A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is perhaps the most loved Indian after Mahatma Gandhi. Like Gandhi, Kalam’s greatness was his simplicity. He entered Rashtrapati Bhavan with one suitcase and left with the same one. “There was never a president like Dr Kalam and there will never be another like him," a staff member who had served five previous presidents said to me during one of my visits to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
I consider it the greatest honour of my life to have met and interacted with the former president a few times. I would like to share a couple of my interactions with Kalam. The most memorable was the time I visited him at his residence in New Delhi in 2013 along with Arun Shourie. I wanted to share my plans of building an Inclusive India and was looking for his feedback and blessings. India Inclusion Summit (IIS) is a platform to showcase the abilities of people with disabilities and is held every year in Bengaluru. I wanted to invite him to the IIS in November 2013. Even though this was not the first time I was visiting him at his residence, there was a sense of anticipation and nervousness.
After reaching his residence at 10, Rajaji Marg, I was escorted to the main hall by his secretary. As soon as Kalam arrived, Shourie and I stood up and shook hands with him. After a brief introductory remark, Shourie asked me to share my plans. For a few moments, I went blank—what if my presentation looked stupid? What if I didn’t have answers to his questions? Would I make a fool of myself? But Kalam put me at ease. He was intently listening to whatever I was saying. That gave me the confidence, and after some time we ended up having a serious discussion. He finally said, “Make this the mission of your life".
Kalam asked his secretary to check if he would be available in November to attend the IIS. Unfortunately, he was scheduled to be in China at the time, so he apologized for not being able to make it. While I was disappointed, I was hopeful he would come the following year. As I was getting ready to leave, he asked me to wait. He went into his office and returned after a few minutes. He said, “I will come for your summit, this is important work." I could not believe my ears. Extremely happy and excited, I felt the world had conspired to make this dream come true.
While leaving, his secretary said, “People talk about his brains, but his greatest asset[s] are his two wonderful ears." I will never forget how during the few minutes that I spoke to him, he was all ears, listening attentively to every detail with child-like curiosity. He made me feel as if I was the former president, not him. I learnt my greatest leadership lesson firsthand: Great leaders make other people feel important.
On another occasion, Kalam had come to the SAP Labs Campus in Bangalore in July 2010. He was to address all the employees at KTPO, Whitefield in the evening. The entire campus was buzzing with excitement—I don’t think any employee was able to work—they were just looking forward to the evening’s event. As Kalam’s convoy arrived, employees started clapping and waving flags. There was almost a stampede as everyone wanted to touch him. The entire crowd of more than 5,000 people erupted when Kalam took to the stage. I had never seen or heard such a welcome for anyone before; it felt like a rock star had just appeared.
During his speech, he asked everyone to repeat a ‘pledge’ after him: “I will work with integrity and succeed with integrity". He famously did this every time he was in the company of the youth. In the question and answer session, one of the employees asked, “You are a scientist, do you believe in god?" Kalam said, “You see, we live on earth, there are nine such planets, all the planets revolve around the sun. There are thousands of stars and these are all part of the galaxy. If everything works so perfectly, there has to be a higher power." His answers, like his questions, were simple yet thought provoking. He was a scientist and his religion was humanity.
Here was a Muslim who knew the essence of the Gita and played the Vichitra Veena; a strict vegetarian and a man of many faiths. When he withdrew from politics, he turned to what he loved most—speaking, writing, mentoring and igniting the dreams of young people. That is what he was doing until he collapsed on stage on this day in 2015, at IIM Shillong. Only the blessed are able to do what they do best until their last breath.
While we all miss him, my generation can proudly say, “We lived in the times of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam."
The author is senior vice-president at SAP based in Silicon Valley