MEET HARRY SHERI­DON

Dr Kalamʼs “guy” for 24 years.

Woman's Era - - Contents - Elsa Joel

Elsa Ly­cias Joel spoke to Harry Sheri­don who had been the pri­vate sec­re­tary to Dr APJ Ab­dul Kalam. Three years have been passed since Dr Kalam passed away leav­ing be­hind enough to be thought, read, said and done for the greater good. With quite many bi­ogra­phies, anec­todes and ar­ti­cles throw­ing light on the life of this great soul, it seems as though peo­ple had known all they ought to know about the ‘Peo­ple’s Pres­i­dent’. But get­ting up close and per­sonal with ‘the man be­hind the man is worth a con­ver­sa­tion.

Ex­cerpts from a con­ver­sa­tion:

24 years is in­deed a long time. How did it hap­pen?

I feel like it all be­gan yes­ter­day. Yes, it was in 1990 that I met Dr Kalam for the first time when he was di­rec­tor, DRDL, shook hands, ex­changed pleas­antries and it started off then and there. There is no par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion or mo­ment that ex­actly made me feel, “Oh! He is my friend”. To­day, when you ask me this ques­tion, I know Dr Kalam’s virtues and kind­ness made me feel nat­u­ral and easy, to un­der­stand things from his per­spec­tive that also made him. It’s still a glad con­fi­dent morn­ing again with my best foot for­ward and he is the rea­son.

Were you his con­fi­dante! Did Dr Kalam dis­cuss mat­ters of cru­cial im­por­tance with you?

Yes…many days and many times. Trav­el­ling was the time when he set­tled down with­out pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and opened his heart. Look­ing back, I’m very happy that he trusted me with his thoughts. Dis­cussing mat­ters of im­por­tance with his team which I was a part of was a rou­tine. But at the end of it all, Dr Kalam fol­lowed his head and heart.

Did he love trav­el­ling? How did he en­joy his role abroad?

He loved trav­el­ling in ru­ral In­dia and meet­ing stu­dents, teach­ers and farm­ers. Te­dious road trav­els never ex­hausted him. Dr Kalam loved be­ing able to travel on pur­pose. He ac­tu­ally be­lieved in world cit­i­zen­ship and be­lieved in Tamil philoso­pher Kaniyan Poongun­ra­nar’s quote “yaad­hum

oorey yaavarum kayleer” which when trans­lated in English goes as “to us all towns are one, all men our kin”. Even dur­ing travel time, he was such a force, in his own gen­tle way, through his abil­ity to seam­lessly in­ter­act across the var­i­ous age-groups and other man­made bar­ri­ers to make us feel as a part of one large fam­ily of the world, de­spite the many dif­fer­ences.

Just as Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Putin put it, Kalam sir rightly en­joyed high in­ter­na­tional au­thor­ity as an out­stand­ing sci­en­tist and a wise states­man. In­side or out­side In­dia, Dr Kalam was for good­will and big dreams. Many a time, talks and chats boiled down to ‘a liv­able planet and how do we live to­gether in har­mony in spite of our dif­fer­ences’.

Well, that’s in­ter­est­ing, your point about Dr Kalam was for good­will any­where, any­time. But he was crit­i­cised as be­ing part of Agni-ii and Pokha­ran- II…

For me, the most im­por­tant thing is to be able to test what we read.i of­ten heard him say, “strength re­spects strength.” If peo­ple think he prac­tised dou­ble stan­dards, then they ought to know that he wasn’t a pol­icy maker who de­cided on bombs and mis­siles. Dr Kalam was part of a team car­ry­ing out his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a sci­en­tist who saw th­ese as an as­ser­tion of our coun­try’s self-re­liance. Noth­ing of th­ese was done en­vis­ag­ing a war but for de­ter­rence and peace.

Do you think his pres­i­dency de­manded his ev­ery­thing, his every ca­pa­bil­ity as a teacher, poet, rocket sci­en­tist and aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer, the undis­puted fa­ther of In­dia’s mis­sile pro­gramme? What did he look to for guid­ance?

His courage and in­tegrity. He re­lied on his con­science that was a re­sult of in­tro­spec­tion, ret­ro­spec­tion and may be great thinkers and philoso­phers too. Even dur­ing de­mand­ing times he looked so com­posed in his study, in si­lence

and at times pon­der­ing into books. In the midst of mak­ing quick de­ci­sions too,kalam sir was al­ways con­cerned about long-term ben­e­fits.

Do you re­mem­ber any such time when he lost his cool?

A few times. There is some­thing about life ex­pe­ri­ence that helps an apo­lit­i­cal per­son gather po­lit­i­cal courage be­cause he knows ‘this too shall come to pass’ and over the long term feel good about him­self, his val­ues and prin­ci­ples. ‘Anger’ wouldn’t be the right word to ex­plain his emo­tion when sit­u­a­tions turned too de­mand­ing. I’ve seen him quiet, re­flec­tive and I knew ex­actly when I should give him his space.

What were the sit­u­a­tions?

Min­utes back I said yes to “were you his con­fi­dante?” (smiles)

Is there any time you missed him the most? What were your roles like?

There is an un­ex­plain­able void al­most every day be­cause my day be­gan and ended with him. Through­out my as­so­ci­a­tion with him for more than two decades, my life re­volved around him, for him. I had to say yes to be­ing part of the 35th World Congress of Po­ets, Hualien, Tai­wan: 6 Novem­ber 2015 and that’s when I missed him the most. My travel was all the more un­com­fort­able as I’m ac­cus­tomed to good con­ver­sa­tions with Dr Kalam. My roles were var­ied. Dr Kalam knew that I, more than a pri­vate sec­re­tary, as a trusted friend en­sured the nitty-gritty de­tails of his life from large to small are at­tended to. From mak­ing sure he sported a per­fect trav­eller’s crease to brief­ing him on his daily sched­ule, Kalam sir trusted me.

Do you mean to say you were priv­i­leged enough to or­ches­trate this great man’s great role?

I mean to say I was priv­i­leged enough to sweat the small stuff so that the great man didn’t have to. It’s all about the com­fort level we shared. Say, for ex­am­ple, I could ba­si­cally read his mind. I know his quirks. Very of­ten, I re­alised I un­der­stood his looks and ges­tures. So what­ever be my role, I could make sure his day went on well. Much to my sat­is­fac­tion too, I was there to make things go the way he wanted them to and never failed him.

Some called you as Dr Kalam’s Man Fri­day, a few oth­ers named you Dr Kalam’s cho­sen man when he oc­cu­pied Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. Yet, you were hardly known to the out­side world. Did you in­ten­tion­ally main­tain a low pro­file, to re­main the un­sung hero?

Now, I’m hav­ing trou­ble an­swer­ing this ques­tion (chuck­les).if you call it the low pro­file, then I would say it suited me to stay fo­cused. Duck­ing the lime­light wasn’t in my list. I had en­joyed my mo­ments lov­ing the ex­po­sure to the world along­side Kalam sir not to cam­eras. About be­ing an un­sung hero I re­mem­ber a quote ( grins).

Do you mind say­ing it!

No. not at all. It’s “As soon as some­one is iden­ti­fied as an un­sung hero, he no longer is”. Hero­ism lies in ad­vo­cat­ing and liv­ing Kalam sir’s legacy.

What dis­ap­pointed Dr Kalam the most?

Im­per­fec­tion. He knew all his staff and their ca­pa­bil­i­ties like the back of his hand. Any­thing done less than one’s ca­pa­bil­ity made him snipe “fan­tas­tic”.the in­ner cir­cle un­der­stood this tone of his very well.

How was Dr Kalam’s tem­per­a­ment in pri­vate, on a daily ba­sis, come what may?

It’s dif­fi­cult to be def­i­nite be­cause no per­son only pos­sesses one per­son­al­ity type. He was san­guine at the prospect of meet­ing kids,youth and lead­ers. Over­all, dur­ing a one-to-one chat or a wind­ing up dis­cus­sion, I found him thank­ful, ge­nial, hu­mor­ous and com­pas­sion­ate.

HE AC­TU­ALLY BE­LIEVED IN WORLD CIT­I­ZEN­SHIP AND BE­LIEVED IN TAMIL PHILOSO­PHER KANIYAN POONGUN­RA­NAR’S QUOTE “YAAD­HUM OOREY YAAVARUM KAYLEER” WHICH WHEN TRANS­LATED IN ENGLISH GOES AS “TO US ALL TOWNS ARE ONE, ALL MEN OUR KIN”.

So, more than two decades and you found no flaws in him!

You don’t find any­thing wrong with a friend who is re­al­is­tic and ide­al­is­tic, do you?

Hav­ing heard from re­li­able sources that quite a few friends and rel­a­tives of Dr Kalam con­sid­ered you as his son, I would like to know how you played son.

I can an­swer this dif­fer­ently as to how Dr Kalam had an au­thor­ity over me, the way I looked and dressed and how he made sure I was served what I wanted when­ever we trav­elled to­gether. A cou­ple of years ago, when I sported a beard, he ques­tioned me twice on why I needed one for which I had no good an­swer. His cu­rios­ity didn’t sur­prise me be­cause I al­most al­ways sported a clean shaven look, the best ac­ces­sory for men to be taken se­ri­ously rather than the su­per in­tim­i­dat­ing look. Since I didn’t take the cue from his ques­tions, he sim­ply said, “Re­move it, I say” just as a fa­ther would say to a son who lost his mar­bles. The tone con­veyed more than those four words I heard.every time he made sure I was served the food I love he would say “at­tack” just as a dot­ing dad. What a won­der­ful feel­ing, what a sense of lib­er­a­tion, when he called me the ‘Funny Guy’ be­cause that meant some­thing to both of us. I was his ‘Funny Guy’ when I said a right thing at the right time, when I took a great les­son from him, when I will­ingly un­learnt stuff, when I dif­fered with him and backed it up with a con­vinc­ing and log­i­cal rea­son and es­pe­cially when we were strength­ened by the most per­fect feel­ing a per­son can ever have – bond­ing. When my mo­tor bike was stolen in 1995, Dr Kalam dropped me home al­most every day for six months. He didn’t mind tak­ing the ef­fort or a di­ver­sion.

He also gave me an im­age, as wor­thy as our friend­ship with a ti­tle, “My guy”. Ev­ery­one in our cir­cle knew what it meant.there were many more in­stances I re­mem­ber with love and grat­i­tude. I was trusted and treated with great re­gard.

When ex­actly did Dr Kalam turn a poet? Was it the grandeur of Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van and its gar­dens that mo­ti­vated him to be­come In­dia’s Poet Pres­i­dent? How did he get into the imag­i­na­tion of renowned po­ets?

He was a born poet. He was into pen­ning po­ems long ago. Be­ing blessed with the gift of poetry, cre­ation as such mo­ti­vated him be­cause Dr Kalam con­sid­ered poetry as ‘thanks­giv­ing’. Yes, the Mughal Gar­dens did fuel his pas­sion. The pea­cock dance and lapwings fas­ci­nated him as much as the deer play. He made sure beau­ti­ful mo­ments were pho­tographed and doc­u­mented with­out re­ally dis­turb­ing the birds and an­i­mals.

In more than 20 odd years I knew him as a poet, it was Dr Kalam’s hu­man­i­tas that most im­pressed me and his read­er­ship too. Turn­ing to his poetry, it is easy read­ing. Since the 1980s Dr Kalam has moved into the imag­i­na­tion and fas­ci­na­tion of many po­ets and writ­ers. He is cel­e­brated by both na­tional and in­ter­na­tional po­ets.

Po­ems of cel­e­brated poet Dr Yu Hsi of Tai­wan cel­e­brate Dr Kalam’s no­bil­ity and virtues com­par­ing them to na­ture and gal­axy in a unique way. All of Yu Hsi’s po­ems are fan­tas­tic and my favourite one is Sow­ing seeds

“The youth is al­ways in­dus­tri­ously sow­ing seeds

Early in the morn­ing, awak­ened by the first rays of day­break”

“Why didn’t you marry Hr Pres­i­dent?” was the mostly asked ques­tion to which Dr Kalam re­sponded in dif­fer­ent ways. Given your prox­im­ity and com­fort level with him, what’s your per­cep­tion?

He was wed­ded to his work. Dur­ing his prime days, he chan­nelised all his en­ergy and at­ten­tion to­wards re­search and he had never felt the need for mar­riage, a sep­a­rate fam­ily. He was al­ready closely knit with his large fam­ily, a joint one, which loved him un­con­di­tion­ally. A heart-to-heart chat with him also re­vealed one thing. That is, he was meant for the greater good.

Be­ing pri­vate sec­re­tary to the most adored In­dian pres­i­dent was a pleas­ant task I un­der­stand. What are you most grate­ful to the Peo­ple’s Pres­i­dent for?

BE­ING BLESSED WITH THE GIFT OF POETRY, CRE­ATION AS SUCH MO­TI­VATED HIM BE­CAUSE DR KALAM CON­SID­ERED POETRY AS ‘THANKS­GIV­ING’. YES, THE MUGHAL GAR­DENS DID FUEL HIS PAS­SION. THE PEA­COCK DANCE AND LAPWINGS FAS­CI­NATED HIM AS MUCH AS THE DEER PLAY.

Of course! Our jour­ney to­gether had been event­ful. A jour­ney is best mea­sured in friends, than miles…. it’s more than true. As far as the mul­ti­ple roles I adorned, I am more than con­scious of my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to up­hold his ideals.

For his pres­ence in my life as such and for mak­ing me bet­ter every pass­ing day, even to­day. Kalam sir still lives in me and I find my pur­pose in him.

Obe­di­ence is the mother of suc­cess, and suc­cess the par­ent of sal­va­tion.

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