The greatest student India ever had

The most abiding lesson from the life of the People's President is that he spent it investing in students, because he was invested as one.

 |  5-minute read |   28-07-2015
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In small town Ramnathapuram and Kodaikanal, 10pm is pretty much midnight. As news of his death trickles in, at St Peter’s School, Kodai founder Sam Babu, a junior of the honourable now late President APJ Abdul Kalam from the HS Schwartz High school in Ramanathapuram, has spent the last half hour weeping. He says he feels a fear for this country that Kalam has passed on. They shared teachers, a small town upbringing, a love of students.

“He was a Muslim, Ramakrishna Iyer (their maths teacher who proved a deep influence) was a Brahmin, and Reverend Iyadurai Solomon (whom Kalam credits with his self-belief) was a Christian. Kalam was a colossus because he lived all these vague concepts of unity and diversity, knowledge, education, small town, big science, in practice. He was 100 per cent Tamilian, quoting from the Tirukural. He was a yogi, from the Bihar school of yoga. He was a practising Muslim. He was Ramnathapuram, and he was equally MIT. No political party could speak ill of him because he was bigger than all of it. He stood for only one thing – the country. His death comes at a breaking point for this country,” he says.

APJ Abdul Kalam was the greatest product yet out of Ramnathapuram, my grandfather’s hometown and constituency. Hence, we grew up hearing tales of this simple legend. Much of his life is well-documented by his own hand. After his presidency, he returned to the simplicity of his former life, living with his brother. What is striking in all the tales are the abiding teacher-student relationships that influenced Kalam, and which he devoted his life to replicating through the students he reached out to everywhere. It was as though Kalam lived an unspoken pay-it-forwardness to those who invested education and knowledge in him.

Kalam grew up the son of an educated, middle class Muslim boatman who ferried Hindu pilgrims to Dhanushkodi, in the coastal town of Rameswaram, and was equally influenced by a famous Shiva temple nearby, whose head priest was his devout father’s best friend, and the children he went to school with, as by the Catholic teachers at school and later at St Joseph’s Trichy. There were only two schools in nearby Ramanathapuram at the time: the Rajah High School, founded by my grandfather, a maths teacher, and the other was HS Schwartz, where Kalam’s teacher Ramakrishna Iyer, taught. Iyer famously caned Kalam in front of the class promising greatness would come of it. It did. The two maths teachers were close friends and a deep influence on each other’s lives. Iyer would come home to suggest some problems my grandfather would go on to incorporate in the several text books that the State continues to follow. My grandfather would give him financial advice about the teacher worried about marrying off his daughters. They shared worries over providing their students their limited resources to knowledge. My grandfather’s student STR Manickam, a revolutionary nationalist, housed a large library of books.

So it was that Kalam, Iyer’s student, would go over to read. Kalam lived in awe of both these men, and the others he met like them along his path, and generously credited them all with the roots to his success. Science teachers like Sivasubramania Iyer urged him to push beyond caste and religious divisions. Family legend has it that my grandfather saw him walk long distances to school from the "non-brahmin" hostel and arranged living quarters closer to the school where all children irrespective of castes or religion could live, cutting down on their commute. I could not verify this, my father says it is not true and a cousin says it is, but irrespective, what stands out is the devotion of the men of that generation of teachers to erasing divisions between children, whether religious or social or circumstantial.

His cousin, Samsuddin, ran the sole newspaper agency in town and political movements influencing the freedom struggle were immensely made accessible to Kalam. Kalam’s childhood in this way was influenced by a generation that taught him to believe in the power of books, reading, knowledge and above all, the sharing of information without boundaries or divisions. Moving upward and onward, on Wings of Fire, as he put it, to engineering college and MIT, fathering India’s nuclear programme, was momentum gathered that became unstoppable.

My grandfather would go on to help craft state reservation in education policy for Periyar’s government for the many children like Kalam. As a result of it, almost all his own grandchildren were exiled from a higher education in the state. Kalam symbolised to us why our dispersal was crucial. The men of my grandfather’s generation ensured that education and opportunity for the many Kalams, children potentially excluded by minority or caste or monetary status, would prevail into a time when men who saw the need for inclusiveness ceased to be. Perhaps that time is here.

Thus it was that APJ Abdul Kalam was not just a "product of provincial India" who grew to great heights "despite his circumstances" as the newspapers will all tell you tomorrow. APJ Abdul Kalam was because of them. Because of his milieu, his roots, because of his circumstances, because of the simple minded well intentioned people who rallied round to inspire him and push him and others like him to outgrow their limitations. What he did with it, in the public eye, is etched in Indian history. But it is also what the former president returned to, to complete as his life’s mission. He bore an unspoken resolve to pay back what he inherited. He went from school to school, child to child, he answered questions, he spoke, he listened, he answered. Online and offline. There was no question too big for him, no predicament too small, for India’s former president to answer from a child.

Kalam believed that children out of small town India were capable of great things if only they received exposure and encouragement, like he once did. Returning to the small house on the small street he lived in with his brother, he dreamed of seeing the children of Ramnathapuram outgrow their roots and achieve big. For the last few decades of his life, it became his pet obsession.

He would have been proud to die on a stage amongst students in a remote province of India. Every teacher he ever had, he passed their learning and their encouragement on a hundred fold, and he did them proud.

Go, small town India, go. Dream big. 


Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri Jayaraman @gayatri__j

Mumbai-based writer, reporter, editor. Currently writing two books.

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