Did they know he wasn’t going to be back? —Yes/No! Nevertheless, that was hardly a reason for former President APJ Abdul Kalam being nearly mobbed at Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), in January this year, just seven months before his divine call.
At Diggi Palace, Jaipur, JLF Organizers were ecstatic over the response for the former president. “The numbers outmatched Oprah Winfrey, USA’s top Talk Show Host in session 2012”, said an organizer.
JLF is one time in India, where no one gets pushed, pinched, pounced or poached despite a turnout of nearly 2 lakh people over five days. The Intelligentsia behaves, is refined, courteous and firm too.
As if sensing the euphoria and cheering before Kalam climbed the front stage of JLF, Bibek Debroy- a policy research scientist himself, promptly christened Kalam – a ‘Rockstar!’
The crowd went into raptures cheering him. Kalam’s refusal to take a seat after the host invited him, was lauded; his gesture of a little word exchange with front audiences before sitting was lauded; eventually his seat-taking at his own pace was lauded. The public visibly appeared hungry. Yes, hungry or utterly famished. His every word was cheered. The audience, not only gave ovations but parroted lines whenever Kalam ordered -‘repeat after me!’ like nursery tots. Completely bowled over, Bibek gave the credit of Kalam’s Rockstar credentials not just to Kalam’s crowd pull but to the former Prez’s charged book –‘Ignited Minds’.
This, and stories by Kalam, of how his application for pilot’s license was rejected, early in life. He was ranked 10th and nine above him were selected for pilot training. Thereafter, his meteorical rise to become President of India, thus assuming charge as ‘the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces’, applying for learning and eventually piloting an aircraft. The story grabbed imaginations in multiple hues of the dreamy audience. “You have to dream before your dream can come true,” he repeated.
What really attracted youth and aged alike to this unassuming man, virtually a cartoonist’s delight, with his signature in-turned doggy tail front-locks peppered hair, loose short-sleeved bush-shirt and hanger hung pajamas, resembling pants?
The attire metamorphosis as President was easy. What was not easy; was to ignore Kalam’s purity, his humbleness, his comfortable non-conformist oratory, uncomplicated clean and resounding thoughts, a recounter of religious gems of all faiths and his simple conclusions and formulas of life. He was a lovable teacher who did not hesitate to ask his audience to repeat after him and conclude on an elevating note. These seem to be some classic reasons for Kalam’s universal adulation.
The power of collective sound, like the chirping of a school of sparrows at the prick of dawn; the unified vibrations resonating in the universe’s atmosphere, conspiring to make ‘the impossible’ happen. Kalam, stood as a tallest example of this ‘happening’ in realtime.
Kalam’s missile powered mind also hit on soft targets like me, I promptly became his follower when he took up for underdoggies likes me, -“ The best brains of the nation may be found on the last benches of the classroom”, fitted me just fine. I had continued to sit out of sight, even in press conferences.
Kalam, was the first celebrity I sat next to during a press conference, reining my mind to relax, without shivers, group fright et al, I squeaked – “Should India take the nuclear option in case there is a war with Pakistan?” The missile man spurned the query and instead talked about vision 2020 for India, a book he had penned. Being the first time, I flushed with embarrassment. This was in early 2003, when India –Pakistan soldiers stood eye ball to eye ball after the Indian Parliament attack. Undeterred, I wrote the story about evasion of the query on the nuclear option by Kalam. It hit the limelight. Lameness took time to abandon me but I tried to build on my strengths.
At the first opportunity, Kalam- ‘The missile man of Peace’s’ photo got perched on my cabin wall in The Tribune. A year later, in early September of 2004, Kalam visited Amritsar again during ‘400th year of Installation of the Guru Granth Sahib’ celebrations at Golden Temple at Amritsar.
I was deputed to cover the president at historic Jalliawalla Bagh, the symbol of blood for freedom. I reached rather early for the President’s midafternoon visit hoping to catch some side stories. Never thought, the President’s visit would actually turn bloody for me.
It was one of those days that come every month for a woman. While I patiently waited, the impatience of flow continued. With my garments stained, I sat on an edge and tried to cover my embarrassment, rolling a duppatta. Frospoke and honored the last known survivor of Jalliawalla Bagh Massacre Bapu Shinghara Singh. He urged his aides to help pen down the story of Shinghara, who showed a gunshot wound on his hand from that 1919’s bloody Baisakhi episode.
Having met the President, I still could ill afford to go home, instead went to office, used newspapers on seats everywhere, filed the story and rushed home sometime at night. However, Kalam’s, words—‘A Leader should know how to manage failure’… rang loud throughout that starlit night.
Rashmi Talwar is an Award winning writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org