He has a big brain and a huge heart. You see people with big brains and small hearts and vice versa, but you rarely find such a beautiful combination of a big brain and a huge heart." That was a research student talking about his guide, his eyes shining with unadulterated pride and awe.
For this particular guide is no ordinary man. He is Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, the man who will most likely be the 11th President of India. And Father A K George will have the distinction of becoming the first student so far to do his research under the guidance of the President of India.
Father Aathappilly Kuriakose George came to Anna University to do his Master of Engineering course, after completing his Bachelor of Technology degree from Trichur Engineering College and Master of Computer Applications from Christ College in Bangalore. Until, Destiny called.
It was a cool December morning in Chennai. Father George was walking along the corridors of Anna University when his ME project guide, Dr V Ramachandran, joined him and asked, 'George, do you want to do your PhD in systems engineering?'
"No, thank you, sir, the subject does not excite me," he and walked on when he heard the professor say, "Abdul Kalam is going to occupy a professor's chair here and there is an opening for a research student under him."
Father George, who was by then was a few yards away from his professor, stopped abruptly and turned. "Sir, I just discovered I am interested in systems engineering."
He started praying to God, this time with a rare personal request. He even asked his friends to pray for him. "I didn't tell anyone why I wanted them to do that because I thought it was an unreachable goal. But I prayed a lot."
Father George chuckles as he narrates his tale. We are sitting under a tree in the huge Anna University campus, in front of the building that housed Kalam's office.
Looking at the building where he first met his guide, Father George says, "I was told there was no need for any prior appointment, so I stood joined the queue waiting to meet Kalam and talk to him about the research project. By the time my turn came, he was about to go out."
Father George had rehearsed his lines several times, but when he finally saw the "great man" in front of him, he was overawed. "I had wanted to say, "I will be blessed if you will be my project guide," but I mumbled something else. Thankfully, he did not look the least bit serious. He was smiling and his demeanour was very friendly. Instead of going out, we sat down and he asked me my name and other details. It took around two-three minutes. After that, he said, 'I am going to Bangalore today, but I will be available next week. We will discuss this then.'"
A week later, Kalam was back in Chennai and Father George went to meet him. Though Kalam's initial reaction -- 'I don't think I will get enough time to help you in a research project' -- dampened Father George's spirit, he quipped, "But, sir, I can spend any amount of time with you because I am a priest."
'Don't you have to look after your parents?' Kalam asked him.
'Sir, there are 10 of us at home -- two doctors, two advocates, three engineers and two scientists…' The impressed Kalam asked for his resume and promised to get back after 10 days.
The next day, Father George accidentally bumped into Kalam at the laboratory. 'Father George,' said Kalam, 'I went through your rather tempting resume. I have decided to guide your PhD. I owe a lot to the Jesuits.' Kalam was referring to his school and college days, which he had spent at various Christian institutions.
Kalam initially suggested 'Information Security in the Internet Concerning the Defence Field' for George's thesis. Then came 'Making the Most Modern Electronic Techniques Available Today to Villagers.' Finally, he asked Father George to suggest some topics, The latter, who was keen on research related to the brain, suggested topics like 'How to Prevent Ageing' and 'How to Transfer Data from Brain to Brain.'
Kalam was not too happy, 'What use will that be to India?' He then suggested they work on 'Curing Mentally Retarded Children.' Father George agreed: the subject dealt with his favourite topic and was socially relevant to boot.
Kalam, too, was excited: 'Father, if you select that topic, we will learn together.'
From that day onwards, Father George became Kalam's walking partner for almost an hour each morning. As they walked, they'd discuss the research project and other topics, including spirituality. "Whenever we speak about the complexities of the brain, he would marvel and ask, 'Father, do you believe in God?' He is a deeply religious man but above all religions."
Father George still cannot forget the way Kalam made preparations for a visit to a college in Tirupati. "I saw him giving instructions before he started. He said, 'Let there be only one car. Please don't use any siren. No noise please. It is a holy place. We should not disturb the peace.' [Kalam gets high security protection]. I was amazed at the way he respected other religions.
"After the visit, he told me during our morning walk, 'They took us to the temple twice and we could go very near the deity. Very close.' He sounded so happy and satisfied. He appreciated the gesture of the temple authorities."
Father George has umpteen such instances that throw light on the concern and respect Kalam has for others. For example, there was the time he had to present a paper on the research project at 11 am and met Kalam with the paper just an hour earlier. "I knew I should not have troubled him at the last minute. But he didn't say, 'You should have come early for my signature.' Instead, he went through the paper and made some corrections. As he was reading, he asked me whether I had had my breakfast. I answered in the negative. Then he advised me, 'While studying, you should have your food at the right time.'"
As Father George made the necessary corrections, Kalam called his personal assistant asking him to organise some breakfast for Father George. "Kalam is a great man because he cares about others. Otherwise, why should he be interested in a student?"
The presentation, however, was postponed to three in the evening, after a written examination. So Father George corrected the paper again but, by the time he reached Kalam's house for his signature, it was 2.50 in the afternoon, just a few minutes before the presentation. Kalam was eating his lunch. "I told him, 'Sir, I will wait till you finish your lunch.' But he got up, washed his hands, signed the papers and then resumed eating. He need not have done that at all."
Every Monday, on their morning walk, Kalam would ask his student, 'Father, what did you preach in church yesterday?' He never ever addressed his student by name: it was always Father or Father George.
He would also note where Father George had parked his bicycle before they started their walk. After the walk, instead of going directly to his guesthouse, he would stop wherever the bicycle was parked and say, 'Father George, your cycle is here. Now, you can go and I also will go.'
Other than that hour long walk, Kalam would spend at least three to four hours every day with his student, researching the project. And, whenever he had no visitors, he would go to Father George's office and sit there.
Thus, Father George got to spend much time with the man who will most probably be India's next President. "I consider it a blessing to even spend a minute with a great man like Abdul Kalam. I do not know how to describe my good fortune in having been able to spend nearly five hours with him every day."
Father George remembers how every time Dr Kalam entered the research room, he would ask, 'Any new ideas?' "He is a born teacher and one of the few who invites ideas from his students. Most teachers don't undertake this kind of two-way traffic. After telling you his ideas, he would ask 'What do you think? What do you say?' He would welcome another's viewpoint. Whenever others suggested a new idea, he would say, 'Fantastic!'"
As Father George also taught at Anna University, Kalam would always ask, 'How many questions did you get from the students today?' Kalam, says Father George, believes the efficiency of a good teacher lies in eliciting relevant questions from students. He strongly believes that if students don't ask questions, the teacher is a failure.
"Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that, one day, I would be doing research under the great Abdul Kalam or spending so much time with him. Now, after I have worked under him for three months, he is leaving. I am happy he is going to be the President of India. I am sure the country will benefit a lot from this. Personally, though, I am a bit disappointed because I am losing him. I am the only loser...."
Father George was undeniably disappointed. Then, on the very day the NDA announced Kalam's name as their presidential candidate, the former called him from the guest house, 'Father George, don't worry. We will continue our research. Our project is set in motion and nobody can stop it.'
Despite the activity surrounding his candidature, the morning walks with his student continued and included the day after he officially filed his nomination. "Yes, our conversation was frequently interrupted by numerous phone calls. But, during the gaps, he discussed our project like we had been doing on other days. Then I told him, 'Sir, I am not in a mood to discuss the project.' 'Why?' he asked. 'I am a bit excited because you are becoming the President,' I said. He was very surprised, 'I can't believe, Father, that you are getting excited! You are a Father, a priest. Don't let emotions overpower you.'"
This could be why Father George has an unusual description for his guide, "He is not a single processor. He is a multi-processor; each processor doing parallel processing."
There may not be any more morning walks with Kalam on the grounds of Anna University for Father George, but he is still excited. After all, he is likely to be a frequent visitor at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Father George's photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj
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