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'Every time you met him, you went back with your batteries charged'

July 29, 2015 12:43 IST

'He was very clear that he would never, ever lower the dignity of the office that he had held. It's been almost eight years since he demitted office, but not once did he forget that he still carried that legacy.'

'To think that in this day and age, there can be a man like Dr Kalam reinforces your strength in humanity and all that is good in it,' says Meera Johri.

Dr Kalam with students

IMAGE: Enthusiastic children greet President A P J Abdul Kalam at a school in Bengaluru. Photograph: Jagadeesh/Reuters

Dr Kalam left the way he would have liked to, talking to his favourite audience, his favourite constituency -- students.

And look what he was talking about -- The Liveable Planet.

When I first met Dr Kalam in 2006, he was the President of India, a title he carried very, very lightly. It never came in the way of how he interacted with anyone, be it of any office, any standing, any profession.

I had been reading his speeches and found them inspiring. I could see how they could be put together as a fantastic book.

During the course of finalising Indomitable Spirit, I had the occasion to meet him a couple of times.

Sometimes, a 15 minutes meeting would spill over into 45 minutes. As President, you can imagine the amount of pressing, urgent concerns that required his attention. I am sure he kept other people waiting, but when he spoke to you, he only focused on you and on the issue at hand.

Then, when the book got published, I went and presented it to him. Then we did another book and another book.

I last met him on July 2 at 6.15 pm -- I can't believe it was this month only! -- and had a long conversation with him on the phone last Wednesday (July 22).

It's come as a huge shock that he is suddenly no more. It's left a void in my life.

He was a living embodiment of all that is good -- truthfulness, simplicity, hard work.

He never had any airs about him.

We were once at his house at 10, Rajaji Marg -- this was where he moved to after he demitted the President's office -- and we were doing a photoshoot and an interview for a newspaper.

As we were going about it, the electricity failed. Dr Kalam got up, made his way in the darkness and returned holding a battery emergency light.

After checking that all of us were comfortable, he smiled and said, "Okay, now we can carry on."

As a former President, he had his staff around him, but he didn't call out to anyone.

He interacted with I don't know how many millions of people across the country, but he also had this great ability to connect with you at an individual level, no matter who you were.

He was always concerned about your well-being and always wanted to know if you were well taken care of.

More than the qualities of the head, which were amazing, it was the qualities of the heart which impressed me.

Over the years, I must have had over two dozen meetings with him -- some lasting for a long time. His last question, when I got up to leave, would always be, "You have a vehicle to go back?"

If I had ever answered no, he would probably have said, 'Okay, let me make some arrangements.'

And his tone (laughs) it was always like that of a teacher. Like a teacher would ask, 'Have you done your homework?', he would ask, 'Have you got a vehicle to go back?'

Even when he spoke to an audience (laughs), it was always like a teacher to a student. He would invariably say, 'Have you understood? Raise your hands' or 'Repeat after me.'

That quality of being a teacher, and the style of speaking like a teacher, stayed with him.

After he demitted the Presidency, he kept himself busier than before. He had had taken on so many engagements. He wanted to charge the youth of this country, the people of this country. He wanted to reach out to them. He was a man on a mission.

He was constantly travelling. Sometimes, I would tell him, "Sir, why don't you take it easy?"

"No, I am fine," he would say. "I enjoy it. I like meeting people." I think that's what kept him going, really.

Dr Kalam with Meera Johri

IMAGE: President A P J Abdul Kalam with Meera Johri. Photograph: Kind Courtesy Meera Johri

Occasionally, he would look a little pulled down. Physically, he had started to look a little older. Yet he would be working on so many ideas at the same time.

His energy and his enthusiasm, even at the end of the day, had to be seen to be believed.

He would always tell me, "I am a teacher at heart. I'll always go back to my first love, teaching. Which is what he was doing."

He was a genuine human being. He was very transparent and very principled. And he had a mind that was razor-sharp.

If he felt something was not right, he would not agree, no matter what. You could not budge him from his stand.

He was very clear that he would never, ever lower the dignity of the office that he had held. It's been almost eight years since he demitted office, but not once did he forget that he still carried that legacy.

Raising his voice was not part of his make-up; he too gentle and soft-spoken for that.

Yes, he could express his displeasure but raising his voice? No. Instead, he would discuss and debate.

Considering we are so close to 2020 and he had developed and marketed the idea of India 20/20, people would ask how close we were to his vision. He would never show a defeatist attitude, a negative attitude or a cynical attitude. He would say, "It's a big country, we are getting there, we will get there."

He was a great achiever and had worked very hard to reach where he did. He lived by the principle that if he could do it, anyone could. He always said that nothing can hold you back. Like it says in our first book, an indomitable spirit stands on two feet -- vision and firm resolve.

He himself was a living embodiment of that. He never expressed dejection or disappointment -- only enthusiasm.

I never ever found any trace of cynicism in him despite the fact that given the conditions in India are not the best of conditions and can pull down even the most positive person.

He was a visionary. His thoughts were far, far ahead of most of us. In one of his books, he visualises that we will run out of space on Earth and go and inhabit Mars.

Now one may laugh at it, but who knows?

He was always very clear that it was the duty of every citizen to support whatever government was in power and it was the duty of the government to look out for the welfare of the people.

He strongly believed that education holds the key to building character, especially in the initial years when a child is still very young and you can mould him or her.

He believed in proper education and the proper imparting of moral values through traditional moral science classes. He said he himself had benefitted greatly because that's where he heard, and was inspired by, the achievements of people who had reached great heights.

These are the things that will stay with me forever. I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interact with him over all these years.

Every time you met him, you went back with your batteries charged.

To think that in this day and age, there can be a man like him reinforces your strength in humanity and all that is good in it.

He really was a unique human being.

Meera Johri, Managing Director, Rajpal and Sons, has published eight of Dr Kalam's books, the latest being Forge Your Future, which released last October. She spoke to Savera R Someshwar/

Meera Johri