June 21, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Arun K Tiwari

'The whole universe is conspiring in Dr Kalam's favour'

Forty-six years old Arun K Tiwari is the co-author of Wings of Fire, the autobiography of Bharat Ratna A P J Abdul Kalam. A former missile scientist who worked under Kalam, Tiwari is currently director of the Cardiovascular Technology Institute at Hyderabad.

A recipient of the Defence Technology Spin-Off Award for the development of an indigenous coronary stent known as the Kalam-Raju stent, Tiwari is a non-medical professional in contemporary health care. In an exclusive interview with Syed Amin Jafri, he speaks about the scientist whom he almost idolises and who will be India's next President. Excerpts:

What are your impressions of Abdul Kalam as a person, a scientist and the subject of your biography?

I consider it a part of my destiny that I happened to write the biography of Dr Abdul Kalam. Actually, I have co-authored it with him. It was just like a pilgrimage for me -- suddenly I got this once-in-lifetime chance to know the intricacies and depth of an enlightened mind like Dr Abdul Kalam. It was a great act of benevolence as far as I am concerned.

By writing the book, it was revealed to me that there is a basic fire in every individual -- a kind of divine fire -- and through our hard work, our sincerity and discipline, if we can give wings to this fire, miracles can happen. That is why we chose the name, Wings of Fire.

In that process, I also learnt the story of a small boy in Rameshwaram who would not hesitate to distribute newspapers to earn some money. I also learnt about the power of dreams. While distributing those newspapers, Kalam saw many pictures of World War II, including Churchill's, and dreamt that 'one day, my pictures will also come in newspapers'. What a fantastic phenomenon that the dreams of a 10-year-old boy have come true!

I realise his sheer determination when he says that 'I have to be more than what I am'. Even at 71, with a Bharat Ratna, he still believes that. That is the gist and speciality of Dr Abdul Kalam. He has not got tired and has not slowed down. He is ever eager to learn.

What was your reaction when you came to know that he would be the presidential candidate?

Two days before his nomination [as the NDA candidate for the presidency], he was at CARE Hospital in Hyderabad. At a two-hour meeting with neurologists and senior doctors, he was discussing whether we could design a chip that could be implanted in mentally retarded children to compensate for their lost faculties.

The doctors were apprehensive. They put forward all sorts of doubts, but then Dr Kalam told them, 'I am not interested in listening to 100 ways by which it cannot be done. Can you tell me one way in which it can be done?' And that focus on one possibility among 100 doubting Thomases is what makes Dr Abdul Kalam unique. I and all those neurologists sitting there that day, we never knew we were talking to a future President of the country.

What interesting anecdotes have you come across when trying to profile the man?

Many common things about Dr Abdul Kalam appear as anecdotes because he is so different from other people. You see, Dr Kalam has given a beautiful gift to Hyderabad in the shape of the Research Centre Imarat at Vigyan Kancha. On Kalwakurthy Road, there was a barren land with big boulders. It was used for test-firing some anti-tank missiles, which the Defence Research and Development Laboratory was making in the 1970s.

In 1983, when the missile programme was unrolled, even before the first missile was supposed to come out in 1987-88, he felt -- 'now I need a facility to test it'. He used to contemplate among those boulders and I remember that in Wings of Fire, he said, 'I saw the hidden energy of Lord Shiva in those stones, which is vibrating to come out.' And, he convinced all the powers-that-be that that should be the location for the test facility.

Imarat is the name of the village where the research centre was established. He did not want to have a high-sounding name. So it was named the Research Centre Imarat. The ground was broken in 1985 and in less than three years the President of India came and inaugurated the facility, which is an international missile test facility by all standards.

Soon after, the then defence minister, K C Pant, came. He told Dr Kalam: 'I want to give you a gift. You have done a wonderful thing. What do you want?' Kalam told him: 'You give me 100,000 saplings. This place is so barren. I want it to be green.' You see the extraordinary response. Many people would have asked for so many worldly things, but the great man said, 'You give me 100,000 saplings.' It was organised and whenever you fly to Chennai, you see a green patch in Hyderabad in that area. Remember, that is due to Kalam. He left a green dot on the beautiful landscape of Hyderabad.

Apart from missiles and space launch vehicles, what other things interest him?

In 1992, he asked a question: if the sum total of missile technology, nuclear technology and space technology is to create weapons of destruction, can the same technology be used for the common good of a common man? He was pondering upon different things and then he suddenly realised that the situation in the health-care sector was very pathetic with almost every other thing being imported.

It is a national shame that when our satellite is in orbit and we are a nuclear power and talk of self-reliance in all fields, we are forced to import as simple a thing as an EGC electrode. So he gave us a task in the Defence Research and Development Organisation, to evolve different technology spin-offs to see what can be done for the good of the common man.

The Society for Biomedical Technology was established to facilitate this. It was co-chaired by Professor Rama Rao, then secretary to the science and technology department. I was appointed programme manager for that job and that gave a turn to my career. The society facilitated the development of many devices, including a very significant development in the shape of the Kalam-Raju stent. So that brought me out of the missile laboratory to work in a hospital. The mission is continuing and we have achieved significant success in telemedicine.

I feel Dr Kalam is an engine. He drives all of us -- engineers, doctors, financial experts, and people from different disciplines. We find our destinations by following his lead.

How do you find Kalam as a person?

He is simplicity personified in all dimensions, whether it is the comfort he needs, the kind of dress he wears, the sort of facilities he needs in his house. He is content with his food habits and his daily prayers. He is a devout Muslim and he does prayers with a lot of discipline. But he is well read about Indian scriptures as well. He is an ideal example of living with minimum comforts. No wonder his simplicity is what strikes me the most.

One of The Ten Commandments is that the meek shall inherit the earth. I think Dr Kalam has proved that Moses was right.

What factors do you think propelled Kalam's candidature to the country's highest constitutional office?

With several spellbound personalities and big guns around, the country has ultimately zeroed in on Dr Kalam. The nation is wholly with him. Everybody feels he is the best choice. I heard the presidential candidate of the Left telling a TV channel that 'I am fighting the NDA candidate. I am not fighting Dr Abdul Kalam.'

Dr Kalam feels we are all destined to become personal legends. The innate fire of divinity has to be given wings by our hard work, dedication and discipline. Those who do that and those who dare to fly, they will be blessed with heights. And once you are on the path of destiny, the whole universe will conspire in your favour.

I think that in the last one week, the same thing has been happening. The whole universe is conspiring in favour of the professor who is teaching social transformation and technology in Anna University in all his modesty and simplicity. The whole universe is conspiring in his favour to make him the President of the largest republic of the world. Otherwise, what else is he doing? Which lobby is supporting him?

Does he have any hard feelings about anybody?

No. Certainly none! Dr Kalam once told me, 'God gives and forgives and man gets and forgets.' When he was in the DRDO, he brought in young blood. Over 250 young scientists were inducted at one go. The project directors were selected by him. He is totally different. It was very common that he would go to a working place and say 'buddy, how are you?' Buddy is the word that is most frequently used by him.

There is the story about his failure to land a job with the Indian Air Force and a swami telling him that his destiny would take him elsewhere...

Yes, when he was in the Madras Institute of Technology, he was very fascinated about flying. There was an old aircraft at the campus just to inspire students. So, when he completed his aeronautical engineering course, he got two offers -- one from the air force and the other from DRDO. The first interview was at Dehra Dun for the IAF. Out of 25 students, 24 were selected and he was rejected. He felt very sad.

On his way back, he went to the Swami Shivanand Ashram at Rishikesh. Looking at him, the swamiji said: 'Why are you so sad?' So he was astonished. He said: 'I am very sad because I could not get entry to the air force.' The swamiji said: 'Do you know what is your destiny? If your destiny is not to go to the air force, how can you go to the air force? So don't question. Life is not about questions. Life is as it is. You follow it, you proceed, you will become what your destiny is. This event only signifies that you are not destined to go to air force.'

Later on in his career, he met Air [Chief] Marshal Dilbagh Singh, who was selected in the air force batch that Kalam missed. Where is Dilbagh Singh and where is Dr Kalam now? So this is destiny.

But isn't this a contradiction in terms? On the one hand, everyone knows that Dr Kalam is not superstitious and he is totally rational and on the other he has belief in divinity and destiny.

The belief in divinity and destiny is not superstition. Superstition is dogma and ritual. Superstition is, you to go a temple and you dance and evoke something for nothing. Dr Kalam says he is divine in the sense that there is divinity in everybody. So there is no religion involved here. It is in everybody. You have to give wings to your divinity. That means you have to do hard work and you need to have determination.

I consider Dr Kalam an apostle of will, the human will. So divinity is in you. So far as destiny is concerned, the ultimate purpose that we have become what we ought to become is that God wants us to evolve. We are all thrown out of heaven to evolve and the moment our evolution is over we will go back. And during that process, certain situations will be created in life. So, Dr Kalam is becoming the head of state. God wants him perhaps [to occupy this post] to bring peace to this troubled nation.

After trying all the ideologies and all kinds of experiments over the last 50-55 years, what is happening is that still the labour pains of an independent nation are not dying down. So, how do we transform this developing country into a developed nation? Perhaps that is the way this situation has emerged. I say he is destined to become what he is. I think that for a person and human being as evolved and enlightened as Dr Abdul Kalam, this is another lesson. Now we have to see whether he will pass this test. His past record is very good.

Will he be able to carry out the task being assigned to him?

Again, it depends upon what he is destined to do. God has given him a more complex situation than he was handling so far. The human mind, human society, is, at any time, more complex than technology systems. I think he has passed through this stage and so he should pass the next stage as well. It is as simple as that.

Will he have the time to meet 100,000 schoolchildren to fire their imagination after he gets into Rashtrapati Bhavan?

Meeting schoolchildren was something he decided at that point of time [after he retired as principal scientific adviser to the prime minister]. Everybody has 24 hours in a day. So one has to manage his time and fix up his priorities. He may not have the time to go to schools and meet the children, but there are so many other categories of people whom he will have to meet.

Or, children can be taken to Rashtrapati Bhavan for Dr Kalam to address them in that ambience...

Anything is possible. We are in the technology age. The day is not far off when he can address one million children in one go. Who knew five years back all of us would be carrying mobiles? He can carry on his mission for the schoolchildren even while performing his job at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Designed by Dominic Xavier

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