Wednesday, July 24, 2002



  The Rediff Special/ Basharat Peer

All the President's kin

A P J M Maraicayar (wearing a cap), elder brother of President-elect A P J Abdul Kalam, along with family members and friends at New Delhi railway station on July 24
A P J M Maraicayar (wearing a cap), elder brother of President-elect A P J Abdul Kalam, along with family members and friends at New Delhi railway station on July 24  
The sun was still to rise. The air at the railway platform was filled with expectation as the Grand Trunk Express screeched to a halt, July 24, after a 36-hour journey from Chennai in south India.

Spartan in appearance, slinging bags over their shoulders and holding briefcases, a small group alighted from the AC III tier coach. No coolies rushed forward to offer to carry their baggage as the group moved towards the stairs that led to the exit of New Delhi railway station.

And then, there were lights, camera, action...

Policemen rushed in to ensure their safety even as flashbulbs went off from waiting press photographers and the lights came on from television cameras. This was no ordinary group of tourists: they were the kith and kin of A P J Abdul Kalam, the man who will be sworn in President of India on July 25. And the media was present in strength to catch them.

The group of 34 included the bachelor Kalam's immediate family and some childhood friends who had traveled from his hometown Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, to New Delhi to witness the swearing-in ceremony at the Central Hall of Parliament.

Counting the beads on his rosary, muttering Allah with every count, and uncomfortable under the arc lights was Kalam's elder brother, A P J M Maracaiyar, 85.

A boat owner, a dealer in seashells, this frail green-eyed man has brought up the man who is going to be President.

"I am extremely happy. I always prayed for his (Kalam's) success. He has made us proud. We had special prayers for a hassle-free presidential term for him. But I don't expect him to serve us. The nation is more important," said a smiling Maracaiyar, donning a velvet Nehru cap, a cream coloured shirt and a lungi.

Although he is looking forward to seeing his brother in the presidential palace, the old man prefers the sea. "I will not stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan even if he asks me to and will leave on July 26," he said.

Next to him is P L V Shastri, an elderly priest from Rameswaram, who was the President-elect's classmate. Despite the long journey, Shastri shows no signs of fatigue.

"The journey was very comfortable. But I have been impatient all the way. I just wanted to reach here fast. It is our greatest moment," he declared.

He is carefully carrying a weed basket. "I have brought prasad for him. It is from the holy temple at Rameswaram. He used to come there frequently. It is my way of wishing him a glorious term as President," he said with a sparkle in his eyes.

The excited entourage has a composition befitting the ideals Kalam has followed. It is a display of communal harmony, a journey that the Rameswaram temple priest, Shastri, and imam of the local mosque, A C M Noor-ul-Huda, took together.

Both the holy men are praying for Kalam's successful Presidency. The priest has brought prasad for Kalam while the imam offered special namaaz.

"We do not differentiate on the basis of religion in Rameswaram. We live together happily. He (Kalam) would visit the temple and the mosque," said Noor-ul-Huda.

As Kalam is set to become India's First Citizen, his kith and kin look back at the days gone by. They felt that given Kalam's dedication, hard work and ability, he was destined to succeed. But becoming President was a surprise!

"Knowing his qualities, I always felt he would scale great heights. But till his candidature was announced, I could not even think about it. It was a very pleasant surprise. It seems like a dream, going to attend his presidential swearing-in ceremony," says Kalam's nephew, Mohammed Ibrahim, who is a bank manager.

To make it to his uncle's swearing-in ceremony, Ibrahim took leave from his Kochi-based office. "He would not like it. For him work is top priority," he added.

Ibrahim recalled Kalam's stint at the Thumba rocket station decades ago, when he would ask Ibrahim to send information he and his colleagues needed to keep the project going via telegrams.

"There were no e-mails or instant long distance calls. So when uncle would be on holiday, he would ask me to send some telegram or the other to his office everyday. He never wanted work to suffer due to his absence," Ibrahim said.

Decades later, when Kalam became the most renowned missile scientist of the country, his nephew found that his sincerity remained the same.

"I met him last year at a function in Madurai. He took me aside and advised me that if I wanted to excel in life, I should work very sincerely," he added.

But Kalam, who is today considered an inspiration for many young minds, does not seem to have had much success in igniting the quest for knowledge at home. Many younger relatives have only completed their primary education, preferring to run a local business rather than pursue knowledge in the realm of science and technology.

Naina Mohammed, a nephew in his early 30s, runs a seashell business. A P J K Sadiq, 19, another nephew, has studied only till class 10. "I deal in spare parts for boats," he said, speaking through a translator, as was the case with most of Kalam's relatives, who spoke in their native Tamil.

But the occasion overwhelmed the linguistic handicap. The subject was the President-to-be and their proximity to him. Rajlakshmi Kalinidhi recalled her recent association with Kalam at Anna University, where he was for six months as professor, before winning the Presidential elections. Her husband was the Anna University vice-chancellor when Kalam joined the faculty.

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She recalled cooking meals for the "amazingly simple man" during his short stay at the university. "He ate only south Indian food. And he loves idlis. I would have bought some for him this time but they would have turned stale during the long journey," she said.

Barring a few like Rajlakshmi, most from the entourage was visiting the capital for the first time. And none had been to Parliament or Rashtrapati Bhavan, one of the world's largest presidential residences.

"It is a historic visit for us. A month ago, I could not even dream of it. Now it is actually happening," said Noor-ul-Huda, before boarding a bus that took the entourage to a guesthouse where rooms for them had been reserved.

The Presidency: A Special Series

The 11th President of India: Complete Coverage

The Rediff Specials


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