New Delhi, Jul 28: The 340-room Raisina Hill marvel Rashtrapati Bhavan had been the abode of the humble missile man APJ Abdul Kalam for five years during which he left an indelible impression on the staff with his caring and affable nature and a preference for simple lifestyle.
The post is known for strict protocols which are adhered to by the staff of Rashtrapati Bhavan with hardly any direct interaction with the President unless the Supreme Commander wants to have one. But Kalam was different. [Updates: Dr Abdul Kalam to be accorded state funeral on July 30]
"I was posted in the household section when Dr Kalam asked me to connect a call to someone. Normally, secretaries call us to connect calls. I could not hear the name. I thought it would not be proper to check with the President. So I called his secretary Harry Sheridon to know the name.
"Once the call was over, he called me over the phone and said gently that 'if you do not understand what I say then call me again to clarify'," J K Saha, who has been working at the President's Estate for last 18 years, said.
Saha says he never made anyone feel that there was any difference between him and other people working at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Kalam specially loved to interact with children and would patiently hear them out. "His interactions with children continued till the last child was able to meet him, however late it may get," he said.
"During his five-year stay in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, his family visited him only once to see the place," D K Sahoo, who has served 19 years in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, said when asked about the visits of his family.
Salim Ahmed, a butler at the the President's residence for last 31 years who used to handle Kalam's food, says the former President relished south Indian food but never once made any request for a specific dish to be prepared.
"He would never complain about the food. There were times when the salt in the dishes was on the higher side but he never complained. If there was a third dish prepared for him, he would ask whether there was any festival. He never asked us to prepare any particular dish," Ahmed said.
While on tours, Ahmed said, Kalam despite having a tight schedule would ask whether he and other staff members accompanying him had their meals or not.
"If the answer was negative, he (Kalam) told us to have our food and only after that he used to proceed with his next appointment."
"He was very caring. Never discriminated. Before going to colder destination, he would personally advice us to keep woolens and cover ourselves properly," he said.
Librarian SNS Prakash, who has been in Rashtrapati Bhavan for nearly 32 years, says Kalam was an avid reader and often visited Rashtrapati Bhavan library to browse through books on music, literature and technology.
"He had his own personal library. But he often used to scan through books by either visiting the Bhavan library or going through them online. The digitisation work of the library was initiated by him," Prakash said.
Despite his down to earth nature, the former President did not use to mince his words when someone erred but it was in the manner of a teacher.
"He was a celebrity. The lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan were crowded by children be it any occasion. Even in cases when celebrities were present, kids used to surround Dr Kalam in order to interact with him and he never disappointed anyone. The interaction used to go on for hours and would not end till the last child had met him," Saha said.