The 11th President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, passed away on Monday aged 83.
Dr Kalam suffered a massive heart attack whilst delivering a lecture at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, in deep northeastern India.
His passing was met with widespread grief in India and beyond with everyone from World Leaders to Bollywood stars taking to Social Media and giving press interviews, expressing their sadness.
The outpouring of grief is fitting for a man who enjoyed truly universal affection, right across India’s bewilderingly varied social, cultural, political, economic and demographic divides.
But who was this high-spirited and utterly unconventional man with the made hairdo and an uncanny ability to rouse India to aspire to a better version of itself?
Widely known as the “father of India’s nuclear weapons programme”, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was born on October 15 1931 in Rameswaram, in the farthest southern end of India.
His father was a devout Muslim who loaned out boats to local fishermen, whilst young Abdul supported his father selling newspapers.
Despite his own lack of an education, Dr Kalam’s father encouraged his precocious young son to study hard often starting at 4 am with a mathematics lesson and finishing at 11 pm with a stretch of reading.
By his own admission, Dr Kalam was astonishingly widely read and drew inspiration from far and wide.
In his best-selling autobiography ”Wings of Fire”, Dr Kalam quoted from the works of the Quran, the Bagvad Gita, American polymath Benjamin Franklin and Lewis Carroll.
He was obsessed with aeronautics and space from a young age and went on to study aeronautical engineering at the prestigious Madras Institute of Technology before working for India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), thus laying the foundation for his nationalist zeal for India to become a leader in defence and aerospace.
He never received a Ph.D., but he is always referred to as ”doctor” in India, having received 30 honorary doctorates and the country’s three highest civilian honors.
Dr Kalam would later become involved in the country’s burgeoning missile programme. His contribution in creating a missile launch system earned him the moniker “Missile Man of India”.
In 1998 Dr Kalam was centre stage during the country’s much-hyped and controversial ballistic missile test.
Four years later he became India’s 11th President – and the first Bachelor and the first scientist to assume the office.
In office, Dr Kalam led the way in India’s quest for cutting-edge defence technologies and campaigned for the building of a domestic fighter aircraft.
Throughout his career, Dr. Kalam worked tirelessly to ensure that Indian technology could succeed.
More significantly, his appointment helped stem communal tensions in the wake of the bloody Hindu-Muslim sparring in Gujarat and elsewhere in India.
He was not without his critics.
A number of Muslim intellectuals accused him of “appeasing” Hindu elements within the government. He was also criticized for his relative inaction over mercy pleas for those sentenced to death.
However, his dismissed those criticisms, alluding to a higher calling not only for himself but his countrymen.
His popularity reflected India’s growing disdain for “regular” politicians.
Affection for him was most evident among young Indians who revered Dr Kalam for his determination to use science and technology to overcome the problems faced by the world’s youngest and most vibrant democracy.
Through all the adulation, he remained truly humble and approachable.
A vegetarian, an amateur musician (he loved fiddling around with his Veena of a night), poet and author, he never tired of the wonders of the world around him, much like all great scientists.
And thus he inspired billions.
As he once wrote: ”Nations consist of people. And with their effort, a nation can accomplish all it could ever want.”