Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam
I rate it: 7/10
Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam was one of the most respected and popular presidents of India. He was (is, sorry) also an eminent aerospace scientist, and was involved in the development of the ballistic missile and launch development. He has written several books, mostly inspirational, including his autobiography Wings of Fire. It was a deep honour for me when Rupa Publications approached me to review his new book- My Journey.
Having said that, I must confess I was less than thrilled. I have the sort of mind that gives a wide berth to inspiration and makes a beeline for the cynical. And while ex-presidents have all of my respect, I cannot think of anything more dreary than elderly gentlemen telling me how to rise above my adversities. Which is why it was such a relief when I finally got the book and found that it was a collection of anecdotes and memories rather than a dispense of knowledge and advice.
Dr. Kalam grew up in Rameshwaram, a small pilgrimage town in south India, in a family that was financially impoverished but pretty rich spiritually. Maturing in an environment full of love and wisdom, and equipped with a brilliant capacity for math and science, Kalam soon managed to leave his tiny hometown behind to make his place in the world, but it seems he never forgot the lessons he learnt in those early years, equanimity, putting others before self, learning from failures, never giving up on his dream, finding something to respect and love in everybody.
The anecdotes he chooses to share with us are interesting and thought-provoking (and would probably have inspired me if I were a more inspirable person) I particularly loved his description of his father’s morning walks, and of the three wise men in his village. His father, despite being a poor boat owner, was deeply respected by the villagers, and was eventually appointed Imam of the Rameshwaram mosque. He was close friends with the priest of the local temple and the padre of the nearby church, and every Friday evening these three wise men would sit together, talk about their faiths, and try to resolve any communal disharmony brewing in the area. Reading this in today’s India, this sort of friendship and maturity almost defies belief.
The story of the time Dr. Kalam narrowly missed being roasted alive in a lab fire was also gripping. While observing a bit of pure sodium, a bead of sweat dripped from his assistant’s face into the tray, resulting immediately in a huge explosion which threw the two scientists back. The fire that followed would certainly have ended Dr. Kalam’s illustrious life had his assistant not had the courage to push him out of the window before escaping himself.
The one thing I didn’t like about the book was Rupa’s design. Instead of putting in classy black and white photographs, Rupa hired an eighth grader to do pencil drawings of the ex-president and his family members. Said eighth grader just went with the assumption that the gentleman must have had the same moppy-hippy hairstyle since he was a baby, because of course hairstyles are an immutable part of who people are (all the pictures in this review are from the book). The pencil sketch of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, another respected scientist and Kalam’s mentor, is an abomination and a crime. It reminded me of those ‘charts’ we could buy when we were kids, with hand-drawn faces of famous Indians, to be cut out and pasted in our social studies notebook. The cover, too, makes Dr. Kalam look greasy and skulking. Surely a book by someone of his stature, and a good book at that, deserved a little more effort?
But apart from this minor drawback, My Journey is an interesting book, well written (though it may have been ghost-written, I don’t know), and best of all- short. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I liked the book, but I would have liked it much better if I were a better person.
Oh, wow, non-fiction overdose… I had better go back to reading Sandman before I break out or something.
-Amritorupa “Hairstyle Kalamity” Kanjilal
Pun courtesy Kriti Sharma