It was an unexpected choice, but one that filled the nation with pride and joy.
In the five years since Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam took residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he has been nothing short of inspirational. The man who is synonymous with India's space programme soon became synonymous with India's sense of pride, particularly for its youth.
I love the fact that he is one man you cannot conveniently categorise. After all, how do you slot someone whose favourite pastime includes reading the Bhagvad Gita even though he is a devout Muslim? A remarkable self-made scientist who pens poetry in Tamil and plays the veena in his leisure time? A president who retained his fashionably long locks?
This is what I have learnt from the person I think has been one of India's most interesting leaders in recent times:
1. Humility and modesty
These attributes come naturally to those concerned with causes far greater than personal gain.
India's first attempt at launching the Satellite Launch Vehicle met with failure. At that point, Dr Kalam took responsibility for his colleagues and juniors and became answerable for what went wrong. When the second attempt succeeded and took India into the space age, he stepped aside and let his colleagues take credit for this grand achievement.
Attempting something this selfless requires dedication to the achievement of a larger goal; it is the final goal that matters, not who takes the credit for the achievement.
Over time, I have tried putting a lot more emphasis on the task at hand, and on its flawless execution. Also, in my small way, I look out for people at work or in my personal space, while taking part responsibility for their actions.
Dr Kalam was embarrassed by public acclaim to the extent that that he did not like being called Bharat Ratna Dr Kalam. He even gently reminded the directors at the Defence Research and Development Organisation to not refer to him as Bharat Ratna; he did this by having a circular sent across through the DRDO headquarters that civilian awards cannot be used as titles! This, in today's world, where we mostly see people chasing titles and designations simply to flaunt them to their peers.
In my personal space too, the people I respect the most are the ones who are low-profile in these matters. It is almost immediately endearing when you come across people like these.
Dr Kalam has the utmost respect for everyone he interacts with. He even treats and talks to kids as his equals, and respects their opinions. I know of instances where he refers to professors as 'Professor X' and means it with respect. He attaches great importance to their knowledge and experience; even though he might have achieved a lot than they have, he believes there is a lot to learn from each of them.
Not being judgemental, respecting elders, teachers, professors and looking beyond caste, race, age and colour have taken on a whole new meaning in today's society. Over time, I have realised that the people who respect others the most are the ones who are the most respected.
It might surprise a few people that a space scientist can be so spiritual. Dr Kalam recites the Gita and the Quran better than some of the more renowned spiritual 'gurus' of today. He believes in the strength of virtues and values, and the role they play in shaping the youth and society in these times.
A complete vegetarian, a teetotaller and a bachelor, Dr Kalam's spirituality seems to be driven by practicality in a world where these attributes might be frowned upon.
It's clear that he respects other religions, and has done his best to understand them -- something that a lot of us need to imbibe ourselves.
4. Being yourself
The pressures and expectations of the presidential post never got to Dr Kalam. The usual full-sleeved blue shirt, the long grey hair, and various 'Kalam-isms' like 'Fantastic!', 'Funny guys, why did they do that?' and 'What's happening?' have made it to many parts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In this case, the person changed the place, rather than the place changing the person.
Situations never changed the person Dr Kalam was. He is disarmingly approachable to students, civilians and politicians.
It is this genuineness that makes us all individuals in the first place. I try keeping that in mind when I get flustered by grand or formal situations. I no longer constantly bother about how I speak or dress, thanks to a lesson from Dr Kalam.
5. Respect for children
Dr Kalam believes that children and the youth of today are magical with their ideas and thoughts. This is the reason he spent so much time meeting school kids and addressing the country's youth. He understands the language of youth and their ambitions, without having the air of superiority that age and experience brings with it so often.
Dr Kalam even extended his scientific expertise to help disabled children by replacing their metal supporters, which weigh three kilos, with carbon-based braces weighing 300 grams.
I think it is this, more than anything else, that makes him seem larger than life to me. The fact that he touched so many lives, and did not stop at just addressing them... He gave so many disabled kids a reason to smile.Thank you, sir, it is an honour to be a fellow Indian. Those presidential shoes are going to be very hard to fill, to say the least.