WINGS OF FIRE

WINGS OF FIRE 19
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Published Date:04-07-2017
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WINGS OF FIRE An Autobiography AVUL PAKIR JAINULABDEEN ABDUL KALAM has come to personally represent to many of his countrymen the best aspects of Indian life. Born in 1931, the son of a little educated boatowner in Rameswaram, Tamilnadu, he had an unparalleled career as a defence scientist, culminating in the highest civilian award of India, the Bharat Ratna. As chief of the country’s defence research and development programme, Kalam demonstrated the great potential for dynamism and innovation that existed in seemingly moribund research establishments. This is the story of Kalam’s rise from obscurity and his personal and professional struggles, as well as the story of Agni, Prithvi, Akash, Trishul a nd Nag - missiles that have become household names in India and that have raised the nation to the level of a missile power of international recokoning. At the same time as he has helped create India’s awesome weaponry, Kalam has maintained the ascetic rigour of his personal life, working 18 hours a day and practicing the veena. With characteristic modesty, Kalam ascribes the greatness of his achievement to the influence of his teachers and mentors. He describes the struggles of his boyhood and youth, bringing alive everyday life in a small town in South India and the inspirational role of educators. He describes the role of visionary Indian scientists, such as Dr Vikram Sarabhai, and of the creation of a coordinated network of research institutions. This is also the saga of independent India’s struggle for technological self sufficiency and defensive autonomy – a story as much about politics, domestic and international, as it is about science. Arun Tiwari worked under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam for over a decade in the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad. He is currently Director, Cardiovascular Technology Institute, Hyderabad, where he is pursuing Dr Kalam’s vision of developing cost-effective medical devices using indigenous defence technology. Dr Kalam is now India’s President. He was elected to India’s office by a huge majority in 2002. To the memory of my parents My Mother Sea waves, golden sand, pilgrims’ faith, Rameswaram Mosque Street, all merge into one, My Mother You come to me like heaven’s caring arms. I remember the war days when life was challenge and toil— Miles to walk, hours before sunrise, Walking to take lessons from the saintly teacher near the temple. Again miles to the Arab teaching school, Climb sandy hills to Railway Station Road, Collect, distribute newspapers to temple city citizens, Few hours after sunrise, going to school. Evening, business time before study at night. All this pain of a young boy, My Mother you transformed into pious strength With kneeling and bowing five timesFor the Grace of the Almighty only, My Mother. Your strong piety is your children’s strength, You always shared your best with whoever needed the most, You always gave, and gave with faith in Him. I still remember the day when I was ten, Sleeping on your lap to the envy of my elder brothers and sisters It was full moon night, my world only you knew Mother My Mother When at midnight I woke with tears falling on my knee You knew the pain of your child, My Mother. Your caring hands, tenderly removing the pain Your love, your care, your faith gave me strength To face the world without fear and with His strength. We will meet again on the great Judgement Day, My Mother APJ Abdul Kalam Contents Preface Acknowledgements Introduction ORIENTATION CREATION PROPITIATION CONTEMPLATION Epilogue Preface I have worked under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam for over a decade. This might seem to disqualify me as his biographer, and I certainly had no notion of being one. One day, while speaking to him, I asked him if he had a message for young Indians. His message fascinated me. Later, I mustered the courage to ask him about his recollections so that I could pen them down before they were buried irretrievably under the sands of time. We had a long series of sittings late into the night and early under the fading stars of dawn—all somehow stolen from his very busy schedule of eighteen hours a day. The profundity and range of his ideas mesmerized me. He had tremendous vitality and obviously received immense pleasure from the world of ideas. His conversation was not always easy to follow, but was always fresh and stimulating. There were complexities, subtleties, and intriguing metaphors and subplots in his narrative, but gradually the unfolding of his brilliant mind took the form of a continuous discourse. When I sat down to write this book, I felt that it required greater skills than I possessed. But realising the importance of this task and regarding it an honour to have been permitted to attempt it, I prayed earnestly for the courage and calibre to complete it. This book is written for the ordinary people of India for whom Dr Kalam has an immense affection, and of whom Dr Kalam is certainly one. He has an intuitive rapport with the humblest and simplest people, an indication of his own simplicity and innate spirituality. For myself, writing this book has been like a pilgrimage. Through Dr Kalam, I was blessed with the revelation that the real joy of living can be found in only one way—in one’s communion with an eternal source of hidden knowledge within oneself—which each individual is bidden to seek and find for himself or herself. Many of you may never meet Dr Kalam in person, but I hope you will enjoy his company through this book, and that he will become your spiritual friend. I could include in this book only a few incidents among the many narrated to me by Dr Kalam. In fact, this bookprovides only a thumbnail sketch of Dr Kalam’s life. It is quite possible that certain important incidents have been inadvertently dropped and that the contribution of some individuals to the projects co-ordinated by Dr Kalam has gone unrecorded. Since a quarter-century of professional life separates me from Dr Kalam, some important issues might also have remained unrecorded or have been distorted. I am solely responsible for such shortcomings, which are, of course, completely unintentional. Arun Tiwari Acknowledgements Introduction I wish to express my gratitude to all the people involved in the writing of this book, especially Mr YS Rajan, Mr A Sivathanu Pillai, Mr RN Agarwal, Mr Prahlada, Mr KVSS Prasada Rao and Dr SK Salwan, who were very generous in sharing their time and knowledge with me. I am thankful to Prof. KAV Pandalai and Mr R Swaminathan, for critical reviews of the text. I thank Dr B Soma Raju for his tangible, but always unspoken support, for this project. My sincere thanks go to my wife and unsparing critic, Dr Anjana Tiwari, for her tough comments, accompanied with her gentle support. It has been a pleasure to work with Universities Press, and the cooperation of the editorial and production staff is much appreciated. There are many fine people, such as the photographer Mr. Prabhu, who have selflessly enriched me and this book in ways beyond measure. I thank them all. And finally, my deepest gratitude to my sons, Aseem and Amol— for their unfailing emotional support during the writing, and because I seek in them that attitude towards life which Dr Kalam admired, and wanted this work to reflect. Arun Tiwari This book is being released at a time when India’s technological endeavours, to assert its sovereignty and strengthen its security, are questioned by many in the world. Historically, people have always fought among themselves on one issue or another. Prehistorically, battles were fought over food and shelter. With the passage of time, wars were waged over religious and ideological beliefs; and now the dominant struggle of sophisticated warfare is for economic and technological supremacy. Consequently, economic and technological supremacy is equated with political power and world control. Afew nations who have grown very strong technologically, over the past few centuries, have wrested control, for their own purposes. These major powers have become the self-proclaimed leaders of the new world order. What does a country of one billion people, like India, do in such a situation? We have no other option but to be technologically strong. But, can India be a leader in the field of technology? My answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’. And let me validate my answer by narrating some incidents from my life. When I first began the reminiscences that have gone into this book, I was uncertain about which of my memories were worth narrating or were of any relevance at all. My childhood is precious to me, but would it be of interest to anyone else? Was it worth the reader’s while, I wondered, to know about the tribulations and triumphs of a smalltown boy? Of the straitened circumstances of my schooldays, the odd jobs I did to pay my school fees, and how my decision to become a vegetarian was partly due to my financialto become a vegetarian was partly due to my financial constraints as a college student—why should these be of any interest to the general public? In the end, I was convinced that these were relevant, if not for anything else but because they tell something of the story of modern India, as individual destiny and the social matrix in which it is embedded cannot be seen in isolation. Having been persuaded of this, it did seem germane to include the accounts of my frustrated attempt to become an Air Force pilot and of how I became, instead of the Collector my father dreamed I would be, a rocket engineer. Finally, I decided to describe the individuals who had a profound influence on my life. This book is also by way of a submission of thanks, therefore, to my parents and immediate family, and to the teachers and preceptors I was fortunate to have had, both as a student and in my professional life. It is also a tribute to the unflagging enthusiasm and efforts of my young colleagues who helped to realise our collective dreams. The famous words of Isaac Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants are valid for every scientist and I certainly owe a great debt of knowledge and inspiration to the distinguished lineage of Indian scientists, that included Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and Brahm Prakash. They played major roles in my life and in the story of Indian science. I completed sixty years of age on 15 October 1991. I had decided to devote my retirement to fulfilling what I saw as my duties in the sphere of social service. Instead, two things happened simultaneously. First, I agreed to continue in government service for another three years and, next, a young colleague, Arun Tiwari, requested me to share my reminiscences with him, so that he could record them. He was someone who had been working in my laboratory since 1982, but I had never really known him well until the February of 1987 when I visited him at the Intensive Coronary Care Unit of the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad. He was a mere 32 years old, but was fighting valiantly for his life. I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to do for him. “Give me your blessings, sir,” he said, “so that I may have a longer life and can complete at least one of your projects.” The young man’s dedication moved me and I prayed for his recovery all night. The Lord answered my prayers and Tiwari was able to get back to work in a month. He did an excellent job in helping to realise the Akash missile airframe from scratch within the short space of three years. He then took up the task of chronicling my story. Over the last year, he patiently transcribed the bits and pieces of my story and converted them into a fluent narrative. He also went through my personal library meticulously and selected from among the pieces of poetry those that I had marked while reading, and included them in the text. This story is an account, I hope, not just of my personal triumphs and tribulations but of the successes and setbacks of the science establishment in modern India, struggling to establish itself in the technological forefront. It is the story of national aspiration and of cooperative endeavour. And, as I see it, the saga of India’s search for scientific self-sufficiency and technological competence is a parable for our times. Each individual creature on this beautiful planet is created by God to fulfil a particular role. Whatever I have achieved in life is through His help, and an expression of His will. He showered His grace on me through some outstanding teachers and colleagues, and when I pay my1 I was born into a middle-class Tamil family in the island town of Rameswaram in the erstwhile Madras state. My father, Jainulabdeen, had neither much formal education nor much wealth; despite these disadvantages, he possessed great innate wisdom and a true generosity of spirit. He had an ideal helpmate in my mother, Ashiamma. I do not recall the exact number of people she fed every day, but I am quite certain that far more outsiders ate with us than all the members of our own family put together. My parents were widely regarded as an ideal couple. My mother’s lineage was the more distinguished, one of her forebears having been bestowed the title of ‘Bahadur’ by the British. I was one of many children—a short boy with rather undistinguished looks, born to tall and handsome parents. We lived in our ancestral house, which was built in the middle of the 19th century. It was a fairly large pucca house, made of limestone and brick, on the Mosque Street in Rameswaram. My austere father used to avoid all inessential comforts and luxuries. However, all necessities were provided for, in terms of food, medicine or clothes. In fact, I would say mine was a very secure childhood, both materially and emotionally. I normally ate with my mother, sitting on the floor of the kitchen. She would place a banana leaf before me, on which she then ladled rice and aromatic sambhar, a variety of sharp, home-made pickles and a dollop of fresh coconut chutney. The famous Shiva temple, which made Rameswaram so sacred to pilgrims, was about a ten-minute walk from our house. Our locality was predominantly Muslim, but there were quite a few Hindu families too, living amicably with their Muslim neighbours. There was a very old mosque in our locality where my father would take me for evening prayers. I had not the faintest idea of the meaning of the Arabic prayers chanted, but I was totally convinced that they reached God. When my father came out of the mosque after the prayers, people of different religions would be sitting outside, waiting for him. Many of them offered bowls of water to my father who would dip his fingertips in them and say a prayer. This water was then carried home for invalids. I also remember people visiting our home to offer thanks after being cured. My father always smiled and asked them to thank Allah, the benevolent and merciful. The high priest of Rameswaram temple, Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, was a very close friend of my father’s. One of the most vivid memories of my early childhood is of the two men, each in his traditional attire, discussing spiritual matters. When I was old enough to ask questions, I asked my father about the relevance of prayer. My father told me there was nothing mysterious about prayer. Rather, prayer made possible a communion of the spirit between people. “When you pray,” he said, “you transcend your body and become a part of the cosmos, which knows no division of wealth, age, caste, or creed.” My father could convey complex spiritual concepts in very simple, downto-earth Tamil. He once told me, “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 divineBeing. 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.” “Why don’t you say this to the people who come to you for help and advice?” I asked my father. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. For quite some time he said nothing, as if he was judging my capacity to comprehend his words. Then he answered in a low, deep voice. His answer filled me with a strange energy and enthusiasm: Whenever human beings find themselves alone, as a natural reaction, they start looking for company. Whenever they are in trouble, they look for someone to help them. Whenever they reach an impasse, they look to someone to show them the way out. Every recurrent anguish, longing, and desire finds its own special helper. For the people who come to me in distress, I am but a go-between in their effort to propitiate demonic forces with prayers and offerings. This is not a correct approach at all and should never be followed. One must understand the difference between a fear-ridden vision of destiny and the vision that enables us to seek the enemy of fulfilment within ourselves. I remember my father starting his day at 4 a.m. by reading the namaz before dawn. After the namaz, he used to walk down to a small coconut grove we owned, about 4 miles from our home. He would return, with about a dozen coconuts tied together thrown over his shoulder, and only then would he have his breakfast. This remained his routine even when he was in his late sixties. I have throughout my life tried to emulate my father in my own world of science and technology. I have endeavoured to understand the fundamental truths revealed to me by my father, and feel convinced that there exists a divine power that can lift one up from confusion, misery, melancholy and failure, and guide one to one’s true place. And once an individual severs his emotional and physical bondage, he is on the road to freedom, happiness and peace of mind. I was about six years old when my father embarked on the project of building a wooden sailboat to take pilgrims from Rameswaram to Dhanuskodi, (also called Sethukkarai), and back. He worked at building the boat on the seashore, with the help of a relative, Ahmed Jallaluddin, who later married my sister, Zohara. I watched the boat take shape. The wooden hull and bulkheads were seasoned with the heat from wood fires. My father was doing good business with the boat when, one day, a cyclone bringing winds of over 100 miles per hour carried away our boat, along with some of the landmass of Sethukkarai. The Pamban Bridge collapsed with a train full of passengers on it. Until then, I had only seen the beauty of the sea, now its uncontrollable energy came as a revelation to me. By the time the boat met its untimely end, Ahmed Jallaluddin had become a close friend of mine, despite the difference in our ages. He was about 15 years older than I and used to call me Azad. We used to go for long walks together every evening. As we started from Mosque Street and made our way towards the sandy shores of the island, Jallaluddin and I talked mainly of spiritual matters. The atmosphere of Rameswaram, with its flocking pilgrims, was conducive to such discussion. Our first halt would be at the imposing temple of Lord Shiva. Circling around the temple with the same reverence as any pilgrim from a distant part of the country, we felt a flow of energy pass through us. Jallaluddin would talk about God as if he had a workingpartnership with Him. He would present all his doubts to God as if He were standing nearby to dispose of them. I would stare at Jallaluddin and then look towards the large groups of pilgrims around the temple, taking holy dips in the sea, performing rituals and reciting prayers with a sense of respect towards the same Unknown, whom we treat as the formless Almighty. I never doubted that the prayers in the temple reached the same destination as the ones offered in our mosque. I only wondered whether Jallaluddin had any other special connection to God. Jallaluddin’s schooling had been limited, principally because of his family’s straitened circumstances. This may have been the reason why he always encouraged me to excel in my studies and enjoyed my success vicariously. Never did I find the slightest trace of resentment in Jallaluddin for his deprivation. Rather, he was always full of gratitude for whatever life had chosen to give him. Incidentally, at the time I speak of, he was the only person on the entire island who could write English. He wrote letters for almost anybody in need, be they letters of application or otherwise. Nobody of my acquaintance, either in my family or in the neighbourhood even had Jallaluddin’s level of education or any links of consequence with the outside world. Jallaluddin always spoke to me about educated people, of scientific discoveries, of contemporary literature, and of the achievements of medical science. It was he who made me aware of a “brave, new world” beyond our narrow confines. In the humble environs of my boyhood, books were a scarce commodity. By local standards, however, the personal library of STR Manickam, a former ‘revolutionary’ or militant nationalist, was sizeable. He encouraged me to read all I could and I often visited his home to borrow books. Another person who greatly influenced my boyhood was my first cousin, Samsuddin. He was the sole distributor for newspapers in Rameswaram. The newspapers would arrive at Rameswaram station by the morning train from Pamban. Samsuddin’s newspaper agency was a one-man organization catering to the reading demands of the 1,000- strong literate population of Rameswaram town. These newspapers were mainly bought to keep abreast of current developments in the National Independence Movement, for astrological reference or to check the bullion rates prevailing in Madras. A few readers with a more cosmopolitan outlook would discuss Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah; almost all would finally flow into the mighty political current of Periyar EV Ramaswamy’s movement against high caste Hindus. Dinamani was the most sought after newspaper. Since reading the printed matter was beyond my capability, I had to satisfy myself with glancing at the pictures in the newspaper before Samsuddin delivered them to his customers. The Second World War broke out in 1939, when I was eight years old. For reasons I have never been able to understand, a sudden demand for tamarind seeds erupted in the market. I used to collect the seeds and sell them to a provision shop on Mosque Street. A day’s collection would fetch me the princely sum of one anna. Jallaluddin would tell me stories about the war which I would later attempt to trace in the headlines in Dinamani. Our area, being isolated, was completely unaffected by the war. But soon India was forced to join the Allied Forces and something like a state of emergency was declared. The first casualty came in the form of the suspension of the train halt atRameswaram station. The newspapers now had to be bundled and thrown out from the moving train on the Rameswaram Road between Rameswaram and Dhanuskodi. That forced Samsuddin to look for a helping hand to catch the bundles and, as if naturally, I filled the slot. Samsuddin helped me earn my first wages. Half a century later, I can still feel the surge of pride in earning my own money for the first time. Every child is born, with some inherited characteristics, into a specific socio-economic and emotional environment, and trained in certain ways by figures of authority. I inherited honesty and self-discipline from my father; from my mother, I inherited faith in goodness and deep kindness and so did my three brothers and sister. But it was the time I spent with Jallaluddin and Samsuddin that perhaps contributed most to the uniqueness of my childhood and made all the difference in my later life. The unschooled wisdom of Jallaluddin and Samsuddin was so intuitive and responsive to non-verbal messages, that I can unhesitatingly attribute my subsequently manifested creativity to their company in my childhood. I had three close friends in my childhood—Ramanadha Sastry, Aravindan, and Sivaprakasan. All these boys were from orthodox Hindu Brahmin families. As children, none of us ever felt any difference amongst ourselves because of our religious differences and upbringing. In fact, Ramanadha Sastry was the son of Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, the high priest of the Rameswaram temple. Later, he took over the priesthood of the Rameswaram temple from his father; Aravindan went into the business of arranging transport for visiting pilgrims; and Sivaprakasan became a catering contractor for the Southern Railways. During the annual Shri Sita Rama Kalyanam ceremony, our family used to arrange boats with a special platform for carrying idols of the Lord from the temple to the marriage site, situated in the middle of the pond called Rama Tirtha which was near our house. Events from the Ramayana and from the life of the Prophet were the bedtime stories my mother and grandmother would tell the children in our family. One day when I was in the fifth standard at the Rameswaram Elementary School, a new teacher came to our class. I used to wear a cap which marked me as a Muslim, and I always sat in the front row next to Ramanadha Sastry, who wore a sacred thread. The new teacher could not stomach a Hindu priest’s son sitting with a Muslim boy. In accordance with our social ranking as the new teacher saw it, I was asked to go and sit on the back bench. I felt very sad, and so did Ramanadha Sastry. He looked utterly downcast as I shifted to my seat in the last row. The image of him weeping when I shifted to the last row left a lasting impression on me. After school, we went home and told our respective parents about the incident. Lakshmana Sastry summoned the teacher, and in our presence, told the teacher that he should not spread the poison of social inequality and communal intolerance in the minds of innocent children. He bluntly asked the teacher to either apologize or quit the school and the island. Not only did the teacher regret his behaviour, but the strong sense of conviction Lakshmana Sastry conveyed ultimately reformed this young teacher. On the whole, the small society of Rameswaram was highly stratified and very rigid in terms of the segregation of different social groups. However, my science teacher Sivasubramania Iyer, though an orthodox Brahmin with a very conservative wife, was something of a rebel. He didhis best to break social barriers so that people from varying backgrounds could mingle easily. He used to spend hours with me and would say, “Kalam, I want you to develop so that you are on par with the highly educated people of the big cities.” One day, he invited me to his home for a meal. His wife was horrified at the idea of a Muslim boy being invited to dine in her ritually pure kitchen. She refused to serve me in her kitchen. Sivasubramania Iyer was not perturbed, nor did he get angry with his wife, but instead, served me with his own hands and sat down beside me to eat his meal. His wife watched us from behind the kitchen door. I wondered whether she had observed any difference in the way I ate rice, drank water or cleaned the floor after the meal. When I was leaving his house, Sivasubramania Iyer invited me to join him for dinner again the next weekend. Observing my hesitation, he told me not to get upset, saying, “Once you decide to change the system, such problems have to be confronted.” When I visited his house the next week, Sivasubramania Iyer’s wife took me inside her kitchen and served me food with her own hands. Then the Second World War was over and India’s freedom was imminent. “Indians will build their own India,” declared Gandhiji. The whole country was filled with an unprecedented optimism. I asked my father’s permission to leave Rameswaram and study at the district headquarters in Ramanathapuram. He told me as if thinking aloud, “Abul I know you have to go away to grow. 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.” He quoted Khalil Gibran to my hesitant mother, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts.” He took me and my three brothers to the mosque and recited the prayer Al Fatiha from the Holy Qur’an. As he put me on the train at Rameswaram station he said, “This island may be housing your body but not your soul. Your soul dwells in the house of tomorrow which none of us at Rameswaram can visit, not even in our dreams. May God bless you, my child” Samsuddin and Ahmed Jallaluddin travelled with me to Ramanathapuram to enrol me in Schwartz High School, and to arrange for my boarding there. Somehow, I did not take to the new setting. The town of Ramanathapuram was a thriving, factious town of some fifty thousand people, but the coherence and harmony of Rameswaram was absent. I missed my home and grabbed every opportunity to visit Rameswaram. The pull of educational opportunities at Ramanathapuram was not strong enough to nullify the attraction of poli, a South Indian sweet my mother made. In fact, she used to prepare twelve distinctly different varieties of it, bringing out the flavour of every single ingredient used in the best possible combinations. Despite my homesickness, I was determined to come to terms with the new environment because I knew my father had invested great hopes in my success. My father visualized me as a Collector in the making and I thought it my duty to realise my father’s dream, although I desperately missed the familiarity, security and comforts of Rameswaram. Jallaluddin used to speak to me about the power ofpositive thinking and I often recalled his words when I felt homesick or dejected. I tried hard to do as he said, which was to strive to control my thoughts and my mind and, through these, to influence my destiny. Ironically, that destiny did not lead me back to Rameswaram, but rather, swept me farther away from the home of my childhood. 2 O nce I settled down at the Schwartz High School, Ramanathapuram, the enthusiastic fifteen-year-old within me re-emerged. My teacher, Iyadurai Solomon, was an ideal guide for an eager young mind that was yet uncertain of the possibilities and alternatives that lay before it. He made his students feel very comfortable in class with his warm and open-minded attitude. He used to say that a good student could learn more from a bad teacher than a poor student from even a skilled teacher. During my stay at Ramanathapuram, my relationship with him grew beyond that of teacher and pupil. In his company, I learnt that one could exercise enormous influence over the events of one’s own life. Iyadurai Solomon used to say, “To succeed in life and achieve results, you must understand and master three mighty forces— desire, belief, and expectation.” Iyadurai Solomon, who later became a Reverend, taught me that before anything I wanted could happen, I had to desire it intensely and be absolutely certain it would happen. To take an example from my own life, I had been fascinated by the mysteries of the sky and the flight of birds from early childhood. I used to watch cranes and seagulls soar into flight and longed to fly. Simple, provincial boy though I was, I was convinced that one day I, too, would soar up into the skies. Indeed, I was the first child from Rameswaram to fly. Iyadurai Solomon was a great teacher because he instilled in all the children a sense of their own worth. Solomon raised my self-esteem to a high point and convinced me, the son of parents who had not had the benefits of education, that I too could aspire to become whatever I wished. “With faith, you can change your destiny,” he would say. One day, when I was in the fourth form, my mathematics teacher, Ramakrishna Iyer, was teaching another class. Inadvertently, I wandered into that classroom and in the manner of an old-fashioned despot, Ramakrishna Iyer caught me by the neck and caned me in front of the whole class. Many months later, when I scored full marks in mathematics, he narrated the incident to the entire school at morning assembly. “Whomsoever I cane becomes a great man Take my word, this boy is going to bring glory to his school and to his teachers.” His praise quite made up for the earlier humiliation By the time I completed my education at Schwartz, I was a selfconfident boy determined to succeed. The decision to go in for further education was taken without a second thought. To us, in those days, the awareness of the possibilities for a professional education did not exist; higher education simply meant going to college. The nearest college was at Tiruchchirappalli, spelled Trichinopoly those days, and called Trichi for short. In 1950, I arrived at St. Joseph’s College, Trichi, to study for the Intermediate examination. I was not a bright student in terms of examination grades but, thanks to my two buddies back in Rameswaram, I had acquired a practical bent of mind. Whenever I returned to Rameswaram from Schwartz, my elder brother Mustafa Kamal, who ran a provision store on the railway station road, would call me in to give him a little help and then vanish for hours together leaving theshop in my charge. I sold oil, onions, rice and everything else. The fastest moving items, I found, were cigarettes and bidis. I used to wonder what made poor people smoke away their hardearned money. When spared by Mustafa, I would be put in charge of his kiosk by my younger brother, Kasim Mohammed. There I sold novelties made of seashells. At St. Joseph’s, I was lucky to find a teacher like the Rev. Father TN Sequeira. He taught us English and was also our hostel warden. We were about a hundred boys living in the three-storeyed hostel building. Rev. Father used to visit each boy every night with a Bible in his hand. His energy and patience was amazing. He was a very considerate person who took care of even the most minute requirements of his students. On Deepavali, on his instructions, the Brother in charge of the hostel and the mess volunteers would visit each room and distribute good gingelly oil for the ritual bath. I stayed on the St. Joseph’s campus for four years and shared my room with two others. One was an orthodox Iyengar from Srirangam and the other a Syrian Christian from Kerala. The three of us had a wonderful time together. When I was made secretary of the vegetarian mess during my third year in the hostel, we invited the Rector, Rev. Father Kalathil, over for lunch one Sunday. Our menu included the choicest preparations from our diverse backgrounds. The result was rather unexpected, but Rev. Father was lavish in his praise of our efforts. We enjoyed every moment with Rev. Father Kalathil, who participated in our unsophisticated conversation with childlike enthusiasm. It was a memorable event for us all. My teachers at St. Joseph were the true followers of Kanchi Paramacharya, who evoked people to “enjoy the action of giving”. The vivid memory of our mathematics teachers, Prof. Thothathri Iyengar and Prof. Suryanarayana Sastry, walking together on the campus inspires me to this day. When I was in the final year at St. Joseph’s, I acquired a taste for English literature. I began to read the great classics, Tolstoy, Scott and Hardy being special favourites despite their exotic settings, and then I moved on to some works in Philosophy. It was around this time that I developed a great interest in Physics. The lessons on subatomic physics at St. Joseph’s by my physics teachers, Prof. Chinna Durai and Prof. Krishnamurthy, introduced me to the concept of the half-life period and matters related to the radioactive decay of substances. Sivasubramania Iyer, my science teacher at Rameswaram, had never taught me that most subatomic particles are unstable and that they disintegrate after a certain time into other particles. All this I was learning for the first time. But when he taught me to strive with diligence because decay is inherent in all compounded things, was he not talking of the same thing? I wonder why some people tend to see science as something which takes man away from God. As I look at it, the path of science can always wind through the heart. For me, science has always been the path to spiritual enrichment and self-realisation. Even the rational thought-matrices of science have been home to fairy tales. I am an avid reader of books on cosmology and enjoy reading about celestial bodies. Many friends, while asking me questions related to space flights, sometimes slip into astrology. Quite honestly, I have never really understood the reason behind the great importance attached by people to the faraway planets in our solar system. As an art, I have nothing against astrology, but if itseeks acceptance under the guise of science, I reject it. I do not know how these myths evolved about planets, star constellations, and even satellites—that they can exercise power on human beings. The highly complicated calculations manipulated around the precise movements of celestial bodies, to derive highly subjective conclusions appear illogical to me. As I see it, the Earth is the most powerful and energetic planet. As John Milton puts it so beautifully in Paradise Lost, Book VIII: . . . What if the Sun Be centre to the World, and other stars . . . . . The planet earth, so steadfast though she seem, In sensibly three different motions move? Wherever you go on this planet, there is movement and life. Even apparently inanimate things like rocks, metal, timber, clay are full of intrinsic movement—with electrons dancing around each nucleus. This motion originates in their response to the confinement imposed on them by the nucleus, by means of electric forces which try to hold them as close as possible. Electrons, just like any individual with a certain amount of energy, detest confinement. The tighter the electrons are held by the nucleus, the higher their orbital velocity will be: in fact, the confinement of electrons in an atom results in enormous velocities of about 1000 km per second These high velocities make the atom appear a rigid sphere, just as a fast-moving fan appears like a disc. It is very difficult to compress atoms more strongly—thus giving matter its familiar solid aspect. Everything solid, thus, contains much empty space within and everything stationary contains great movement within. It is as though the great dance of Shiva is being performed on earth during every moment of our existence. When I joined the B.Sc. degree course at St.Joseph’s, I was unaware of any other option for higher education. Nor did I have any information about career opportunities available to a student of science. Only after obtaining a B.Sc. did I realise that physics was not my subject. I had to go into engineering to realise my dreams. I could have joined the Engineering course long ago, right after finishing my Intermediate course. Better late than never, I told myself as I made the detour, applying for admission into the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), regarded as the crown jewel of technical education in South India at that time. I managed to be on the list of selected candidates, but admission to this prestigious institution was an expensive affair. Around a thousand rupees was required, and my father could not spare that much money. At that time, my sister, Zohara, stood behind me, mortgaging her gold bangles and chain. I was deeply touched by her determination to see me educated and by her faith in my abilities. I vowed to release her bangles from mortgage with my own earnings. The only way before me to earn money at that point of time was to study hard and get a scholarship. I went ahead at full steam. What fascinated me most at MIT was the sight of two decommissioned aircraft displayed there for the demonstration of the various subsystems of flying machines. I felt a strange attraction towards them, and would sit near them long after other students had gone back to the hostel, admiring man’s will to fly free in the sky, like a bird. After completing my first year, when I had to opt for a specific branch, I almost spontaneously chose aeronautical engineering. The goal was very clear in my mind now; I was going to fly aircraft. I was convinced of this,despite being aware of my lack of assertiveness, which probably came about because of my humble background. Around this time, I made special efforts to try and communicate with different kinds of people. There were setbacks, disappointments and distractions, but my father’s inspiring words anchored me in those periods of nebulous drift. Plate 1 (a) My father Jainulabdeen was not formally educated, but was a man of great wisdom and kindness. (b) Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, a close friend of my father and the head priest of the Rameswaram Temple.Plate 2 The locality in which I grew up: (a) My house on Mosque Street. (b) Thousands of pilgrims from great distances descend on the ancient temple of Lord Shiva. I often assisted my brother Kasim Mohamed in his shop selling artifacts on this street. Plate 3 The old mosque in our locality where my father would take me and my brothers every evening to offer prayers.Plate 4 My brother pointing at the T–square I used while studying engineering. Plate 5 STR Manickam (inset), a friend of my brother Mustafa Kamal, had a large collection of books. This is his house, from where I would borrow books while at Rameswaram.Plate 6 A family get-together. Plate 7 The simple surroundings of Schwartz High School, Ramanathapuram. The words on the plaque read "Let not thy winged days be spent in vain. When once gone no gold can buy them back again."Plate 8 My teachers at Schwartz High School— Iyadurai Solomon (standing, left) and Ramakrishna Iyer (sitting, right). They are the best examples of small-town Indian teachers committed to nurturing talent. “He who knows others is learned, but the wise one is the one who knows himself. Learning without wisdom is of no use.” In the course of my education at MIT, three teachers shaped my thinking. Their combined contributions formed the foundation on which I later built my professional career. These three teachers were Prof. Sponder, Prof. KAV Pandalai and Prof. Narasingha Rao. Each one of them had very distinct personalities, but they shared a common impulse— the capacity to feed their students’ intellectual hunger by sheer brilliance and untiring zeal. Prof. Sponder taught me technical aerodynamics. He was an Austrian with rich practical experience in aeronautical engineering. During the Second World War, he had been captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Understandably, he had developed a very strong dislike for Germans. Inciden- tally, the aeronautical department was headed by a German, Prof. Walter Repenthin. Another well-known professor, Dr Kurt Tank, was a distinguished aeronautical engineer who had designed the German Focke–Wulf FW 190 single-seater fighter plane, an outstanding combat aircraft of the Second World War. Dr Tank later joined the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bangalore and was responsible for the design of India’s first jet fighter, the HF-24 Marut. Notwithstanding these irritants, Prof. Sponder preserved his individuality and maintained high professional standards. He was always calm, energetic and in total control of himself. He kept abreast of the latesttechnologies and expected his students to do the same. I consulted him before opting for aeronautical engineering. He told me that one should never worry about one’s future prospects: instead, it was more important to lay sound foundations, to have sufficient enthusiasm and an accompanying passion for one’s chosen field of study. The trouble with Indians, Prof. Sponder used to observe, was not that they lacked educational opportunities or industrial infrastructure—the trouble was in their failure to discriminate between disciplines and to rationalise their choices. Why aeronautics? Why not electrical engineering? Why not mechanical engineering? I myself would like to tell all novitiate engineering students that when they choose their specialization, the essential point to consider is whether the choice articulates their inner feelings and aspirations. Prof. KAV Pandalai taught me aero-structure design and analysis. He was a cheerful, friendly and enthusiastic teacher, who brought a fresh approach to every year’s teaching course. It was Professor Pandalai who opened up the secrets of structural engineering to us. Even today I believe that everyone who has been taught by Prof. Pandalai would agree that he was a man of great intellectual integrity and scholarship—but with no trace of arrogance. His students were free to disagree with him on several points in the classroom. Prof. Narasingha Rao was a mathematician, who taught us theoretical aerodynamics. I still remember his method of teaching fluid dynamics. After attending his classes, I began to prefer mathematical physics to any other subject. Often, I have been told I carry a “surgical knife” to aeronautical design reviews. If it had not been for Prof. Rao’s kind and persistent advice on picking up proofs to equations of aerodynamic flow, I would not have acquired this metaphorical tool. Aeronautics is a fascinating subject, containing within it the promise of freedom. The great difference between freedom and escape, between motion and movement, between slide and flow are the secrets of this science. My teachers revealed these truths to me. Through their meticulous teaching, they created within me an excitement about aeronautics. Their intellectual fervour, clarity of thought and passion for perfection helped me to launch into a serious study of fluid dynamicsmodes of compressible medium motion, development of shock waves and shock, induced flow separation at increasing speeds, shock stall and shock-wave drag. Slowly, a great amalgamation of information took place in my mind. The structural features of aeroplanes began to gain new meanings— biplanes, monoplanes, tailless planes, canard configured planes, deltawing planes, all these began to assume increasing significance for me. The three teachers, all of them authorities in their different fields, helped me to mould a composite knowledge. My third and last year at MIT was a year of transition and was to have a great impact on my later life. In those days, a new climate of political enlightenment and industrial effort was sweeping across the country. I had to test my belief in God and see if it could fit into the matrix of scientific thinking. The accepted view was that a belief in scientific methods was the only valid approach to knowledge. If so, I wondered, was matter alone the ultimate reality and were spiritual phenomena but a manifestation of matter? Were all ethical values relative, and was sensory perception the only source of knowledge and truth? I wondered about these issues, attempting to sort out the