BOOK EXCERPT

How two orthodox Brahmins played a crucial role in APJ Abdul Kalam’s childhood

Quartz india
Quartz india

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. The new teacher could not stomach a Hindu priest’s son sitting with a Muslim boy. 

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 apologise 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 did his 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.”  His wife was horrified at the idea of a Muslim boy being invited to dine in her ritually pure kitchen. 

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 Quran. 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 50,000 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 12 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 visualised 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 of positive 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.

© Universities Press (India) Private Limited 1999.

This material (Page 8-11) from the book Wings of Fire, An Autobiography, by A P J Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari, is published by arrangement with Universities Press (India) Private Limited. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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