APJ Abdul Kalam — my humble pranams

Mumbai: A condolence meeting for the late former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam organised by the South Indian Education Society at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on Aug 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)
Mumbai: A condolence meeting for the late former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam organised by the South Indian Education Society at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on Aug 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)

For the past one week India has been paying homage to APJ Abdul Kalam, perhaps one of our greatest Presidents, along with Dr S Radhakrishnan. These two stalwarts, and to some extent Dr Rajendra Prasad, elevated the Presidency to a much higher pedestal than just political. And in an age when Presidents are chosen depending on one’s political survival in the “cesspool of politics”, as Amitabh Bachchan once famously described the Indian parliamentary system,  APJ Abdul Kalam is the only President in recent memory who restored the glory of Rashtrapati Bhavan to one that illuminated the past heritage and projected a shining future of a young nation in equal measure. And this was not done on the basis of modernizing a 340 room mansion, built on a 130 hectare Presidential Estate, and boasting of being the largest residence of a Head of State in the World. Instead, Rashtrapati Bhavan once again became a beacon of light, hope and aspiration for 1.2 billion people because it hosted a President who was a “reluctant politician”: an engineer, space scientist, science administrator, teacher, mentor, and a public servant. He was truly a People’s President who resided in the hearts of all of us across the entire spectrum of political affiliations, race, gender, wealth and religion.

Hundreds of anecdotes and news reports on different facets of his life, or various incidents that illuminate his personality have been highlighted in the media. What compelled me to write this blog was, however, a short post on today’s yahoo.co.in site detailing the material possessions of Abdul Kalam: a wrist watch, six shirts, four trousers, three suits and a pair of shoes. He did not own any property, not even “essential life-accessories” like fridge, TV, car or air conditioner. And this was a man who ultimately rose to become President of the Republic of India. It goes to show his passion in life though that he did have 2,500 books.

How much material possession is enough in today’s world? How can one distinguish between need and greed? Even in today’s corporate culture, where one is expected to be “suitably dressed”, where does one draw the line? One would presume that Abdul Kalam was suitably dressed on all the official occasions during his Presidency, even if he owned an average of only three suits at any one time and just one pair of shoes. Although, if one were to assume that as President, the sartorial decisions would be the Government’s and not personally made by him, the question that haunts me, as I stare at my wardrobe, is how much does one need to be happy?

We live in a world where packaging is important. We are conditioned to believe one needs to dress for success. There is pressure everywhere — pressure to look good, pressure to go up in life, pressure to compete and win, pressure to ensure that our responsibilities are well taken care of, pressure to build wealth, and pressure, perhaps, even to flaunt success. And if we achieve all, or some, of these, it is supposed to make us happy. Various reports tell us that there is a “Happiness Hormone” that is released by the brain when one buys new stuff, though it fades away rather quickly. I am sure there is some truth in all of that — money, security and smiles are somehow intricately linked — but that is surely not the end all and be all.

In a society where appearances are the topmost priority, how can one be the proverbial duck which swims in the water and yet does not get wet? How can one function in today’s world and yet remain unaffected by it? How does one downsize from Rashtrapati Bhavan to a house with no AC or fridge with nary a hint of displeasure or discomfort? I do not have the answer but I suspect it has a lot to do with one’s confidence in one’s self worth and the value that one brings to the world.

And so, Sir, my humble pranams to you for showing us the way and leading by example. For making each one of us believe that “Yes, we can”, if we put our mind to it. For caring little about pomp and glory and for even thinking that one can live out one’s life without a four wheeled transport to call one’s own. For noticing the often invisible common man in the most wonderful of ways, as evidenced by your thanking a jawan for remaining standing on guard duty throughout your two hour drive from a local airport to IIM Shillong (incidentally, your last public engagement) and for proving that teaching is indeed the noblest of all professions. After all, on being asked what you would like to be remembered as, you had replied “Teacher”.