APJ Abdul Kalam: From Rameshwaram to Rashtrapati Bhawan

Kalam is a rare figure in the Indian political landscape. He is fondly remembered as people’s president and as one of the most celebrated scientists in India. His journey is an inspiration for all the people who want to fight all odds to serve their country and humanity.

By Vinay HA, Research Associate at Rashtram

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was one of those rare public figures whose love and concern for India and its people were heartfelt and nor merely pretentious. In a long and distinguished career as a scientist and then as the President of India, Kalam contributed immensely to the Nation. He headed several projects on space, defence and nuclear technology. He came to be known as “the missile man of India” for playing a pivotal role in indigenously developing critical technologies for India’s missile project. The Government of India honoured Kalam with Padma Bushan (1981), Padma Vibhushan (1990) and Bharata Ratna (1997) for his contributions. He also obtained numerous international awards and recognitions. In 2002, the Vajpayee-led NDA government nominated Abdul Kalam for the post of President. Yet, more than all these achievements, it was Kalam’s selfless attitude and love for one and all that won the hearts of millions in India and all over the world. Throughout his presidency (and beyond), Kalam missed no opportunity to meet and engage with the common citizens of the country, especially the students. Kalam made it his life’s mission to meet students and “ignite their imagination”: 

I feel comfortable in the company of young people, particularly high school students. Henceforth, I intend to share with them experiences, helping them to ignite their imagination and preparing them to work for a developed India for which the road map is already available.

Not surprisingly, he is fondly, and very aptly, remembered as “the people’s president”. For such a gentle soul to play a critical role in the development of nuclear and missile technology, not letting the high morals and ideals cloud the ruthless ways of the world is a lesson to remember for leaders. He famously said in an interview: “Unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength.” 

Kalam also touched the lives of common Indians through many of his widely read books. His autobiography Wings of Fire has been translated into 13 Indian languages as well as the Chinese and French. As the story of a man’s journey from a “hamlet to Rashtrapati Bhavan”, who grew up in the small town of Rameshwaram to become one of the top-most scientist and then the President of India, the book has been a source of hope and inspiration to millions of readers. 

Behind Kalam’s optimism and cheerful smile was a life of struggle and hardships. It is well known that Kalam had to sell newspapers to support his family, he had to walk miles together everyday to attend school. Beating all the odds Kalam successfully completed Aerospace Engineering and looked forward to realise his long time dream of becoming an Indian Air Force pilot, only to be dissapointed for he failed to qualify by a single rank. A dejected Kalam headed to Rishikesh in search of peace, which he found in the words of Swami Shivananda Saraswati. Kalam credits Swami’s advice to accept the reality and search instead for his life’s true purpose for helping him to overcome his dejection and guiding him through the rest of his life. His initial years as a scientist too were not without obstacles, important projects like the SLV-3 and the Agni missile met with failures before finally taking off. None of these challenges got the better of Kalam. His life, a journey through hardships and failures culminating in grand success, is a message for every aspiring human:

“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.”


  1. https://www.rediff.com/news/1998/oct/13kalam.htm
  2.  Wings of Fire

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