduction to the world of engineering. Wood was procured and Ahmed Jalalluddin, a cousin, arrived to help my father out. Every day, I would wait impatiently till I could go to the place where the boat was taking shape. Long pieces of wood were cut into the required shape, dried, smoothened and then joined together. Wood- fires seasoned the wood that made up the hull and the bulkheads. Slowly the bottom, then the sides and the hull began to form in front of our eyes. Many years later, in my work, I would learn how to make rockets and missiles. Complex mathematics and scientific research would be the bedrock of those engineering marvels. But that boat coming up on a seashore, which would take pilgrims and fishermen back and forth...who is to say it was not as important or momentous in our lives then?
The building of the boat was an important influence for me in another way. It brought Ahmed Jalalluddin into my life. He was much older than me, yet we struck up a friendship. He recognised the inherent desire within me to learn and question, and was always there to lend a patient ear and give words of advice. He could read and write English, and spoke to me about scientists and inventions, literature and medicine. Walking with him in the streets of Rameswaram, or by the seaside, or by our boat as it took shape, my mind began to form ideas and ambitions.
The boat business was a great success. My father employed some men to operate it, and groups of pilgrims would use the service to reach Dhanushkodi. There were days when I would slip in among the crowd and sit with the crew as they steered the boat to and from Rameswaram. I heard the story of Rama and how he built the bridge to Lanka with the help of his army of monkeys; how he brought back Sita and stopped at Rameswaram again, so that they could perform penance for having killed Ravana; how Hanuman was told to bring back a large lingam from far up north, but when he took too long, Sita would not wait and fashioned a lingam with her own hands to worship Shiva. These stories and many others washed around me in different tongues and shapes, as people from all over India used our ferry service. A little boy among so many was always welcome and there would be someone or the other willing to talk to me, share the story of his life and his reasons for making the pilgrimage.
And so the years went by. My school, teachers, Ahmed Jalalluddin and others taught me so many things. But the boat and the people who sailed in it were no less important. In this way, among the waves and the sands, laughter and stories, the days flew by. Then one day, disaster struck.
The Bay of Bengal is hit frequently by cyclones. The months of November and May in particular are dangerous in this regard. I still remember the night of that terrible cyclone vividly. The wind had picked up speed for days, till it became a howling gale. It screamed and whistled in our ears and pulled and hacked at the trees or anything that stood in its way. Soon, a torrential rain started. We had retreated into our houses much earlier. There was no electricity in those days, and the lamps barely managed to stay alive. In that flickering darkness, with the wind working itself into a frenzy, the sound of the rain lashing down outside, we huddled together and waited for the night to pass. My thoughts travelled again and again to the open seas. Was anyone trapped there? What was it like to be in a storm such as this without your mother’s comforting presence close by?
The next morning, after the storm died down, we saw the unbelievable destruction that had been wrought all around us. Trees, houses, plantations were uprooted and devastated. The roads had disappeared under the water and debris blown in by winds that had come in at speeds of over 100 miles an hour. But the worst news of all was the one that hit us like a punch to the stomach. Our boat had been washed away. Now, when I think of that day, I realise that perhaps my father had known this would happen the night before, while we waited for the storm to pass. In his life he had already witnessed so many storms and cyclones. This was just one of them. Yet, he had tried to calm us children down and had made sure we went to sleep without infecting us with his worries. In the light of the morning, seeing his drawn face and the worries lining his eyes, I tried to gather my thoughts. In my mind I mourned our lost ferry boat fiercely. It felt as though something I had made with my own hands had been gathered up and tossed away thoughtlessly.
Yet, my father’s stoicism is what saw us through this crisis too. In time another boat came, and business resumed. Pilgrims and tourists returned. The temple and the mosque filled with worshippers and the markets bustled with men and women, buying and selling once more.
Cyclones and storms struck us again and again. I even learnt to sleep through them. Many years later, in 1964, when I was no longer living in Rameswaram, a massive cyclone struck. This time, it carried away a part of the landmass of Dhanushkodi. A train that was on Pamban Bridge at the time was washed away, with many pilgrims inside. It altered the geography of the area, and Dhanushkodi became a ghost town, never really recovering its former character. Even today, remnants of buildings stand there as monuments to the 1964 cyclone.
My father lost his ferry boat once more in that storm. He had to rebuild his business yet again. I could not do much to help him practically, for I was far removed from that world. But when I struggled to give shape to the satellite launch vehicle (SLV) rocket, or the Prithvi and Agni missiles, when countdowns and takeoffs were disrupted, and rain came down on our rocket launch sites situated by the sea in Thumba and Chandipur, I always remembered the look on my father’s face the day after the storm. It was an acknowledgement of the power of nature, of knowing what it means to live by the sea and make your living from it. Of knowing that there is a larger energy and force that can crush our ambitions and plans in the blink of an eye, and that the only way to survive is to face your troubles and rebuild your life.
A Working Boy at Eight
Every morning a large pile of newspapers, both in English and Tamil, is delivered to me. During my travels abroad I like to stay in touch with news from India, which I do by going online to read news articles and editorials in different magazines and papers. The wealth of information now available at the click of a finger amazes me. As a person closely involved with engineering and science, the march of technology should not surprise me, but when I juxtapose our lives today with what it was like 70 years ago, in a small south Indian town, the difference is startling even for me.
I was born in the year 1931. When I was about eight, World War II broke out. Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and despite the Indian Congress’s opposition, India too, as a British colony, was involved in the war. India’s war effort saw a record number of Indian soldiers being deployed in various war zones around the world. Daily life, however, remained fairly unaffected initially, particularly for us in the southern tip of the country. As I have mentioned, Rameswaram in the 1940s was a sleepy little town that came alive with the arrival of pilgrims. The inhabitants were mostly tradespeople or small businessmen.
The town was dominated by the temple, though there was a mosque and a church too. The inhabitants went about their way fairly peacefully, and other than the normal altercations that break out in any town or village, nothing much of importance happened.
The only source of information about the outside world was the newspaper. The agency that distributed newspapers was run by my cousin Samsuddin. Along with Jalalluddin, he was a big influence in my early life. Though he could read and write, Samsuddin was not well travelled, nor highly educated.
Yet he had such affection for me and encouraged me in so many ways that he became a guiding light for me. These men understood my deepest thoughts and feelings before I could articulate them. To me they were adults who could reach out beyond the narrow confines of their daily lives and businesses and see the larger world.
Samsuddin’s newspaper distribution agency was the only one in Rameswaram. There were about a thousand literate people in the town, and he delivered newspapers to all of them. The papers carried news about the Independence movement that was heading towards a crescendo at the time. These news items would be read and discussed with great gusto with everyone else.
There would also be news from the war front, about Hitler and the Nazi army. Of course, there were many mundane matters too, like astrological references or bullion rates, which were consulted with utmost interest. The Tamil paper, Dinamani, was the most popular of all these papers.
The way the papers reached Rameswaram was quite unique. They came by morning train and were kept at Rameswaram station. From there, they had to be collected and sent to all the subscribers. This was Samsuddin’s business and he managed it effortlessly. However, as World War II raged, we no longer remained isolated from the world, and it affected my life and the newspaper delivery business in a strange new way.
The British government had placed a number of sanctions and rations on goods. Something like a state of emergency now prevailed in the country. Our large family felt the difficulties acutely. Food, clothes, the needs of the babies of the household, all became difficult to procure and provide for. In our family, there were five sons and daughters, as well as my father’s brothers’ families. My grandmother and mother had to stretch every resource to the utmost to keep everyone fed, clothed and in good health.
As the difficulties of the war started affecting us, Samsuddin came up with a proposal that excited and delighted me tremendously. One fallout of the conditions was that the rail stop at Rameswaram station had been done away with. What would happen to our papers then? How were they to be collected and then distributed to all the people of the town who were looking forward to their daily dose of news? Samsuddin found a way out. The papers would be kept ready in large bundles. As the train chugged down the Rameswaram-Dhanushkodi track, they would be flung out on to the platform. And that is where I came in. Samsuddin ordered me the enjoyable job of catching these bundles of papers being thrown from the moving train and then taking them around town for distribution!
My enthusiasm knew no bounds. I was only eight, but I was going to contribute in a meaningful way to the household income! For many days I had noticed the amount of food on my mother’s and grandmother’s plates becoming lesser and lesser as they divided the portions between all of us. The children were always fed first and I don’t remember any of us ever going hungry. Obviously, the women were compromising on their nutrition for us. I agreed to Samsuddin’s orders with alacrity.
However, my new job had to be fitted into my regular routine. My studies and school had to continue as before, and the delivery business had to be accommodated amidst all these other activities. Among my siblings and cousins, I had shown an early aptitude for mathematics. My father had arranged for me to take tuitions from our mathematics teacher. However, my teacher had a condition that I, along with the four other students whom he had accepted, needed to reach his home at dawn after having taken a bath. So for a year, which was the duration of the tuition, I started my day while it was still dark outside, with my mother shaking me awake. She herself would have risen before me and got my bath ready. She would then help me bathe and send me on my way to my teacher’s home. There I would study for an hour and return by 5 am. By then my father would be ready to take me to the Arabic School nearby, where I learnt the Quran Sharif.
After my lesson on the Quran Sharif was over, I would sprint away to the railway station. There I would wait, hopping from one leg to the other, eyes and ears keenly open for signs of the oncoming train. Surprisingly, unlike most trains these days, the Madras-Dhanushkodi Mail was rarely delayed! Soon, the engine smoke would be visible in the distance. The horn would be tooted loudly and, with a thunderous roar, the train would pass through the station. I had worked out the best spot from which to keep an eye out for the flying newspaper bundles. Like clockwork, they would be tossed out on to the platform. The train would then huff and puff away, Samsuddin’s person in the train would wave out to me and as the train receded, its whistle growing faint, my job would begin.
I then picked up the bundles, divided them up into batches according to the neighbourhoods in which the papers had to be distributed and off I went. For about an hour I tore around Rameswaram, delivering the papers to everyone. Soon I began to identify people by the papers they read. Many would be waiting for me, and there would always be a friendly word or two. Some would tell me fondly to hurry back home so I would not be late for school! I think most enjoyed being handed their papers by a cheerful eight-year-old.
Our town being on the east coast, by the time the work was over at 8 am, the sun would be high up in the sky. Now I headed back home, where my mother waited with breakfast. A simple meal would be served, but how hungry I was usually! My mother made sure I ate every morsel before sending me out to school. But my work did not end there.
In the evening, after school was over, I would do the rounds of Samsuddin’s newspaper customers again, collecting their dues from them. Then I would meet him, so he could work out the accounts of the day.
At that time, sitting somewhere near the sea, with the breeze blowing in, Jalalluddin or Samsuddin would finally open up the day’s paper. All of us would pore over the black type of the Dinamani. One of them would read aloud the news items, and slowly the larger outside world would enter our consciousness. Gandhi, Congress, Hitler, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, their words and exhortations would hang in the evening air. I would trace the photos and words with my fingers, wondering what it must be like to be out there in the larger world with all of them. Maybe, I thought to myself, one day I would go to the big cities like Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. What would I say if I ever got to meet people like Gandhi and Nehru? But such thoughts were soon interrupted by the calls of my playmates, and then for dinner. There was homework to be done, and even an eight-year-old has only that much energy to spend. By 9 pm I would be fast asleep, as the next day more studies and the life of a working man lay in store all over again.
This routine continued for about a year. In that one year of running around with the papers, I grew taller and browner. I also learnt that I could now judge quite accurately the distances I could cover at a sprint with a bundle of papers in my hand, and hence could time my arrival at various localities at the same time every day. I could calculate in my head the amount owed to Samsuddin by each of his subscribers, and could reel out the names of those who had not paid up that day. Mostly, I learnt that to be a working man meant you had to be up and ready to face the day, whatever else may happen to you. Homework, tuition, prayers, all carried on, but the Madras-Dhanushkodi Mail would not wait for me—I had to be present at the station at the correct time and at the correct point to catch the bundles as they came flying in. It was my first brush with taking up a responsibility and seeing to it that I kept my word to my cousin Samsuddin, no matter what. It was also a most enjoyable time and I loved every moment of it, notwithstanding the intense tiredness every night. My mother often fretted at my taking up this additional work and the toll it was taking on me, but I shook my head and smiled at her. Knowing that my earnings were somehow helping us all, and that she was secretly proud of me for having taken on the role of a working man at the age of eight kept me going with a smile on my face.
When I Failed
In my life, which has been long and eventful, I have seen great heights of success. I have been part of ventures that have contributed to the growth of our nation in the field of science and technology; I have also had the privilege of occupying the highest office in the country. There are many achievements to look back upon—some of my own doing and some where I had the privilege of being part of teams that were immensely talented. Yet, I firmly believe that unless one has tasted the bitter pill of failure, one cannot aspire enough for success. I have seen both sides of the coin and have learnt life’s toughest lessons when I have stared into the pit of despair that failure brings with it. These lessons are well worth recounting and remembering, as they have helped me work my way through many difficult situations.
One of the earliest such episodes from my life happened when I was a student of aeronautics at the Madras Institute of Technology. My design teacher there was Professor Srinivasan, who was also the head of the institute. Once, we were placed in teams of four students each, and our team had to design a low-level attack aircraft. I was in charge of coming up with the aerodynamic design. We worked very hard for weeks. My teammates were designing all the other components, like the propulsion, structure, control and instrumentation. Since our other course work was over at the time, we spent long hours discussing our ideas and researching them. We were all keen to impress our professors with our project. They kept an eye on the progress and after a few days, Professor Srinivasan asked to see the design I had created. When I showed it to him, he examined it with his characteristic critical eye. I stood by, waiting with bated breath to hear his verdict. I still remember the way his eyebrows crinkled as he looked at the paper spread out in front of him. Then he straightened up and his next words stunned me. “This is just not good enough, Kalam,” he said. He turned stern eyes on me and continued, “I expected much better from you. This is dismal work and I am disappointed that someone with your talent has come up with work like this.” I stared at the professor, dumbfounded. I had always been the star pupil in any class and had never ever been pulled up by a teacher for anything. This feeling of embarrassment and shame was a new experience for me, and I did not like it one bit. The professor shook his head some more and told me that I had to redo the entire design, starting from scratch and rethinking all my assumptions. I agreed shamefacedly. Then he broke the next bad news. Not only was I supposed to do the work again, I had to finish it in three days! “Today is Friday afternoon, young man. I want to see a flawless configuration drawing by Monday evening. If you are unable to do so, your scholarship will be stopped.” I was even more dumbfounded now. The scholarship was the only way I could afford to be in college. Without it, I would have to stop my studies. My own ambitions, the dreams of my parents, my sister and Jalalluddin dashed before my eyes and seemed to recede to a distance. It was unthinkable that the future could turn so bleak with a few words spoken by my professor.
I got to work right away, determined to prove myself. I skipped dinner and remained at the drawing board through the night. Where earlier the components of my design were floating in my head, now they suddenly came together and took on forms and shapes I could work with. The concentrated work I put in seemed to brush away all the cobwebs of the mind. By the next morning, I was working like a man possessed. I took a short break to eat and freshen up, and went back to work again. By Sunday evening, my work was nearly complete—an elegant, neat design that I was proud of. While I was putting my final touches to it, I sensed a presence in the room. It was the professor, still dressed in his tennis whites, on his way back from the club. I didn’t know how long he had been standing there, watching me. Now, as our eyes met, he came forward. He looked critically at my work for many minutes. Then he straightened up and smiled. To my amazement, he hugged me affectionately. Then patting me on the back, he said, “I knew I was putting you under immense pressure when I rejected your work the other day. I set an impossible deadline—yet you have met it with work that I can only call outstanding. As your teacher, I had to push you to your limits so that you could recognise your own true potential.” After two days of extreme dejection, those words were music to my ears and revived my confidence and self-belief.
That day I learnt two lessons: a teacher who has his or her student’s progress in mind is the best possible friend, because the teacher knows how to make sure that you excel. And second, there is no such thing as an impossible deadline. I have worked on many tough assignments, some of which had the country’s top leaders watching over my work, but the assurance I gained in my capabilities at MIT thanks to Professor Srinivasan helped me later in life too.
After MIT, I started my working life. Little did I know that even tougher lessons were to follow. I went to work at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bangalore. There I learnt a lot about aircraft and their design and technology. By now I was very sure that I wanted a career in flying. When I emerged as a graduate aeronautical engineer from HAL, I got two job opportunities. One was in the air force and another at the Directorate of Technical Development and Production (DTD&P [Air]) at the ministry of defence. I received interview calls from both. The first was in Dehradun and the second in Delhi. I set forth with great hope in my heart.
My first close sight of an aircraft had been at MIT, where two decommissioned aircraft were kept for the demonstration of various subsystems to the students. They had held a special fascination for me, and I was drawn to them again and again. They represented for me man’s ability to think beyond his boundaries, and to give wings to dreams. I had chosen aeronautical engineering as my area of study because of my fascination for flying. Over the years I had nurtured the hope of being able to fly; to handle a machine as it rose higher and higher in the stratosphere was my dearest dream.
As I made my way from Madras to north India for the interviews, I played this dream over and over again in my mind. I was finally on the threshold of becoming a pilot! The journey from Tamil Nadu to Dehradun was a long one—not just geographically but also in terms of the distance I would travel from my humble origins to the prize that lay in the foothills of the Himalayas—a place in the air force as a pilot.
I first halted in Delhi for my interview at DTD&P. I was confident and the interview was an easy one, not requiring me to push the boundaries of my knowledge too far. I spent a week in Delhi and then proceeded to Dehradun for my interview at the Air Force Selection Board. Here, I should mention that at the time, as a young man in my early 20s, I was just beginning to understand how to conduct myself in the wider world. When I had first moved from Rameswaram to the bigger cities for my studies, I was a shy, tongue-tied boy. I had to work hard to develop some assertiveness in my personality. I did this by trying to communicate with different people from all kinds of backgrounds. It was not easy, of course, and there were many moments of frustration and disappointment. However, by the time I finished my studies and headed out to look for a job, my personality was better developed and I was able to articulate my thoughts well enough in English and Tamil.
To return to my interview at the Air Force Selection Board, as I started answering the queries put forth to me, I realised that along with qualifications and engineering knowledge, they were also looking for a certain kind of ‘smartness’ in the candidate. Physical fitness and an articulate manner were what they were seeking. I gave it my best. I had wanted this job for so long and so deeply that I was determined yet anxious, confident and at the same time tense. Finally the results were announced. I had stood ninth in a batch of twenty-five. There were only eight places available. I had failed to realise my dream of becoming an air force pilot.
I still remember the ache in my heart as I attempted to make sense of what had happened. When a dearly held desire begins to break up, one can feel nothing but despair and emptiness as one tries to come to terms with the end of a dream. I could not bear to be indoors after seeing the result. I had to go out for air and be in the open, because all around me the walls seemed to close in. I walked around for a while till I reached the edge of a cliff. I stood there looking down at the shimmering waters of a lake and wondered what I should do next. Plans needed to be changed and priorities reassessed. I decided to go to Rishikesh for a few days and seek a new way forward.
I reached Rishikesh the next morning. I took a dip in the Ganga—a river I had heard so much about, but was seeing and experiencing for the first time in my life. I had been told about the Sivananda ashram that was located a little way up a hill. I walked there. As I entered I felt a strange vibration, a sense of tranquility that was like a balm for my restless soul. Sadhus were seated all around, deep in meditation. I hoped that one among them would be able to answer the questions that troubled me and soothe my worries. I was granted an audience with Swami Sivananda himself. My being a Muslim did not affect him in any way. Instead, before I could speak, he asked what had filled me with sorrow. I only fleetingly wondered how he knew about my sadness before I embarked on any explanation of the recent developments in my life. He listened calmly and then washed away my anxieties with a smile of deep peacefulness. His next words were some of the most profound I had ever heard. His feeble yet deep voice still resonates when I think of them: “Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life. You are not destined to become an air force pilot. What you are destined to become is not revealed now but it is predetermined. Forget this failure, as it was essential to lead you to your destined path. Search, instead, for the true purpose of your existence. Surrender yourself to the wish of God.”
That lesson made a deep impression on my mind. Truly, why fight against destiny? This failure, I was sure, was part of a larger plan that God had for me. I ruminated long about this as I went back to Delhi. There, I found that I had been accepted as senior scientific assistant at DTD&P. I gave up my dream of making a career out of flying. I understood now that there was plenty of other work to be done, and I was going to put my heart and soul into the job that had been given to me.
In this way I started my working life. Like me, I am sure almost every person who sets out with a goal has had to face unexpected obstacles. We’ve had to rethink our goals, reorient our paths. Each setback teaches us a new facet of life and something about our own personalities. When we tackle obstacles, we find hidden reserves of courage and resilience we did not know we had. And it is only when we are faced with failure do we realise that these resources were always there within us. We only need to find them and move on with our lives.
My Favourite Books
- Light from Many Lamps: Edited by Lillian Watson; contains the writings/inspiring stories of many authors. The book has brought me solace in my hours of sadness and uplifted me when I needed advice.
- Thirukkural: Written by Thiruvalluvar over 2,000 years ago, it's a collection of 1,330 rhyming Tamil couplets or aphorisms (kural). To me, it's provided a code of conduct for my life. It is a work that truly elevates the mind.
- Man the Unknown by Alexis Carrel: His description of the human body—how it is an intelligent, integrated system—is explained brilliantly. This work should be read by everyone, especially those studying the medical sciences.
- The Gita: It says, ‘See the flower, how generously it distributes perfume and honey. When its work is done, it falls away quietly. Try to be like it, unassuming despite all its qualities.’
- The Holy Quran: I have worked with many brilliant engineers/leaders. The words from the Quran ring in my ears when I think of them: ‘Light upon light. Allah guides His light to whom He will.’