Staff working at the Rashtrapati Bhavan recount how the 11th president lived a simple lifestyle and always cared for them.
The 340-room Raisina Hill marvel Rashtrapati Bhavan had been the abode of the humble missile man APJ Abdul Kalam for five years during which he left an indelible impression on the staff with his caring and affable nature and a preference for simple lifestyle.
The post is known for strict protocols, which are adhered to by the staff of Rashtrapati Bhavan with hardly any direct interaction with the President unless the Supreme Commander wants to have one. But Kalam was different.
“I was posted in the household section when Dr Kalam asked me to connect a call to someone. Normally, secretaries call us to connect calls. I could not hear the name. I thought it would not be proper to check with the President. So I called his secretary Harry Sheridon to know the name.
“Once the call was over, he called me over the phone and said gently that ‘if you do not understand what I say then call me again to clarify’,” J K Saha, who has been working at the President’s Estate for the last 18 years, said.
Saha says he never made anyone feel that there was any difference between him and other people working at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Kalam specially loved to interact with children and would patiently hear them out. “His interactions with children continued till the last child was able to meet him, however late it may get,” he said.
“During his five-year stay in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, his family visited him only once to see the place,” D K Sahoo, who has served 19 years in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, said when asked about the visits of his family.
Salim Ahmed, a butler at the President’s residence for last 31 years who used to handle Kalam’s food, says the former President relished south Indian food but never once made any request for a specific dish to be prepared.
“He would never complain about the food. There were times when the salt in the dishes was on the higher side but he never complained. If there was a third dish prepared for him, he would ask whether there was any festival. He never asked us to prepare any particular dish,” Ahmed said.
While on tours, Ahmed said, Kalam despite having a tight schedule would ask whether he and other staff members accompanying him had their meals or not. “If the answer was negative, he (Kalam) told us to have our food and only after that he used to proceed with his next appointment.”
“He was very caring. Never discriminated. Before going to colder destinations, he would personally advice us to keep woollens and cover ourselves properly,” he said.
Librarian SNS Prakash, who has been in Rashtrapati Bhavan for nearly 32 years, says Kalam was an avid reader and often visited Rashtrapati Bhavan library to browse through books on music, literature and technology.
“He had his own personal library. But he often used to scan through books by either visiting the Bhavan library or going through them online. The digitisation work of the library was initiated by him,” Prakash said.
Despite his down to earth nature, the former President did not use to mince his words when someone erred but it was in the manner of a teacher.
“He was a celebrity. The lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan were crowded by children be it any occasion. Even in cases when celebrities were present, kids used to surround Dr Kalam in order to interact with him and he never disappointed anyone. The interaction used to go on for hours and would not end till the last child had met him,” Saha added.
The staff members, who used to travel with him, recount that his visits used to be a nightmare for security personnel as he would often stop the carcade (which is against security protocol) on seeing children waiting for him.
“During one such trip, carcade was stopped in a secluded area. Since, I suppose, it was his first trip, we got apprehensive. When we reached his car, we found that he was interacting with a bunch of kids who were standing and waving at him,” Tour Assistant Mohammed Khalid said.
He said they used to keep a towel ready to clean their shoes as they had to keep running to match his pace.
Amulya Kumar Das, who also manages the President’s tours, said he used to organise functions for children of the employees as well.
“My daughter still cherishes getting a photograph clicked with him when she was five years old,” he said.
Chote Lal, who is in-charge of the travel section, said once Kalam decided to leave for Delhi at 1 am from Hyderabad so as to ensure that his appointments there do not get hindered.
Kalam, during his stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan, would often break security cordon and wander into the residential areas of the Estate employees. “He improved houses for us. Earlier we used to live in British-era houses. But he improved them according to modern needs. Introduced herbal garden, increased greenery in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, set up a kitchen museum, fans and heaters for guards among many other things which bettered our working conditions,” Sahoo said.