Why was Dr. Kalam loved by all

The following is an account of meeting between Dr. Kalam and Balaji Viswanathan, apolitical observer.

I have met President Kalam four times. In those times I have come to understand why he is so highly revered. Here are some of my experiences.
April 2001: The first of the meetings came in when we he was a National Security Adviser and visited our college for inspecting some of the student projects. Our college had a deep relationship with DRDO – India’s defense research organization and he wanted to apprise himself of some of the new developments.

The night before he was supposed to come, at around 10pm he just came over in his jeep with no security and thrilled the students doing the decoration & settings for the following day’s event. People were stunned to see an eminent guy with a massive security threat just walking like that and asking people what they were working on. He said he wanted to meet the real hardworking people who were relegated to the back on the event day.
There was a big commotion in the hostel that night as everybody ran to grab some paper or the other to get his autograph. Then on the event day, he patiently listened to all our ideas, even though many of our ideas were too impractical if I think about it now. He acted as though he was our buddy, and not the highest ranking scientist in India.

February 2003: By this time, Kalam had already become India’s President. I was in IIT Delhi for a student event. A couple of months before that, I got an award from the Institution of Engineers on a defense related idea and wanted to tell our President that. So, I walked up to Rashtrapathi Bhavan (President’s Office) and wrote a poorly written handnote in the front desk saying I want to meet the President for some of the ideas I was working on how to develop India. They thought it was weird and said they will send the note to his secretary. You don’t just walk to meet the President of 1.2 billion people. It was crazy, but I was just a stupid teenager who had a more simplistic view of the world.

Actually,it was my grandfather who moulded me a lot who gave this idea of directly writing to the President. He had a keen sense of people and thought the President Kalam might read it.

The next day evening as I came back from my competition, my uncle with whom I stayed in Delhi looked very excited. He said the President’s office called and they asked if I was free the following day. Free? I would run in the middle of a highway to meet the President of India, revered by a billion people. That was the most positive shocking news I had ever heard. The President wanted to meet some random teenager in response to a poorly handwritten note. My uncle told me not to get my hopes too much and maybe someone in President’s office wanted to meet me. But, if I ever get a chance to meet his excellency, I should try to take a photograph with him.

The next day, I took an autorickshaw to the rashtrapathi bhavan and still didn’t know that I will meet the President. I got out of the Autorickshaw and told the guard that I was here to meet the President. Looking at me and the autorickshaw he was barely able to contain a laughter. He then called up the office to confirm and let me walk.

After 30 minutes of security checks, I was outside his office. Then couple of his assistants came and trained me on how to act when I’m with the President. They told me how to eat, how to respond, etc. My heart started to pant. I was totally unprepared as I didn’t expect to meet him. I didn’t even have a good set of formal shirts for that event. I looked totally out of place and didn’t have anyone to ask my silly questions on how to behave. I was alone and afraid. As a teenager, life didn’t prepare me for that day.

Then the moment came. I was asked to enter the President’s Office. I expected to see a huge coterie of assistants and a few security guys. Stunned to see that there was none. The President was alone in his desk working. I closed the door and stood. The President offered me a seat and asked me to explain my ideas.

In the next 30 minutes, I talked about all the various science papers I had written and the President not just put up with that, but kept making notes & comments on my papers. It was like a dream and was tempted to pinch myself to realize what was happening. Within a few minutes he drilled into the ideas and went into the minute details of the papers, while still keeping the talk jovial. He even joked about how the President was forced to wear these formals, while he would have preferred to wear the folded fullsleeve shirts. At the end of 30 minutes, his secretary came in and said it was time for his next appointment.

So, I stood up, thanked him and went out. Oops, I forgot to take a photograph with him. I then gently asked his secretary, if I can take a photograph with him. The secretary replied that it is not a custom to take a Photograph with visitors in that office and President was to be there at an another event in 1 hour. The President heard that and called for his photographer. I was clumsily dressed and looked awkwardly and entered his office once again. (Give that he is never late for any appointments that 5 extra minutes probably took away his rest time before he went on to meet business leaders at FICCI.)

(I dressed like a complete idiot during the teenage times)

After I came out, his secretary asked about the next time I will be in Delhi. I told him that I will be around for independence day (August 15). He just made a note of it and left. This is the greatest day of my little life. I got to chat with my hero for more than half hour.


August 12, 2003: I was in Delhi again at my uncle’s place. Once again, the President’s office called. I was even more shocked this time, as I didn’t even write a stupid note this time. I was called once again to meet, remembering the previous conversation. It seems the President wanted to meet a couple of teenagers on the eve of our Independence day. This time it was a shorter meeting at 15 minutes and the President once again put up with my impractical ideas on how to change the nation.

Later, I had seen him a couple of times at Microsoft in 2008 after his Presidential term. He was there for an event and although I didn’t get a chance to meet him one on one, it was great to see His Excellency. In one of the events – a dinner hosted by Bill Gates Sr (father of Microsoft founder), Gates Sr remarked that we should call Kalam always a President (in the US, once a President always a President). I agree.

A lot of people claim down to earth, but our President was in a different level. He had a an extraordinary memory, patience, attention to details and more importantly kindness. While at office, he had almost turned the massive President’s office into a science & social lab, inviting ideas from all over the nation. He was in in his 70s and was past his peak. Even then his mind was relentlessly working on science & language. He seemed to do his work by himself and inspired others to do the same.

He was a quintessential Gandhi in a scientist robe and the greatest President we had ever had. In a nation where politicians act like pigs looking for the next avenue to rob, he was sitting there building bridges with common people, doing research, writing books and talking science. Our nation was gifted to have him.