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.


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?


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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