Nature was at its most furious in the town of
Rameswaram, located deep in South India. In its fury, an old man
lost all that he had: his household items, his small house and his
only boat, his source of livelihood. Helpless and distraught, he
sent a telegram to his youngest son, who was doing his second year
engineering in Madras (now Chennai) to return home as
soon as possible. Far away from his loved ones, the young man felt
helpless: he had no money... there seemed to be no way he could go
home and be with his family in their hour of need.
The only valuable possession that he had, which he thought might
fetch him some money, was a book. He decided to sell it.
The shopkeeper opened the book to see whether it was worth buying.
Written clearly on the first page was the following sentence:
'Awarded to A P J Abdul Kalam for excellence in academics in the
first year of engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology by
The shocked shopkeeper asked the young man, "Who is this Abdul
"I," the young man replied.
"This is an award for you from the vice-chancellor. Why do you
want to sell it?"
The story the young man told him so moved the shopkeeper that he
told him, "Young man, don't sell the book. I will give you the
money as a loan and I will keep the book in safe custody for you.
You go home now and come back and collect the book when you have the
Though this event occurred many decades ago, such
memories flooded A P J Abdul Kalam's mind when he entered the
Madras Institute of Technolgy campus.
"He narrated the story to me one day while we were talking about
our student days," said Dr A Kalanidhi, former vice-chancellor,
Ever since the ruling National Democratic Alliance announced Kalam
as its nominee for the post of President of India, Anna University
has become a much talked about institution.
At the university, Kalam, the man expected to be the nation's next
President, lived in one of the guest rooms in the campus and
held the honorary post of Padmashri T Muthiah Professor's Chair.
It was Kalanidhi, then vice-chancellor of Anna University, who
was instrumental in bringing former student Kalam back to the
"When I read in the newspapers that Kalam was planning to join the
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, as professor after his
stint as principal scientific advisor to the government ended, I
contacted him immediately and requested him to consider occupying
a professor's chair at Anna University. After all, he was a former
student," Kalanidhi recalls.
He even remembers the date he called up Kalam in Delhi: September
Kalanidhi assured Kalam the chair would be honoured if a person of
his calibre occupied it. "I told him Anna University would get a
better name if great people like him occupied the chair and helped
in the university's development," Kalanidhi told
After a long discussion, Kalam promised to call back after thinking about the offer. Kalanidhi left for the United States immediately thereafter. A few days later, when he was at Boston airport on his way to Chicago, Kalam called and expressed his willingness to work at Anna University. They decided to meet in Chennai.
Kalam went to the vice-chancellor's office on September 29 and everything was finalised. As professor, he wanted to work
on 'technology and societal transformation'. He also expressed a great desire to meet students at the university and in schools at
regular intervals as he felt students were the future of India.
On October 2, Kalam occupied the chair. A room and two attendants were provided for a man who was known to be simple and hated
ostentation. An office room, an Internet connection, two research scholars and two stenographers were all that he had at the
university. Of course, he had to put up with the security personnel provided by the Indian government.
Kalanidhi and Kalam had planned to travel abroad to meet the university's alumni, now working in countries such as the
United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Japan They planned to raise funds for the
"If you look at universities in Western countries, you will see that most of them flourish with the help of their alumni,"
said Kalanidhi. "But in our country, alumni support is not talked about at all. We wanted to change that and develop an alumni
network. As Kalam represented the scientific community of India, I didn't want him to be a representative of the university alone. He
readily agreed to the idea and we had planned everything in detail for July. We had informed all our old students and both of us were
quite excited about our plans for the university."
Not surprisingly, Kalanidhi is disappointed that the journey cannot take place now. "It's not just me, even Kalam is
disappointed." But he is, of course, happy on one count: Kalam wants to continue his research activities and teach even after
occupying the highest office in the country. Perhaps, for the first time, the President of India may teach students
at Anna University while continuing to guide his two research scholars from Rashtrapati Bhavan!
Kalanidhi likes to recall his first meeting with Kalam in 1990, when the latter was working on a cryogenic engine. It was at a
conference in Hyderabad and Kalanidhi still cannot get over his surprise when he met the director of the laboratory. "All of us
were sitting in the conference room and discussing the problems that we faced. We thought the director was yet to come in, as the
main chair was empty. After some time, I asked, 'Where's the director?' It was only then that somebody noticed a man sitting
along with us, wearing the laboratory uniform! I have not seen such an unassuming and simple man in my entire life. I feel so
elated that such a man will be the First Man of the country. It will be a great day for the Indian scientific community when he is
installed at Rashtrapati Bhavan."
During his brief stay at Anna University, Kalam walked for hours every day around the university campus, enjoying the beauty
of nature and dreaming about the country. It was during one such walk that he noticed the huge banyan tree that was struggling to
branch out. He also saw students sitting under the tree, reading. Later, he told the vice-chancellor, "We should give support to the
roots that are trying to touch the soil. Only if we allow the tree to grow horizontally will it grow strong and give shade to more
and more students."
He hoped the university would grow like a banyan tree and there would be many, many youngsters sitting under the tree...
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