Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wings Of Fire - An Autobiography

Wings Of Fire - APJ Abdul KalamTHE moment you think of missile, and if you are an Indian, chances are that almost always the figure of Abdul Kalam conjures up in the mind. Such is the impact of Dr Kalam on the development of missile technology in India.

Perhaps the same impact led me into buying his autobiography on my trip to India recently. Actually it was long on my list of ‘to read’ books. I’m glad now that I’ve it. Kalam’s autobiography is as inspiring as his life to the millions of Indians around the globe.

Aptly titled “Wings of Fire,” it’s written by one of Kalam’s own pupils, Arun Tiwari. Arun worked under Kalam for over a decade in the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad. How difficult the task must have been for Arun is expressed in his own words, “His (Dr Kalam) conversation was not always easy to follow, but was always fresh and stimulating. There were complexities, subtleties, and intriguing metaphors and subplots in his narrative, but gradually the unfolding of his brilliant mind took the form of a continuous discourse.” But it was all worth it in the end, “For myself (Arun), writing this book has been like a pilgrimage.” What more can one say for such a person.

Avul (great-grandfather) Pakir (grandfather) Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was born in 1931 in the island town of Rameshwaran in Tamil Nadu to a little educated boatowner. His father Jainulabdeen was a spiritual man always willing to help others. As Kalam himself said he tried throughout his life to emulate his father in his world of science and technology. Surely he must have been someone special.
“When my father came out of the mosque after the prayers, people of different religions would be sitting outside, waiting for him. Many of them offered bowls of water to my father who would dip his fingertips in them and say a prayer. This water was then carried home for invalids. I also remember people visiting our home to offer thanks after being cured. My father always smiled and asked them to thank Allah, the benevolent and merciful.”

Kalam’s mother Ashiamma was an ideal helpmate to his father. She used to feed quite a few outsiders every day.

Two other persons influenced Kalam’s boyhood, his sister’s husband Ahmed Jallaluddin and cousin Samsuddin. Kalam’s talks with Jallaluddin mostly revolved around spiritual matters. Although Jallaluddin had limited schooling because of family reasons, he always encouraged Kalam to excel in his studies.

This is what Kalam says of him –
“Incidentally, at the time I speak of, he was the only person on the entire island who could write English. He wrote letters for almost anybody in need…Jallaluddin always spoke to me about educated people, of scientific discoveries, of contemporary literature, and of the achievements of medical science. It was he who made me aware of a “brave, new world” beyond our narrow confines.”

Samsuddin was the sole distributor for newspapers in Rameswaran. Kalam worked for a while as his helper during the outbreak of Second World War in 1939.

Kalam’s beautifully sums up the influences in his early childhood –
“I inherited honesty and self-discipline from my father; from my mother, I inherited faith in goodness and deep kindness and so did my three brothers and sister. But it was the time I spent with Jallaluddin and Samsuddin that perhaps contributed most to the uniqueness of my childhood and made all the difference in my later life. The unschooled wisdom of Jallaluddin and Samsuddin was so intuitive and responsive to non-verbal messages, that I can unhesitatingly attribute my subsequently manifested creativity to their company in my childhood.”

The real step in the direction where Kalam stands today was taken when he applied for admission into the Madras Institute of Technology. He got selected but the fee of 1000 rupees was too much for his father. His sister, Zohara, had to mortgage her gold bangles and chain to see him through.

From MIT, Kalam went to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as a trainee. He worked on engine overhauling as part of a team. Out of HAL, as a graduate aeronautical engineer, Kalam applied for both the Air Force and the Directorate of Technical Development and Production DTD&P(Air) of the Ministry of Defence. He got interview calls from both the places.

He could only finish ninth in the batch of 25 examined to select eight officers for commissioning in the Air Force. Needless to say he was terribly disappointed. On the positive side he got selected as a Senior Scientific Assistant at the DTD&P(Air). His monthly salary was Rs 250 per month in 1958.

It was his work on an indigenous hovercraft named Nandi that got him noticed. He was taken by the Indian Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) as a Rocket Engineer. Sometime in 1962 he was asked to proceed to New York, US, for a six-month training programme on sounding rocket launching techniques, at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) work centres.

He worked at Langley Research Centre (LRC) and Goddard Flight Centre (GSFC). Towards the end of his trip he went to Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island in East Coast, Virginia. This place was the base for NASA’s sounding rocket programme. Something there made him feel very proud and reading it made me too.
“Here, I saw a painting prominently displayed in the reception lobby. It depicted a battle scene with a few rockets flying in the background. A painting with this theme should be the most commonplace thing at a Flight Facility, but the painting caught my eye because the soldiers on the side launching the rockets were not white, but dark-skinned, with the racial features of people found in South Asia. One day, my curiosity got the better of me, drawing me towards the painting. It turned out to be Tipu Sultan’s army fighting the British. The painting depicted a fact forgotten in Tipu’s own country but commemorated here on the other side of the planet. I was happy to see an Indian glorified by NASA as a hero of warfare rocketry.”

Neverthless Tipu did manage to inspire a few talented Indians–
“The development of Indian rockets in the twentieth century can be seen as a revival of the eighteenth-century dream of Tipu Sultan. When Tipu Sultan was killed, the British captured more than 700 rockets and subsystems of 900 rockets in the battle of Turukhanahally in 1799…These rockets had been taken to England by William Congreve and were subjected by the British to what we call ‘reverse engineering’ today.”

Thanks mainly to efforts of people like Dr Vikram Sarabhai and Jawaharlal Nehru, rocketry was reborn in India. Prof. Sarabhai was the one who inspired Kalam to stretch himself beyond boundaries. For Kalam, he was the Mahatma Gandhi of Indian science, “generating leadership qualities in his team and inspiring them through both ideas and example.” When Prof. Sarabhi passed away on 31st Dec 1971 it was a great personal blow to Kalam and a huge loss to Indian science.

Prof. Satish Dhawan took over as the head of ISRO. This is how Kalam saw him-
“He could hold the listener enthralled because of the logical, intellectual acumen he could bring to bear on his analysis of any subject…I found him full of optimism and compassion. Although he often judged himself harshly, with no allowances or excuses, he was generous to a fault when it came to others.”

On other person who influenced Kalam both personally and professionally was Dr Brahm Prakash.
“If Prof. Sarabhai was the creator of VSSC, Dr Brahm Prakash was the executor. He had nurtured the institution when it most needed nourishment. Dr Brahm Prakash played a very important role in shaping my leadership skills. In fact my association with him was a turning point in my life. His humility mellowed me and helped me discard my aggressive approach…He was an intellectual giant with a frail constitution; he had a childlike innocence and I always considered him a saint among scientists.”

On 18th July 1980, after previous failures and issues, SLV-3 lifted off form SHAR. It was India’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle, and Kalam uttered the most important words of his life, “Mission Director calling all stations. Stand by for an important announcement. All stages performed to mission requirements. The fourth stage apogee motor has given the required velocity to put Rohini Satellite into orbit”. Minutes later he was lifted onto the shoulders of his jubilant colleagues as India became the fifth country to achieve satellite launch capability.

The very next year Kalam received the Padma Bhushan and an year later he was appointed the Director of DRDL. It was here that the ‘missile man’ we know was born, and so did his babies Prithvi, Trishul, Akash, Nag and Agni. The once abandoned Devil missile project was revisited to the delight of those once a part of it. The then PM, Mrs Indira Gandhi, too, took notice of this new development. She visited DRDL on 19th July, 1984, the same year she was assassinated.

All the, now famous, missiles were test fired during Kalam’s stay at DRDL. A Padma Vibhushan in 1990 followed along with all the accolades.

But for an Indian, a Bharat Ratna is the peak of excellence and the greatest appreciation that he can get for his efforts. And so when the nation honoured one of its beloved scientists in 1997, Kalam’s name was forever enshrined in the annals of Indian science.

Kalam’s autobiography is a must read for all Indians. It inspires, educates, and encourages us to do things which we ‘could’ but never tried. As I always say, “The essence of life lies in facing difficulties and overcoming them with courage.” Dr Kalam stands testimony to it!

I would like to sign off with Kalam's own words–
“I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a role model for anybody; but some poor child living in an obscure place, in an underprivileged social setting may find a little solace in the way my destiny has been shaped. It could perhaps help such children liberate themselves from the bondage of their illusory backwardness and hopelessness. Irrespective of where they are right now, they should be aware that God is with them and when He is with them, who can be against them?...Let the latent fire in the heart of every Indian acquire wings, and the glory of this great country light up the sky.”

Note. This is a rather old review but posting it now on this blog.

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