Today is Guru Poornima - a special day for Indians, when one remembers, celebrates and honours teachers. It is only serendipity that I am writing a tribute to my Guru and the beloved teacher for millions of Indians - Dr APJ Abdul Kalam - on this auspicious day. For a shishya who has surrendered to his Gurus, this is perhaps the ultimate tribute that I can pay.
For many of my friends in the media, I have been the go-to man on Dr Kalam for years now. On the night of July 27, I was on a bus headed for Kerala, when I was flooded with calls inquiring about Dr Kalam's well-being.
'I felt like my Mother had died again'
Since there have been rumours about his health and I often clarified to the world that all was well with him, I wasn't very perturbed. Yet, this time, I was beginning to become concerned as the number of calls and messages wouldn't stop.
By 7.30 pm, battling poor signal inside the bus, I was told by one of his close aides that Guru Kalam had left us. Like most of you, I too felt lost. Orphaned. I retreated into a shell, mourning and grieving the loss of my biggest wealth, who had taken the flight to eternity. I felt like my Mother had died again.
"You fellow write well", Kalam Sir told me
The last few days have gone in a haze, me trying to hold on to my many memories; my interactions, my innumerable learnings, my disappointments when I couldn't reach him at times and my excitement every time he said: "You fellow write well."
First meeting with Kalam Sir on January 5, 2002
As I sit to write a tribute on this Guru Poornima Day, it is serendipity again to recollect that my first face-to-face interview with Guru Kalam was again about a ‘guru'. He was in Bengaluru following the demise of Prof Sathish Dhawan, who was the Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) from 1972 to 1984.
"I am going to talk about my guru. Only about him... Don't ask me about anything,'' this was how our first conversation started on January 5, 2002. The interview was arranged by Dr Kota Harinarayana, who was then heading the Tejas programme.
Prior to this meeting, I would often bother Guru Kalam, calling his landline in New Delhi. And, honestly out of the hundreds of calls I made, I was lucky to get him on the line only a few times, most often with him politely disconnecting after learning that it was me, again.
"I have lost my guru Prof Satish Dhawan. He taught me how to design a propeller for hovercraft in 1959. I am touched by his concern for others. His urged us to take the benefit of design and development to the common man who has contributed to the country. I will miss my guru," Dr Kalam told me.
The interview appeared next day in The Times of India with the headline: "Kalam the student misses Dhawan the guru." A week later, I got to know from Dr Kota that Guru Kalam loved the article and I had apparently made no mistakes, to his surprise!
This was probably my first baby step into his heart. A scientist-journalist bond has just been born.
His first interview as the President
From 2002 to 2003, his confidence in me grew and he started accepting me as a ‘better writer.' When his name was announced as the presidential candidate, I sent him a hand-written letter to Chennai.
"Sir, when you become the President of India, I hope you will grant me the first interview," I remember having written among other things.
In July 2002, when the paper boy from Rameswaram logged into Rashtrapati Bhawan (RB), he launched a series of technology initiatives that opened up two-way communication with the common man. The efforts of V Ponraj, who was the Director (Technology Interface) of RB, was commendable.
Two months later, during his first visit to Bengaluru, Guru Kalam kept his word and granted me his first ever interview as the President of India. After all the formalities and exchange of pleasantries, I had just five minutes to ask questions.
Time: 8 am. Place: Raj Bhawan, Bangalore.
"You email me the rest of the questions, I say. Okay?" he said. I still remember the then Governor T N Chaturvedi giving me an incredulous look.
Five minutes, three queries with the President, read the next day's headline. For the media world, the interview wasn't just a scoop. It was a coup!
The unofficial cake boy
On many of his birthdays, I have had the good fortune to carry the cake - often travelling from Bengaluru to wherever he was. At the stroke of midnight, we would cut the cake in a simple function at some nondescript government guest house.
Seeing me, he would say: "You have again come!!" There were instances when two cakes landed, one arranged by his aides and another from this self-appointed blue-eyed boy.
He always cut both the cakes, blew out both candles and ensured that his security guards also got their share.
"I have begun another orbit around the Sun," he would say in his inimitable way, the twinkle in his eyes unmistakable.
Once, when I ordered for a cake in Kerala, the stunned cake shop owner refused to take money when I asked him to inscribe: "Happy B'day Dr Kalam." When I told him that Dr Kalam doesn't appreciate anything free, he halfheartedly accepted.
When Kalam Sir addressed me as his 'friend'
During another birthday in 2011, in Coimbatore, I was again present with the cake. Next day, it was I who got a gift from the birthday boy, when he introduced me to everyone as: "Meet my friend from Bengaluru. He is a periya (big) writer," bringing tears in my eyes.
When I lost my mother, Guru Kalam reminded me that I should make her proud by continuing with my writing mission.
When I had a difference of opinion with my editor and wanted to quit a newspaper, he said: "Change will always make you stronger." Those words have stayed on with me. When I earned a Doctorate in Journalism, he blessed me and said: "Your mother will be happy up there."
In 2007, on the eve of Children's Day (November 14), Guru Kalam and I sat well past mid-night at the Satyam Guest House in Hyderabad, giving last-minute touches to his dream e-paper, Billion Beats.
During its televised launch in front of over lakh schoolchildren in Karminagar, Guru Kalam was excited to don another hat, this time as the Editor of Billion Beats.
"Capture all the positive stories of Indians. I am tired of the negative news you fellows (media) give," he would often say. [Negative reports in media prompted APJ Abdul Kalam to launch e-paper Billion Beats]
My last meeting with Guru Kalam
My last meeting with Guru Kalam was on June 25, 2015, at Raj Bhawan in Bengaluru. He was happy to meet my adopted sister Dhanya Ravi, a 24-year-old, battling with Brittle Bones disease. He was delighted to meet Dhanya, who is always seated in a pram, and they chatted away like long-lost friends.
When I touched his feet while leaving, he said: "I am proud of you. Serving special children is like serving God. God bless you."
I am grateful to his long-serving Private Secretary R K Prasad, who always acted as a bridge between Guru Kalam and me. Prasad ensured that there's always something refreshing that came out of the scientist-journalist bonding.
A humble appeal to my fellow countrymen
As a journalist, I feel that we are a nation that applauds blindly. A nation that forgets easily. A nation that talks too much, but does too little. For Guru Kalam, can we not change?
Remember, we are all blessed that we lived in an era that saw a simple man who walked the talk. He touched a chord in everyone of us. We carried him in our hearts from the day we got to know him.
Let the Kalam in us live on
There is a Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in all of us. If you think he died a happy man, I might disagree with you. He died a hopeful man. And, that hope is Me. You. Us.
He will be a happy man only when we complete his assignment -- to make India a developed nation.
If Guru Kalam was with us today, he would have asked: "Now everyone, will you repeat with me? My National Flag flies in my heart and I will bring glory to my Nation." This is all that a karmayogi like Guru Kalam would ask of his beloved countrymen.
Our time starts now!
I will miss you, Sir!
(The writer is a seasoned aerospace and defence journalist in India. He is the Consultant Editor (Defence) with OneIndia. He was instrumental in launching Dr A P J Abdul Kalam's e-paper Billion Beats as its National Affairs Editor and has been spreading the Missile Man's vision through the Inspired Indian Foundation. He tweets @writetake.)