“He Died in My Arms,” SP Singh Recounts Dr Kalam’s Final Hours
Srijan Pal Singh is an author, public speaker, and social entrepreneur, who was Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s constant companion since 2009. He was with Dr Kalam right through his last day. The former Indian President breathed his last in his arms. The following article is Singh’s Facebook post from 2015 that recounted the last day of the feisty People’s President. The Quint is reposting it from its archives to mark India’s Rocket Man's third death anniversary.
Kalam, Always Airborne
It has been eight hours since we last spoke – sleep eludes me and memories keep flushing down, sometimes as tears. Our day, 27th July, began at 12 noon when we boarded our flight to Guwahati. Dr Kalam was sitting on seat number 1A and I was on 1C. He was wearing a dark coloured ‘Kalam suit’, and I started off complimenting, “Nice colour!” Little did I know this was going to be the last colour I would see on him.
Long 2.5 hours of flying in the monsoon weather. I hate turbulence, but he had mastered it. Whenever he would see me go cold in a shaking plane, he would just pull down the window and say, “Now you don’t see any fear!”.
That was followed by another 2.5 hours of car drive to IIM Shillong. During the two legs of this trip of five hours we talked, discussed and debated. These were amongst the hundreds of long flights and even longer drives we have been on together over the last six years.
As each of them has been, this was special too. Three incidents/discussions, in particular, will be lasting memories of our last trip.
Gurdaspur Attack Saddened Kalam
First, Dr Kalam was absolutely worried about the attacks in Punjab. The loss of innocent lives left him filled with sorrow. The topic of the lecture at IIM Shillong was ‘creating a liveable planet earth’. He related the incident to the topic and said, “it seems man-made forces are as big a threat to the liveability of the earth as pollution”.
We discussed on how, if this trend of violence, pollution and reckless human action continues, we will be forced to leave the earth.
“Thirty years, at this rate, maybe. You guys must do something about it… it is going to be your future world,” Dr Kalam
‘How to Get Parliament to Function..?’
Our second discussion was more national. For the past two days, Dr. Kalam had been worried that time and again, Parliament, the supreme institution of democracy, was dysfunctional. He said -
He then asked me to prepare a surprise assignment question for the students at IIM Shillong, which he would give them only at the end of the lecture. He wanted to them to suggest three innovative ways to make the Parliament more productive and vibrant.
Then, after a while, he returned to the subject.
For the next one hour, we thwarted options after options, who come up with his recommendation over the issue. We wanted to include this discussion in our upcoming book, Advantage India.
Standing For The Supreme Commander
Third, was an experience from the beauty of his humility. We were in a convoy of 6-7 cars. Dr Kalam and I were in the second car. Ahead us was an open gypsy with three soldiers in it. Two of them were sitting on either side and one lean guy was standing atop, holding his gun.
One hour into the road journey, Dr Kalam said, “Why is he standing? He will get tired. This is like punishment. Can you ask a wireless message to be given that he may sit?” I had to convince him that the soldier had been probably instructed to keep standing for better security. He did not relent. We tried radio messaging, that did not work. For the next 1.5 hours of the journey, he reminded me thrice to see if I can pass on a signal for him to sit down. Finally, realising there is little we could do, he said, “I want to meet him and thank him”.
Later, when we landed in IIM Shillong, I got hold of the standing guy. I took him inside and Dr Kalam greeted him. He shook his hand, said thank you buddy. “Are you tired? Would you like something to eat? I am sorry you had to stand so long because of me”. The young lean guard, draped in black cloth, was surprised at the treatment. At a loss for words, he just said, “Sir, aapke liye to 6 ghante bhi khade rahenge” (I can keep standing for you even for 6 hours).
After this, we went to the lecture hall. He did not want to be late for the lecture. “Students should never be made to wait”, he always said.
As I pinned his mike, he smiled and said, “Funny guy! Are you doing well?” ‘Funny guy’, when said by Kalam could mean a variety of things, depending on the tone and your own assessment. It could mean, you have done well, you have messed up something, you should listen to him or just that you have been plain naïve or he was just being jovial.
Over six years I had learnt to interpret ‘Funny Guy’ like the back of my palm. This time, it was the last case – just being jovial.“Funny guy! Are you doing well?” he said. I smiled back, “Yes”. Those were the last words he said to me.
And Then, Missile Man Left Us
Two minutes into the speech, sitting behind him, I heard a long pause after he completed a sentence. As I looked at him, he fell down. We picked him up. As the doctor rushed, we tried whatever we could.
I will never forget the look in his three-quarter closed eyes and I held his head with one hand and tried reviving with whatever I could. His hands clenched, curled onto my finger. There was stillness on his face and those wise eyes were motionlessly radiating wisdom. He never said a word. He did not show pain, only purpose was visible.
In five minutes we were in the nearest hospital. In another few minutes, they indicated the missile man had flown away, forever.
I touched his feet, one last time. Adieu old friend! Grand mentor! See you in my thoughts and meet you in the next birth.
Just, A Teacher
As I turned away, a closet of thoughts opened. Often he would ask me, “You are young, decide what will you like to be remembered for?” I kept thinking of new impressive answers, till one day I gave up and resorted to tit-for-tat. I asked him back: “First you tell me, what will you like to be remembered for? President, Scientist, Writer, Missile Man, India 2020, Target 3 billion…. What?”
I thought I had made the question easier by giving options, but he sprang on me a surprise.
“Teacher,” Dr Kalam said.
Then I remembered something he said two weeks back when we were discussing his missile time friends. He said –
“Children need to take care of their parents. It is sad that sometimes this is not happening. Two things elders must also do – Never leave wealth at your deathbed, that leaves a fighting family. Second, one is blessed if one can die working, standing tall without any long drawn ailing. Goodbyes should be short, really short.”
Today, I look back – he took the final journey, teaching, what he always wanted to be remembered doing. And, till his final moment he was standing, working and lecturing.
He left us, as a great teacher, standing tall.
He leaves the world with nothing accumulated in his account but loads of wishes and love of people. He was successful, even to this end.
I will miss all the lunches and dinners we had together, I will miss all the times you surprised me with your humility and startled me with your curiosity, I will miss the lessons of life you taught in action and words, I will miss our struggles to race to make it to flights, our trips, our long debates.
You gave me dreams, you showed me that dreams need to be impossible, for anything else is a compromise with my own ability. The man is gone, the mission lives on.
Long live Kalam.
Your indebted student,
Srijan Pal Singh