Saturday, December 9, 2017

Wings of Fire -APJ Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam lived an admirable life. For someone who is not a film star, a sportsman or even a controversial politician, with such humble beginnings, a Muslim in a country that has always been torn apart by religious, communal and caste lines, rose above all and entered the hearts of all Indians. His field - boring and not-understood by the common man - science. Clearly what APJ achieved was for what his life stood for. Integrity, simplicity, compassion, humanity, inclusivity and a passion for excellence. Not many in India will check all boxes today - which is what makes APJ Kalam the ideal role model for any young Indian. (True to his trademark humility he also writes - I am no role model)
Universities Press, Rs. 250, 180 p

'Wings of Fire' is co-written by Arun Tiwari, APJ Kalam's associate during his stint in Hyderabad at the DRDL and is pretty much an account of his life, more so in the scientific arena where he, under the guidance of and along with great stalwarts like Prof. Vikram Sarabhai, Prof. Satish Dhawan, Prof. Brahm Prakash and others worked on the Indian space program and the missile program - with indigenously grown technology. The boy from the small town of Rameshwaram, belonging to a Muslim family, son of the wise Jainulabdeen, grew up, bred on the rustic yet worldly wisdom of his elders which he carried all his life. The famous story of his father and his close friend Lakshmana Sastry, priest of the famous Shiva temple has been written about much. The Muslim and Hindu, would have many a discussion on religion and custom and their children grew up together, went to school together. APJ's father was a man who, through his prayer, gave solace to many - people would come to him with bowls of water after he prayed in the mosque and he would dip his hands in them. The water would be given to the sick. Their house also fed many and turned away none. The parents were often called an ideal couple.

His father's words on prayer - "When you pray, you transcend the body and become part of the cosmos, which knows no distinction of wealth, age, caste or creed.' It's the best line on prayer I have read yet.

Or "In his own time, in his own place, in what he really is, and in the stage he has reached - good or bad - every human being is a specific element within the whole of the manifest divine Being. So why be afraid of difficulties, sufferings and problems? When troubles come, try to understand the relevance of your sufferings. Adversity always presents opportunities for introspection."

Or "One must understand the difference between a fear-ridden vision of destiny and the vision that enables us to seek the enemy of fulfillment within ourselves.'

His friend and later brother in law, Ahmed Jallaluddin, who was older to him by 15 years, encouraged him to excel in his studies, and was a big influence on him. So was Samsuddin, his first cousin and sole distributor of newspapers in Rameswaram. He also gave him his first job in his newspaper business. Some wonderful insight into the kind of people who lived in those times were of Lakshmana Sastry who admonished a teacher for separating the Muslim boy from his son Ramanadha Sastry in class and of Sivasubramaniam Iyer, an orthodox brahmin, who invited Kalam home for a meal and invited the wrath of his orthodox wife. But he was bent on making a change and the next time Kalam went home, she served him herself - the change had begun - of true wisdom, of equality and inclusivity of all God's creations. And today we have some Hindus who under the garb of religion and tradition do not hesitate to kill a Muslim or a low caste person and worse, is tacitly encouraged by the people in power who neither take action nor speak about it.

Kalam moved from Rameswaram to Ramanathapuram and enrolled in the Schwartz High School. "Does the seagull not fly across the Sun, alone and without a nest? You must forego your longing for the land of your memories to move into the dwelling place of your greater desires; our love will not bind you nor will our needs hold you." So said Jainulabdeen and bid him on. I wish many parents would have the strength to do that. I wish that I had the strength to do that when I was younger too.
At school he was influenced by teachers with broad minds and genuine love for students and the art of teaching. Iyadorai Solomon, his teacher told him that everything he wanted could happen if he desired it intensely and was absolutely certain that it would happen. "To succeed in life and achieve results, you must understand and master three mighty forces - desire, belief and expectation.'..'With faith, you can change your destiny." APJ, who had a childhood dream of flying, did finally become the first person from Rameswaram to fly a plane.

Then APJ moved to Tricy to St. Joseph's College. He says 'I was not a bright student in terms of marks but had a practical bent of mind. Here he developed a taste in English literature but more interestingly his two science teachers Prof. Chinna Durai and Prof. Krishnamurthy introduced him to the wonders of physics. "Science has always been the path to spiritual enrichment and self-realisation.' From St. Joseph's to the Madras Institute of Technology was the next step and he as financed by his sister Zohara who mortgaged her bangles and chain. At MIT he came under the guidance of Prof Sponder, Prof Pandalai and Prof Narsingha Rao all of whom influenced him. After MIT he applied for two jobs - one in the IAF at Dehradun and another in DTD&P at Delhi. APJ wanted the former, did not succeed, and secured the later. India probably benefited from that failure.

In his meeting with Swami Sivananda, after one of his greatest disappointments at not being selected for the Air Force, he learns that
"Desire, when it stems from the heart and spirit, when it is pure and intense, possesses awesome electromagnetic energy. this energy is released into the ether each night, as the mind falls into the sleep state. Each morning it returns to the conscious state reinforced with the cosmic currents. That which has been imaged will surely and certainly be manifested. You can rely, young man, upon this ageless promise as surely as you can rely upon the eternally unbroken promise of sunrise...and of spring."

Having decided to create his own opportunities APJ forged on. In the Directorate (DTD&P) he was posted to Civil Aviation and sent to Kanpur and later to ADE, Bangalore. There APJ was given charge of a hovercraft kind of a ground equipment machine (GEM) which he brought to a good stage. 'Nandi', the prototype, was flown by him with Defence Secretary Krishna Menon. Unfortunately Nandi was shelved but a bigger opportunity came up. He was called for the post of a rocket engineer by the INCOSPAR (Indian Committee for Space Research) where he met Pof Vikram Sarabhai. The team set up a Rocket Launching Station in Thumba in Kerala, inside a large church which was given by the church authorities. A stint at NASA - which included a visit to a NASA base had a painting prominently displayed in the reception lobby - that f Tipu Sultan's army fighting the British with indigenously developed rockets! Tipu had 700 rockets and subsystems of 900 rockets and his army had rocket men, when he was captured.

On innovation APJ says "You cannot expect a person to deliver results if you humiliate him, nor can you expect him to be creative if you abuse him or despise him.'

India's first rocket launch (of NASA make) happened in 1963 from that church. "Rocketry was reborn in India (from Tipu's days) thanks to the technological vision of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.'

APJ quoted from Kahlil Gibran - 'Bread baked without love is a bitter bread that feeds but half a man's hunger.' Mindfulness.

He speaks of Prof Vikram Sarabhai's leadership skills - where he would make every man party to the decisions, would challenge every person to their limits, praise whatever was accomplished even in failure and reassigned when things got difficult. He backed young experimenters and preferred them to established experts. With his guidance APJ moved into the making of a Rocket Assisted Take off system for military aircraft to help in areas with short runways. An indigenous one was developed. Then the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) was conceived and the Sriharikota Rocket Launch station was born. Sometime after that Prof Sarabhai died. An extraordinary man, industrialist, scientist and a visionary leader.

Then came the time of the SLV and the leadership of Prof Satish Dhawan and Prof Brahm Prakash. APJ was made Project Director of SLV.  APJ, visualised his team to be a group where each member worked to enrich the others in the team and experience the enjoyment of working together (as against a 'work' or 'workers' first approach).

APJ's time management principle
"During a morning stroll of 2km I used to prepare a general schedule and emphasise two or three things I would definitely like to accomplish during the day, including at least one thing that would help achieve long term goals. Once in office I would clean the table. Scan all papers and divide them into different categories - immediate action, low priority ones, ones that could be kept pending and reading material.  Then I would put the high priority papers in front of me and everything else out of sight."

On Project Management
"We learned the hard way that project management is about achieving a regular and efficient interfacing between the different individuals and work centres. Hard work can be set at nought in the absence of proper coordination."

To modify and paraphrase Dr. von Braun a bit
"Hard work is not enough. Not only do you have to have a goal but you have to have strategies to achieve it as fast as possible. Total commitment is not just hard work, it is total involvement. But if you have a vision along with the hard work you have more than just hard work. Its is the goal that makes the difference. Make your profession your religion, your mission.'

APJ again
"Total commitment is a crucial quality for those who want to reach the very top of their profession."

"Flow is a sensation we experience when we act with total involvement. Actions need no consciousness intervention. There is no hurry, no distracting demands on one's attention. The past and the future disappear."

Somewhere in the middle of all this, the SLV 3, under his guidance, crashed into the sea in 1979. After recovering from the debacle and with the support of his superiors, the team finally launched the SLV3 in July 1980. India had joined a small group of nations with satellite launch capability. Prof Satish Dhawan announced that India was ready to explore space. A Padmashri and a Padmabhushan were awarded. APJ remembers his team and their commitment through injuries, danger, his mentors and expresses his gratitude to all. He relates it here.

Then he moved to DRDL, Hyderabad.

A nice quote
"You have to dream before your dreams can come true. Some people stride towards whatever it is that they want in life; others shuffle their feet and never get started because they do not know what they want - and do not know how to find it either.'- Prof Satish Dhawan

With support from the Indian government the team worked on an integrated guided missile development program. The program developed Prithvi, Trishul, Agni.

"God can do tremendous things through the person who doesn't care about who gets the credit. The ego involvement should go. Before God trusts you with success, you have to prove yourself humble enough to handle the big prize." - Schuller

"The trouble is that we often merely analyse life instead of dealing with it."

'Motive is a force which is internal to the individual and forms the basis of his behavior in the work environment.'

 In 1989 the missile was launched successfully. APJ was conferred the Padma Vibhushan and then the Bharat Ratna. Someplace towards the end he speaks about his dream of wanting to start a small school for the underprivileged children.

There are many more quotes and ideas presented beautifully in the book with the kind of a clarity one would associate with a man of such high achievement and stature. What comes across clearly is that APJ was what he was because of his innate compassion, gratitude, diligence, integrity, hard work, clarity of purpose, a learning mindset and a zeal to be the instrument for God's purpose. From his early reverence to his mentors and gurus to his superiors and colleagues, he takes the best part of them. It is astounding to see what he has achieved and what he has enabled in a lifetime. His ideas of leadership are exactly what Collins said in 'Good to Great' - the Level 5 leader. His comeback after his many failures paved the way for bigger successes in other areas. Without doubt, the kind of a leader who can find a place among common people because he represents love, he represents what we all would like to be.

Another book that Anjali put on my desk to read. At this rate, I will be reading more of her books than what's on my list. One of the most inspiring books I have read. 

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