A true loss for Agastya and for India.
“Be the change you want to see”, said Gandhi. The former President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam inspired millions of children and teachers, including those served by Agastya Foundation, through his thoughts and deeds. I vividly remember my first meeting with Dr. Kalam, arranged by K Ramchand, his former defence research colleague, in Rashtrapathi Bhavan in 2003. Dr. Kalam emphasised 'curiosity, skills and confidence' as the keys to transform India. Lamenting the propensity among educated Indians to seek security in a desk job, Dr. Kalam said, "You have left a thriving career in the west to educate young Indians. If you want to make a difference, do not get comfortable behind a desk, go and work in rural India.”
Agastya staff and children fondly remember Dr. Kalam's visit to our Mobile Lab in Bangalore in 2006. As he got into his car to leave he turned to me and said, “If you bring your mobile lab to the backward areas of the North and North East I will help you.” True enough, a few years later as I was boarding a flight to Mumbai he called me to say that he had won the Rs.1 crore, SR Jindal Prize for Exemplary Service to mankind. Delighted, I interrupted him and said, “Congratulations Sir. The prize is well deserved.” He surprised me by saying that he had decided to give a fourth of his prize money to Agastya to buy two mobile science labs “to serve the poorest children in the most remote areas in Bihar.” The rest of the prize money was going to support the projects of three worthy NGOs. I was overwhelmed by Dr. Kalam’s generosity, which catalysed a vibrant hands-on science education program reaching over 100,000 children, 700 schools and 2100 teachers in Darbhanga district, Bihar.
Dr. Kalam’s inspiring speech at the Agastya Creativity Conclave at NIAS, Bangalore in 2010 and his visit to Agastya’s Kuppam campus in 2012 charged and motivated the staff and children of Agastya. I was asked to meet Dr. Kalam at the Raj Bhavan in Bangalore, at midnight, the night before he visited the Agastya campus. At 80, looking remarkably fresh at the late hour, he listened to my detailed update on the Bihar mobile lab program, enquired about the following day's schedule and expressed his eagerness to help Agastya in any way he could. Dr. Kalam’s connection with children was indeed remarkable. His talk and electric presence at the Agastya campus left a lasting impact on many underprivileged children, motivating them to create prize-winning science projects and do remarkable work in their communities. One Diwali night I walked into his Rajaji Marg home-office in Delhi with a young artist, a schoolgirl. Visibly energized by the young girl’s presence, Dr. Kalam asked her, “What is your passion?” “Painting” she replied. “How wonderful” he beamed and followed up with his next question, “What is the first thought that comes into your mind, when you paint?” The girl thought for a moment and said, “Colour.” “Aha!” he said with delight, as if she had solved a puzzle. The girl offered a calendar of Lord Ganesha, the overcomer of obstacles, that she had painted as a gift to Dr. Kalam. Accepting it with a smile Dr. Kalam recounted a story on Ganesha. As he walked us out, he asked an assistant to fetch a book, and softly read out a poem to the girl under the lamplight. He pointed to the dark silhouette of a large tree in his garden. “That tree is called Arjuna. It is five hundred years old.” As I reached my hotel, I thought about this remarkable man who, against challenging odds, rose to the highest office of the land. Dr. Kalam showed me why he is so deeply loved and admired by people all over the world. For a few precious minutes this famous son of a boatman had made a young girl feel as if she was the most special person on earth. I couldn't help but admire Dr. Kalam’s passion and energy then, and again when he made his way through the mist on a cold winter's day in distant Darbhanga to inaugurate the Agastya mega science fair. I asked him to tell me the secret of his almost limitless energy. He replied, "When you give selflessly you gain energy." Dr. Kalam was a great son of India, an Indian hero. We shall miss him.