Born at Meerut, Uttar Pradesh in 1955, Arun Tiwari did his Masters in Mechanical Engineering from GB Pant University and joined Defence Research & Development Laboratory (DRDL) at Hyderabad as missile scientist in 1982 reporting to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
Under Dr. Kalam’s tutelage, he developed India’s first Titanium air bottle used in Trishul and Akash missiles and designed Airframes for both the missiles; developed India’s first Coronary Stent with Cardiologist Dr. B Soma Raju known as Kalam-Raju Stent; set up the first link of Pan-Africa e-Network that now connects Universities and Hospitals across the African continents with their Indian counterparts, and finally became Dr. Kalam’s co-author and spiritual pupil.
Wings of Fire, the autobiography of
Arun Tiwari works as Adviser at Telecommunications Consultants India Limited, New Delhi. He is Platinum Jubilee Mentor of CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad; Director Care Foundation, Hyderabad; and teaches at School of Management Studies in Hyderabad University as Adjunct Professor.
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The Meerut of my childhood was a glorified village – hyped as the birthplace of the Indian freedom struggle in 1857, but with not even a museum to validate this fact; poorly connected by rail and bad roads; a maze of lanes with open drains, and neighbourhoods most unsafe for children, with
I was born at Dufferin Hospital, Jali Kothi, the first child of Krishna Chandra Tiwari and Upasana Tiwari. They lived in an ancestral house built in the late nineteenth century by my great-grandfather, Shiban Lal Tiwari, in a locality called Baniya Para, a low-lying area to the south of the ruins of an ancestral fort of God knows which king! My grandfather, Ram Nath Tiwari, who worked for the railways, lost his job due to failing eyesight and made a living by tutoring children. Only two of his nine children, both sons, survived to adulthood.
The independence of India in 1947, and the terrifying communal violence that it unleashed, saw Ram Nath Tiwari Lynched by a mob during communal violence, while he had thought that he was revered for his services. As it this were not enough, a few years later, in 1950, a bridge collapse in the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar took away my father’s elder brother, Hari Chandra Tiwari. His wife went back to her parental home and remarried. This left my father as the last living branch of the family tree, to take care of my grandmother, Javitri Devi.
My father’s marriage in 1952 to Darshan Devi from Sonipat, across the Yamuna River to the west of Meerut, bore him no children. She died of tuberculosis, which was then untreatable. My grandmother was a dramatic woman; frail, loud, and ever overflowing with emotions. Panicking, she quickly remarried my father to my mother, still in her teens, and the fourth daughter of Lajja Vati, widow of the lawyer Jay Shankar Sharma.
I was born on February 10, 1955, within a year of their marriage. It was a Thursday, the fourth day of the waning moon, and the Uttara Phalguni constellation was overseeing planet earth. As I was born a little before 7 am, my father named me Arun – the unborn, yet-to-appear–
My first childhood memory is that of my grandmother giving me a mustard oil massage in the warm winter sun on the terrace of our
My father, a pot-bellied man of average height, worked in the Municipal Corporation, called Nagar Palika. He was very fond of listening to the radio. He would take me, his ‘prince’, wherever he went, and I remember riding on his shoulders, going for the Ram Lila at Jhanda Peer ground on Delhi Road, and of course, to Nauchandi, another over-rated annual fair, touted as a shining example of communal harmony where there was none.
In July 1960, I was admitted to Rastogi Pathshala, a charitable school, which was at a walking distance from my house. The headmaster, Murari Lalji, asked me to write my name (which I smartly wrote) and count
A pampered child, for the first few days at school, I would cry in the class for no reason. My grandmother always hovered around the school, ready to attend to me, should her grandson need anything. I found support from Kailash Chandra Nagar, my teacher from the same locality, who wore dark glasses, inviting the nickname of ‘Andhe Masterji’. With loving-kindness, he steadied my baby steps at school and soon, I started loving my time there.
On holidays, I would come to school and play alone in the empty classrooms, enacting the Republic Day Parade and mimicking the commentary that I heard on my father’s radio. On one such occasion, I upturned a bench on my toe. The toe was swollen and gave me terrible pain. My grandmother was inconsolable, my mother applied ‘Iodex’ on it, and my father scolded me for my foolish act. I was sure the toe was fractured, but a visit to the doctor was not even considered. I walked with a limp for a month.
It was in 1960, that one day, my father picked me from school and took me to see the film, ‘Jis Desh Me Ganga Bahati Hai’. Later in the evening, my mother created a big scene, accusing my father of spoiling her son. A few days later, when I was singing ‘Mera Nam Raju Gharana Anaam’ while taking a bath, my mother reprimanded me for not minding my studies and cautioned me against ‘growing up’ to be like my father. It was the first crack in the mirror that reflected my father as the benevolent king of my world.
In October 1961, communal riots erupted in Meerut. It was a terrifying experience. In the span of a single week, many people were killed. That was the first time that I heard about Aligarh and the Muslim University, and that many Hindu students had been beaten up. But what Meerut had to do with that was beyond my comprehension. I soon learned the names of many other cities. I particularly recall Moradabad and Sambhal, where similar riots took place. My father would join the night watchmen groups. I saw for the first time, metal-tipped lathis and
In 1962, China attacked India. There were blackouts, but no aircraft ever flew over Meerut, and bombing was out of the question. Diwali was not celebrated that year. There was a puja, but no crackers and lights. Women offered their gold ornaments in the ‘Raksha Kosh’ to finance the war. On January 27, 1963, when Lata Mangeshkar sang ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo’ at the National Stadium in New Delhi in the presence of President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it was broadcasted live and everybody fell silent.
In May 1964, my sister and I were playing in the Shiva
Imagination, enterprise and planning were not in my father’s blood. He lived a contented life. Attending office, listening to the radio and not even calling upon relatives, mostly from my mother’s side, was his routine. For a man of ordinary means, my father wore quite an attitude. He had his own theory about the world and considered any different viewpoint as blasphemy. He was a die-hard supporter of the Government and considered the opposition parties as hypocrites defending their business houses. Though my grandfather was killed in a Muslim neighbourhood, he bore no hatred towards Muslims and would scorn our ‘shakha’-attending neighbours.
When I completed primary school, my father committed the big mistake of not admitting me to an intermediate college, as advised by my grandmother. I soon realized this when my teacher failed to answer my questions in the class. My defensive father helped me in English and Geography, as he was good at them, but Mathematics was not his cup of tea. I still remember him teaching me the lesson on Dr. Ronald Ross on August 20, 1965. When I learned that that very day was Mosquito Day, celebrated every year to mark the discovery in 1897 by Dr. Ross that female mosquitoes transmit malaria between humans, I was thrilled at the coincidence.
As soon as the next academic session arrived, my father took me to Dev Nagari (DN) Intermediate College, where he had studied. I was startled to see the sprawling campus, and the huge crowd of students and their guardians scampering in random motion. The principal was Radhey Raman Lal Sareen, as the nameplate outside his office informed us. The plump, fair, bespectacled principal bluntly asked my father why he had not admitted me the previous year, and asked him how he (the principal) could create a seat for me now. I saw my father pleading before the principal with folded hands. The principal asked us to come after ten days. I did not like the entire episode. Why had my father landed himself in this situation, I wondered. The next ten days were anxious ones, more for my father than for me. However, the principal, true to his word, admitted me to the college, much to our relief! My
For the first time, I was allowed to walk outside my ‘eilaka’, the local term for a locality. My grandmother, like a recorded message, repeated instructions on road safety every morning when I started for college. Even today, I remember her every time I hear airline safety announcements, played prior to take-off. I would walk to college most leisurely, observing things happening around. There were paper craft shops at Teergaran, cloth merchants in Sarafa Bazar, general merchants in Vailly Bazar, and medical shops in Khairnagar.
In September 1965, Pakistan attacked India, trying to repeat the China invasion, but Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri surprised everyone by ordering a counterattack and the Indian Army reached the outskirts of Lahore. It was also a time of great hardship, as prices of wheat skyrocketed and we had to make do with
In November 1965, my father took me to Delhi. A few relatives of his first wife lived there. I was most excited, as this was my first trip out of Meerut. We took a bus and after reaching Delhi, sat in a tonga to reach the Kashmiri Gate area. I could not make out who our hosts were and spent my time reading ‘Shama’, the first film magazine I ever read. At night, we went to a theatre named Excelsior, in the heart of Chandani Chowk and watched the film ‘Ziddi’, which was screened at reduced rates. I loved Mehmood dancing with Shubha Khote, singing, ‘Pyar Ki Aag Mein Tan Badan Jal Gaya, Jaane Phir Kyu Jalati Hai Duniya Mujhe…’ I did not know the names of the hero and heroine of this film (Joy Mukherjee and Asha Parekh) until many years later.
Back at Meerut, my class teacher, Priya Kumar Sharma, tall and lanky, appointed
On another front, with a failed monsoon for two successive years, 1965 and 1966, India saw a severe drop in food production, and an embarrassing dependence on food imports from the United States, and seemed on the point of peril. Shashtriji’s slogan, ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’, captured the imagination of the people. Shastriji called for Mondays to be observed as dinnerless days, as a symbolic gesture to handle the food crisis. One of my neighbours, however, in a rather obnoxious travesty, hosted a lavish
On the academic front, I stood first in my section (VII B) and second overall among four sections of the class. My father brought a kilo of expensive dry fruits, stuffed Balu Shahi (also called Makhhan Vada), and distributed it in the
It was during those summer vacations, on June 6, 1966, that I learned something
Thus, my childhood progressed, bringing on the physical and psychological changes that occur in adolescence, along with issues of independence and self-identity until the time when I passed out of intermediate college and was poised for further education.
By the time I was in Class VIII, I was becoming aware of politics, the propaganda way, thanks to my father’s fascination with radio and his die-hard support to the Congress party. Impressed by my answers in a General Knowledge session, my teacher, Kailash Chandra Sharmaji made a prophecy in the class that I would grow up to be a well-known man. I would hover around the Physics, Chemistry and Biology labs during intervals, with a sense of awe. However, the sight of dissected frogs jumping just before
In November 1966, Reita Faria was crowned Miss World – the first Indian woman to win this title. All beautiful girls now began to be called Reita Faria. My father took me to see ‘Phool Aur Patthar’ and I instantly became a fan of Dharmendra. I was warned by my mother once again when I was singing ‘Sheeshe Se Pee Ya Paimane Se Pee’ and dancing to it on the terrace and she landed there unannounced. My maternal uncle, Jagat Prakash Sharma, declared that ‘Do Badan’ was a vulgar film not to be seen by children and perhaps my father took the cue and never took me to watch the movie. I wondered how a film with a beautiful song like ‘Naseeb Mein Jiske Jo Likha Tha’ could be bad.
I developed a keen interest in cricket, mainly fuelled by the lucid commentary of Jaswant Singh. In January 1967, the West Indies team came to India. Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi captained India and Garfield ‘Garry’ Sobers led West Indies. There was a great buzz when Anju Mahendru, the girlfriend of film star Rajesh Khanna, got engaged to Garry Sobers. In the third test match played in Chennai, Farokh Engineer and Chandu Borde hit centuries. India would have won the match, but for the valiant innings of 76 not out by Garry Sobers. The match was eventually drawn with West Indies still needing 52 runs to win and three wickets left.
Class IX, Section B, brought me in contact with children from affluent families. They wore expensive dresses (there was no uniform in DN College) and even sunglasses. They also feasted in the college canteen. I
Our Board exams were in Class X. The results of the Board exams were published in newspapers that would arrive only late in the night, causing
There were two other younger ‘intellectuals’ in our mohalla. Satish Rastogi, a teacher at Nanak Chand Anglo Sanskrit (NAS) Intermediate College and Shyam Bharose Kaushik, the owner of Gyan Sagar Press, the
My father’s income no more sufficient, my mother, in an act most rebellious in those days, joined a private school as a teacher for Rs. 50/- per month. She also decided to attend classes for a Basic Training Certificate so as to become a ‘regular’ teacher. My grandmother was furious and mocked her. My father seethed in silence, his male chauvinism crushed against reality. I did assignments for my mother and was in tears when she failed the exam. Her indomitable spirit emerged with this failure and she appeared for the exam again the next year and passed. She joined Arya Samaj Intermediate College for girls and served there till her retirement.
My younger brother, Varun, replaced me as my grandmother’s
One day, a parrot with broken wings fell over our house and perforce became a pet. We had wanted to bring a puppy earlier, but father declared that
High school was tough and my stress, palpable. I had my first migraine attack a day prior to my Science practical exam. No one was at home and I was sitting beside the parrot. The next day, I got to set up a circuit proving Ohm’s law and answered viva questions confidently. Our examination
With no indoor games or pastime amenities or places to visit, summer vacations were scary to me. Meerut turns extremely hot in May and till the rains arrived in late July, there would be no reprieve. My father introduced me to Tilak Library in the Town Hall, constructed by the British. After independence, it became Loyal Library. I would go with my father to the library every day, which was adjacent to his workplace, and return with a book. It was the summer of 1969 that opened the windows of my mind. I read the entire ten-volume set of Sachitra Vishwakosh (illustrated
When the results were declared in late June, as usual, in the middle of the night, I found that I had secured first division in high school, leading to happiness all around. My father, most pleased, took me along with a sweet box to every relative; he never visited them otherwise. Later, two older boys who looked like ruffians approached me and asked to see my mark sheet. They told me that they had
The onset of adolescence brought with it its own hormone rush. I dared to walk to Begum
On 20 July, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon. Everyone was excited. Armstrong and Aldrin walked around on the moon for three hours, picked up bits of moon dirt and rocks and installed a U.S. flag on the moon. Their colleague Mike Collins sat in the Lunar Module taken there by the Apollo 11 rocket. All three astronauts came back to Earth safely. I felt bad for Mike Collins and wondered why he hadn’t come out. Shyam Bharose told me a week later on authority of some Russian newspaper that the moon landings had never actually happened and that it was a fake event.
I slipped in my academic performance and did not get the usual 60
My grandmother passed away in May 1971 of old age peacefully at home. Her body was taken to Garhmukteshvar. With great sadness, I watched her being cremated. Although, we were estranged for few years, Varun replacing me as her toy-child years ago, I could never forget her obsessive but most real love that one can give to another. To invite my mother’s elder sister Mithilesh
The next day, my father and I boarded a
My decision to study engineering as a day scholar, while staying in Anurag Vashistha’s house, with the intention of saving on hostel expenses, was outright impractical. I became disconnected from my batchmates. As I had studied in the Hindi medium till then, I had a serious problem comprehending what the teachers were speaking, let alone getting to the subject matter. Pantnagar University, which had been created with the active support of American funding, had faculty trained in the United States. Many of them spoke with an accent and had snobbish attitudes. The lush green campus with hills in the backdrop, was surreal, though. The Grade Point Average (GPA) system was complicated. I never really understood the difference between a lecture and a tutorial, thus messing up both. Though Anurag Vashistha accepted my staying in his house with no apparent qualms, he was unaware of the tribulations that I faced in my unsure early days.
Except for Engineering Drawing, of which I had some idea as I had studied Technical Drawing in High School, all other courses were alien to me, especially Elementary Biology and Economics. My Biology teacher was superciliousness personified. When my Economics teacher wrote on the board, ‘Demands vary with supply’, I wondered if he was writing the spelling of ‘vary’ right, as the only spelling I knew of the word was ‘very’. In fact, I wondered who had designed the curriculum and what these courses had to do with Engineering. Two months into the course term, I had an emotional breakdown. I wrote a letter to my mother at her school address, pleading to be rescued. My father arrived in a few days, ready to take me back, but asked if I could come home after appearing for the trimester exams, just to make sure that I was not cut out for this course. I could sense the pain of my father on finding that his son was going to fail. He was desperately calling to me make one last attempt before giving up. I
In the meantime, Anurag Vashistha moved to another house, from where walking to college was strenuous and time-taking. So, my father brought me a bicycle. I transported it from Meerut to Pantnagar on the roof of a bus. But barely a month had passed where I could enjoy this comfort, that my bicycle was stolen from outside the College of Basic Sciences and Humanities (CBSH), where I had parked it to attend a class. Crestfallen and hesitant to share the loss with my father, for weeks, I walked kilometres, cursing my fate. Arun Prakash, a faculty in Mechanical Engineering and a native of Meerut, emerged as a strong support. Handsome, urbane, with a good command on the English language, and above all, supportive in every little way, he indeed steadied my baby steps. His wife, Mridula, fed me malai toasts most generously whenever I visited their home.
Soon, Anurag Bhaisaab got married and there were guests at home every evening. I got distracted in multiple ways and before I could realize my fall, I had failed in the Electricity and Magnetism course, taught by an archaic teacher. He spoke English in a dialect that only the gods could decipher! With a ‘C’ in all other courses, I could not compensate for the ‘E’ in this course and was put on Academic Probation. This meant that I would not be allowed to register for more than four courses in the next semester. Finally, it dawned upon me that hostel expenses were no longer avoidable. My father readily consented, eager to take any measures to ensure that my grades improved. It was perhaps the worst period of my youth – I had left home, but was lost in transit!
My academic advisor, as allotted to every student enrolled in the university to be an overall guide
This time, the course that I failed was taught by Prof. K.G. Shrivastava. Sauvé in manners and smoking a pipe at times, Prof. Shrivastava made the course an easy and interesting affair. I not only scored ‘A’ grade with more than 90%
With the Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics courses all done, I started scoring mostly ‘A’s and ‘B’s. I even took up extra courses and cleared my backlog well before the final year, contrary to the general practice. Two ‘A’s in Structural Engineering and Engineering Design were the
In March 1975, I developed
I returned to
Prof. Ashok Kumar Dhol, Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, read well my innate nature and insisted that I pursue post-graduation and take up a career in design engineering rather than taking up a field job available to graduates in the government and private industries. He gave me the job of a Teaching Associate almost immediately after I completed my courses, and I took up a Master’s programme in the department that indeed shaped my career. There were days when I conducted exams for my students in the forenoon and wrote mine in the afternoon. It was a great grounding in reality and my juniors and students truly loved and admired me.
Without deliberate effort and almost unconsciously, the purposeless rebel and brashness in me gave way to sobriety. I started spending a good amount of time in the library. There I read ‘The Life Divine’, Sri Aurobindo’s principal philosophic work, a theory of spiritual evolution culminating in the transformation of man from a mental into a supramental being and the advent of a divine life upon earth. While appreciating the power of the subtle over the gross, and the mind over the body, I started seeing science as the foundation of all engineering.
Transcending my own subjects, I was attracted to the philosopher-scholars Dr. Muktipad Chaudhary, Dean and Professor of Electrical Engineering; Subir Kumar Ray, Professor of Electrical Engineering; Dr. Sarat Chandra Malviya, Professor of Physics and Dean, College of Basic Sciences and Humanities (CBSH); and R. Ramachandran, Professor of Library Sciences and Chief of University Library. Indeed, I became an expert on the Dewey Decimal System of library classification and could correctly assign a number to any book given to me. There was a separate section for post-graduate students, housing bound volumes of journals. Spending long hours there, I
I even dared to register for an elective course in Tensor Methods in Continuum Mechanics in the Department of Mathematics, only to realize how difficult mathematics could be for students outside this field. Prof. S.K. Sharma, sensing my discomfort, even cautioned me not to trespass the boundary of Engineering. “The lure of science is not only deceptive,
Unfortunately, good faculty was regularly leaving the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The void created by the exit of Arun Prakash, S.C. Thapa and R.C. Paliwal could never be filled up. They were replaced by mediocre people. Some of the teachers, naming whom would be improper, were actually caricatures, with neither the requisite subject
Meanwhile, R.K. Yadav, my junior and a fine gentleman hailing from Gorakhpur, joined me as a Teaching Associate. We would spend time laughing over the world around us, never sparing even our own selves. Mridul Gautam, son of the then ICAR Director General, joined as a student. He had studied abroad and had mannerisms different from the lot. We developed an instant bonding. Many bigwigs in the Agriculture College would woo him with offers of ‘homemade food’, but he maintained a distance. He excelled in academics and became famous as a singer of K.L. Saigal songs. In one of our cultural festivals, I directed a satire, ‘The Hiranyakashyap Murder Case’, and we made a great cameo, breaking the faculty-student barrier.
In the 1977 general elections, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her powerful son, Sanjay Gandhi, both lost their seats. My father could not believe it when the news was announced on the radio on the night of March 22, 1977, and went to sleep with his head covered with a chadar. Later, every time leaders in the new government would squabble over petty issues, my father would say, “I told you, these leaders are only good to be in the opposition.” When the Janata government forced IBM and Coca Cola to cease trading in India by charging them with foreign exchange violations, my father termed it as nonsense. He refused to even sip ‘77’, the new national substitute for Coca Cola.
On the personal front, my sister’s wedding was fixed with Satya Prakash Sharma. She was hesitant about the alliance, but a five-minute talk with her made her drop all her reservations. We performed her marriage on May 10, 1979, from our home instead of hiring a wedding hall, as my father wanted his daughter to cross the doorstep of his ancestral house after her marriage, something that had not happened since it was constructed a hundred years ago. The next day after the wedding, I had to return to Pantnagar to prepare for my exams that were looming large. My father lamented as to why I was in such a hurry. He asked if I could not stay back for a few more days to settle the bills of the large list of vendors. In my hurry, I did not even listen to him properly, little realizing that this was to be my last meeting with him.
On June 25, 1979, I wrote my last exam and boarded the bus to Meerut. Midway, I disembarked at Moradabad to spend
My mother, only 42 then, was wailing that her neglect of my father had resulted in his death. My siblings were dumbfounded. I was shocked; I could neither cry, nor enquire as to how this calamity had befallen us. I touched my father’s feet and came out of the house within minutes. The barber came to shave my head as per the practice. Someone suggested that as there had recently been a wedding in the family, the entire head should not be shaved; a token hair offering would suffice. A sobbing barber followed the instructions. He refused to take his service charges, saying that in the death of my father, he too had lost a father. The ‘Antim Yatra Vahan’ bus of Shri Ganga Motor Committee took us all to Garhmukteshvar. I cremated my father on the banks of the Ganga River a little before midnight. The next morning, I came to know that my father had suffered a heart attack on 16 June and had been admitted to the Meerut Medical College. Later, when I returned to Pantnagar, his letter, written on 19 June was waiting for me. “I had some
Uncomfortable about answering people who approached her for my wedding alliance, my mother insisted that I marry soon. She even went with her sister Mithilesh, mother of Anurag Vashistha, and met a would-be-wife for me. Daughter of Beg Ram Sharma, who had migrated to Meerut from Baraut and worked in the Meerut Court, Anjana was the fourth daughter in the family and was pursuing her Ph. D thesis in Biochemistry at LLRM Medical College, Meerut. I visited them with my brother Varun to formally confirm the alliance, and we were married on February 18, 1980. There was a total solar eclipse on 16 February, causing darkness at noon. It was the first total solar eclipse of the century and there would be no total solar eclipse in my lifetime. However, my mother did not allow me to view the eclipse and I meekly consented. In fact, Doordarshan had telecast Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film, ‘Chupke Chupke’, so that people would not go out to see the eclipse. I was indeed laughing hilariously, relishing the crispy dialogues of Gulzar and the brilliant comedy of Dharmendra, forgoing the rare celestial event happening outside.
Within a week of our marriage, Anjana and I were in Pantnagar. On the first weekend itself, we went to Nainital. I borrowed 500 rupees from my friend, Joshiji, just in case our expenses overflowed the budget. When we came back, Anjana rejoined her post-doctoral courses at CBSH. This was the most beautiful phase of our life. We felt that we were living in
By that time, my Masters was done with and I had been selected by the Union Public Service Commission to work at the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). I would wait daily for the postman to deliver the appointment letter, which took many months. On January 28, 1982, when I was walking back to my college after the lunch break, Rahman, the elderly postman, unkempt, bearded and wearing thick glasses, called me from behind, saying that
It was time to leave
Getting into a Central Government job was a big achievement in those times. A written exam, followed by an interview at the Union Public Service Commission, Dholpur House in New Delhi, and a long wait for the appointment by the Ministry, made the candidate feel really special upon selection. I arrived at the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad, without a clue about where I had landed. After a few days of sitting in the Technical Information Centre, the euphemism for a library in the setup, I was presented before the Director, S.L. Bansal, an unassuming man who looked more like a professor. He asked me some general questions and posted me to the Structures Division, perhaps based on my Masters’ thesis on Stress Corrosion, which he was browsing through while talking to me. The entire meeting lasted less than five minutes.
Colonel V.J. Sundaram headed the Structures Division. I was overawed by his persona. Never before had I met an Army Officer, and his booming voice, warm manners
Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam joined DRDL on June 30, 1982. Already famous as the Project Director of India’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3) and decorated with the Padma Bhushan award, his arrival created a buzz. Though I saw him from a distance a few times, my first interaction with him took many more months. One day, a messenger (the use of the term, ‘peon’, had been discontinued by that time) came to escort me to the Director’s office. When I asked Col. Sundaram to escort me there, he chided me, saying that this was neither a kindergarten
Inside the office, another gentleman was sitting on a side chair. Dr. Kalam offered no introductions; instead, addressing
I was dismissed from the room. When I returned to the department, all my colleagues were waiting to hear why the Director had called me, a rookie. When I narrated the entire story, not only did they display no excitement, but a very uncomfortable silence filled the large room, which eight of us scientists shared. When I asked what a missile air bottle actually was, one of my senior colleagues, who I am sparing the ignominy of identification, told me, in black
The gentleman sitting with Dr. Kalam was Dr. G.J. Gururaja, Chief Engineer (R&D) of Bharat Heavy Plates and Vessels Limited (BHPV), a public sector engineering company at Visakhapatnam. Dr. Gururaja not only treated me with affection, but also made me learn all about titanium – a very special metal, named after the Greek god Titan – as strong as steel but half its weight, extremely resistant to crack propagation, but very difficult to form, forge or machine. Two years under his tutelage, I became the man who developed India’s first Titanium Air Bottle, and flew into the Aerospatial Test Facility, Bordeaux, France, where such bottles were tested for structural integrity and flight worthiness.
In the meantime, my second son was born on November 27, 1983. We named him Amol Anand and split the Monu from Jonu-Monu as his nickname. I started feeling the pressures of work life. I would have sudden bouts of migraine. I underwent treatment for the same, although it was mostly ineffective. Though the joy and enthusiasm of work always overweighed the stress, the migraine refused to leave me permanently. Ravi Kumar, a co-rider in my bus and an engineer-MBA working with Bharat Dynamics Limited, introduced me to Gestalt Therapy and the dream work that
DRDL had a special category of people like Colonel Sundaram. They would come from the Army, Navy and Air Force to work there as scientists. They even wore uniforms on certain days. Usually occupying senior positions, they had the best of both worlds – the civilian freedom of working informally as well as enjoying the privileges associated with their ranks. In 1983, Dr. Kalam rolled out the Integrated Guided Missile Programme (IGMDP) and I was assigned the task of designing the TRISHUL missile airframe. A young M.S.R. Prasad joined me as my junior and together we loved our work, which we viewed as play rather than a chore. Commodore S.R. Mohan, a Naval Officer
K. Rama Rao, a co-student of Dr. Kalam at the Madras Institute of Technology, and an
As I child, I used to feel palpations in my heart. The fast-paced rhythm would subside on its own after a few minutes. However, it was never noticed as an illness. On January 29, 1986, while giving a talk in the DRDL auditorium, I had a tachycardia episode and it did not go away. I was taken to the CGHS dispensary, where Dr. Srinivas sensed the urgency of this serious electrophysiological disorder in the heart muscles and organized an ambulance to take me to the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences. Dr. S. Jaishankar managed my tachycardia in the ICU and the next morning, I was shifted under the care of Dr. B. Soma Raju. Ten days passed and there was not much improvement. I had several such episodes in the ICU. On February 8, on his way to the Begumpet Airport, Dr. Kalam came to the NIMS, and right in front of him, I had a severe tachycardia.
Dr. Kalam told me a story of two Tamil saints. The younger one wanted to write a book on grammar but was hesitant to start due to his advanced age, as the project would take around ten years to complete. The elder saint told him that he must start writing immediately. If his work was worth being done, God would keep him alive. After all, it was in His interest that the world would become a better place. Dr. Kalam kept his hand on my head and said, “You will do many great works and nothing will happen to you.”
As suggested by Dr. Soma Raju, Dr. Kalam made extraordinary efforts to import Amiodarone HCL, the medication that had just arrived in the West to treat certain types of serious, and possibly fatal, irregular heartbeats. He personally spoke to the High Commissioner of India in London, got a prescription written and had the medication flown in by the next flight of Air India from London. This chance meeting of Dr. Soma Raju and Dr. Kalam later led to the development of India’s first coronary stent. However, like a seed that takes years to become a tree and bear fruit, it would take many more years to become a reality in 1995.
I played an active role in the first two flight trials of the AKASH missile. AKASH was a surface-to-air tactical missile
Working on AKASH brought me into contact with some truly great engineer-scientists. Dr. R.R. Panyam and Dr. B.S. Subhash Chandran, Propulsion Engineers, and Dr. G. Satheesh Reddy, Missile Guidance Engineer, were the three most notable. I was influenced by their ‘intellectual stubbornness’. Amongst colleagues, D.V. Subba Rao, G. N. Rao
Slowly but unmistakably, the work culture at DRDL started changing. With the creation of the RCI, affluence entered the system. Everyone used hired taxis to commute. Office rooms now had expensive furniture, senior scientists were always on tours and the emphasis shifted, maybe not intentionally, but instinctually, towards contract work and the import of sub-systems, rather than developing them with components and devices. The heavy investment
Around this time, Dr. Kalam left DRDL to become the Director General of DRDO and moved to Delhi. He offered me the position of his staff officer, but when I expressed my preference to continue in Hyderabad, he graciously agreed and did not ‘order’ my posting. He also remained in active contact. In December 1992, Dr. Kalam called me to Delhi and when I requested for an air ticket, I was sanctioned only an onward passage by air. I had to take a train on my return journey. On 6 December, Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya and most of north India was engulfed in communal violence. Dr. Kalam showed no interest in how I would return and I did not have enough money to buy an air ticket myself. I was the only passenger in the AC coach of the Dakshin Express. The TC bolted the compartment from inside, fearing an attack. This experience left a permanent scar on my heart. You are important only to the extent that your work is important; the rest is all Vanity Fair.
Dr. Kalam survived a coup in the DRDO headquarters, thanks to the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao. He was initially made to accept the position of Vice-Chancellor of Madras University so that someone could replace him in DRDO, but this was overruled by the Prime Minister, who wrote in the file, ‘term extended till further orders’. Now, with a long innings ahead of him, Dr. Kalam decided to roll out a programme to benefit people by making use of the advanced technology that was already invested for defense purposes. Dr. Kalam tasked me to use my ‘acquaintance’ with Dr. Soma Raju to explore the possibilities of developing civilian spin-offs from Defence Technology. Without realizing the drift, I had strayed away from my core area of missiles and gone into interdisciplinary R&D. My work saw the Society for Biomedical Technology (SBMT) being created, formalizing a structure for such work in India.
Towards the end of 1992, the once life-saving Amiodarone HCL led to severe hypothyroidism in me and I lost a quarter of my 60 kg weight in just two weeks. Back in the ICU again, Dr. Soma Raju decided to perform an angiogram to locate if there was any narrowing of my artery triggering the electrophysiological disturbances. He was absolutely right. My left anterior descending (LAD) artery was 90% blocked right at the opening. The lesser diameter of the artery was probably congenital and made an otherwise normal thickening of the arterial wall dangerous. Dr. Soma Raju performed an angioplasty and I had a miraculous recovery.
Inspired by a new lease of life, I started working closely with scientists from the other laboratories of DRDO. I was in for a cultural shock. There was so much ‘nothing to do with
Dr. Kalam admired my writing skills and tasked me to write a few of his speeches. In 1993, I wrote his convocation address, to be given at the Roorkee University, narrating how Colonel Thomson, a Revenue Officer with the East India Company, trekked the flood-prone basin of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers on horseback and designed a canal system. He then wrote to his British bosses that ‘to accomplish a project of this magnitude, we need to teach the natives the science of engineering’, thus paving the way for the creation of Asia’s first engineering college at Roorkee. Dr. Kalam thundered, “The very same natives now have their own satellites in orbit, launched by their own rockets”, to a standing ovation. I later wrote his iconic speech at the Indian Science Congress in Jaipur, “Let my brain remove your pain”, presenting his theme of using strategic technology for the good of ordinary people.
The successful development of India’s first coronary stent created a sensation. Coronary
Created much earlier at the initiative of the World Bank as a development financial institution for providing medium-term and long-term project financing to Indian businesses, the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation (ICIC) arrived in India as ICICI in 1995. I wrote a proposal to them for financing the creation of an R&D facility that would take forward the manufacture of low-cost stents. It was a solo dream that no one believed in. But like the proverbial shot in the dark, it precisely hit the target. ICICI surprised me by offering an unsecured loan of 6 crores at 1% notional interest. We created the Cardiac Research and Education (CARE) Foundation to receive the funds, with Dr. Soma Raju as its Chairman. He asked me why I was ‘wasting my time’ in a ‘neither here nor there’ situation. Recognizing the truth in his statement, after much introspection, I resigned from my government job at the age of 42, with no entitlement to pension or other terminal benefits, and took over as the Secretary of the CARE Foundation and the Director of the ICICI-funded Cardiovascular Technology Institute (CVTI), Hyderabad.
The funding from ICICI, secured for setting up an institute was unheard of in those times. Dr. B. Soma Raju brilliantly used the resources to start his dream hospital. A loss-making hospital at Nampally was taken over and the Care Hospital was born. Loyal patients literally queued up and we started facing a space crunch. Soon the company, called Quality Care India Ltd., acquired a defunct five-star hotel property in Banjara Hills, and converted it into a ‘flagship hospital’. Dr. Soma Raju invited Dr. Kalam to join the board of the company. In 1997, the Care Foundation received the Defence Technology Spin-off Award from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the development of a stent. It consisted of a cash component of Rs. 1 lakh, which Dr. Soma Raju handed over to me. I felt like a king, as never before had I possessed/handled so much money at one time.
In December 1999, the University Press published ‘Wings of Fire: An Autobiography’, that I co-authored with Dr. Kalam. The book received critical acclaim, with Bhawani Prasad Chattopadhyay calling it ‘a book worth its weight in gold’ in ‘The Statesman’. Prof. M.S. Mukunda at the Indian Institute of Science wrote in the ‘Resonance’, “There is something that everybody can extract from this book… the book is worthy of being read by every Indian.” When a reporter asked journalist and broadcasting executive M.V. Kamath – in an interview published in ‘The Asian Age’ – which book he would recommend for compulsory reading, he answered, “A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s ‘Wings of Fire’.”
In a ‘never before, never again/once in history’ kind of a moment, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to refer Dr. Kalam as Presidential candidate. I was with Dr. Kalam at the Anna University in Chennai when the drama unfolded, with the Prime Minister calling Vice Chancellor Prof. Kalanidhi’s office to locate Dr. Kalam. When a surprised Dr. Kalam asked the Prime Minister for an hour’s time to think about his offer, it was given, on the condition that the reply should be a ‘yes’. Following a dream run of events, I sat through President Kalam’s swearing-in ceremony in the Parliament’s Central Hall, with Dr. B. Soma Raju by my side. In the afternoon, we attended high tea at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. When President Kalam greeted Dr. Soma Raju, he quipped, “Sir, we are here because you are here.” A frequent visitor to the Rashtrapati Bhavan thereafter, I got more involved in writing speeches for Dr. Kalam and joining his tours.
Stents soon turned into a commodity and I tried to make sense of my career by riding the tide of information and communication technology. President Kalam despatched me to Agartala to meet the Chief Minister of Tripura and seek his advice on what could be done for his far-flung state of Tripura. I found in Manik Sarkarji, a gentleman of impeccable manners. I also met V. Thulasidas, Chief Secretary. They both remain dear friends til today. I went to Kailashahar, the headquarters of the Unakoti district, traversing through the insurgency-afflicted highlands. We connected Kailashahar with Hyderabad using a hybrid of telecom and microwave technology to establish a telemedicine link to celebrate President Kalam’s visit to Tripura on October 4, 2002. Interestingly, the child patient from Kailashahar who interacted with Dr. Kalam was also named Abdul Kalam. He was diagnosed with a leaking heart valve and was later brought to Hyderabad for surgery. Technology can indeed be a great enabler of humanity and can deliver it from suffering.
On October 15, 2002, President Kalam decided to celebrate his birthday away from Delhi, at the Gaden Namgyal Lhatse Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, which translates as ‘celestial paradise on a clear night’. The commanding view of the Tawang River valley, which comprises snow-capped mountains and coniferous forests from the monastery at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, was surreal. The state governor, Arvind Daveji, and the chief minister, Mukut Mithiji, developed a personal liking for me and I later visited the state with my family in January 2003.
In April 2003, Mridul Gautam, now Professor at West Virginia University, organized a fellowship for my son Aseem. In December 2003, I visited China with my wife and younger son Amol, and soon after our return, on January 6, 2004, I suffered a cardiac arrest while sitting with Dr. Soma Raju at the Care Hospital, Banjara Hills. I was successfully resuscitated. President Kalam and Manik Sarkarji flew in to see me. Sachin Tendulkar, on his visit to the Care Hospital, also dropped in by my bedside. Dr. Gopichand Mannan operated on me on February 5, 2004, and put in five grafts.
During his address to the Pan-African Parliament in Johannesburg in 2004, President Kalam mooted the idea of connecting the 54 member states of the African Union to India. We were the first to connect the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the Care Hospital, as part of the Pan-African e-Network rolled out by the Telecommunication Consultancy of India Limited (TCIL). There was no state or union territory that I did not visit with President Kalam. Spending significant time with him during our travels, I co-authored two more books with him during his presidential tenure – ‘Guiding Souls’ (2004) and ‘You are Born to Blossom’ (2006), capturing his inner world and thought process.
I was invited to several state banquets, hosted for world leaders by President Kalam, giving me an opportunity to shake hands with President George Bush, President Vladimir Putin, President Hu Jintao, President Pervez Musharraf, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President Than Shwe
With the help of the Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata, which I visited with President Kalam, I organized specialized courses for the Care Hospital employees, and more than 500 nurses and paramedics received University diplomas, thus enhancing their skills and advancing their careers. For me, this was the converse of the ‘earn while you learn’ model of the G.B. Pant University. We were making our employees ‘learn while they earned’. We developed the course content and mobilized in-house faculty to carry out this biggest-of-its-kind educational activity. One hundred nurses joined from Manipur, following President Kalam’s visit there. This remains a very satisfying achievement for me during my career, where I was able to touch people’s lives in a positive way.
Inspired by Dr. Kalam after his visit to Tanzania in 2004 where he saw the desolate condition of children suffering from congenital heart defects, V. Thulasidas, now Chairman of Air India, flew in free of charge, a 50-strong contingent of child-patients, their mothers, nurses and doctors from Dar es Salaam to Hyderabad. They were treated free of charge and even boarding was provided by generous donors, notably by Mangi Lal, a grateful patient of Dr. Soma Raju from the Old City of Hyderabad. Later, two batches of doctors and nurses received their specialty training at the Care Hospital. One among them, Dr. Mpoki M. Ulisubisya, would later become the First Secretary, Ministry of Health, in the Government of Tanzania.
This act of generosity attracted great publicity. Requests for help started pouring in from local patients. Dr. Kalam and Dr. Soma Raju created a fund named ‘Little Hearts’, to help perform corrective surgeries on children born with heart defects, starting with a personal donation of Rs. 1 lakh from Dr. Kalam. We received more than Rs. 3 crores in
The Care Hospital promoters, mostly friends of Dr. B. Soma Raju, attempted to make it a listed company and opened various branches in Bhubaneswar, Nagpur, Raipur
I developed a camaraderie with Dr. William Dar, Director General of The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), whom I met during President Kalam’s visit there. He facilitated my visit to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna, in the Philippines. Later, I would co-author two books with him, ‘Feeding the Forgotten Poor’ (2012) and ‘Greening the Grey’ (2014), creating awareness about the interests of
In 2007, after relinquishing the Presidency, Dr. Kalam went to the United States. I accompanied him to CISCO Systems in San Jose and met the legendary John Chambers. He was waiting in the lobby to receive Dr. Kalam. I knew of John Chambers for his annual salary of twenty million
On May 27, 2008, Dr. Kalam visited my mother’s home in Meerut. He descended on my humble ancestral home with the usual motorcade and security arrangements, which was incongruous with the sleepy small-town
In 2011, I met
On January 9, 2011, I got a grandson from Aseem and his wife, Deepa. I named him Agastya, after the Vedic Brahma Rishi. In May 2013, we had a family vacation, facilitated by Aseem’s posting at Wipro, Cologne, Germany. The seven of us, my wife and I, our sons, their wives
The renowned scientist, Prof. D. Balasubramanian, released on June 30, 2013, my fourth book with Dr. Kalam, ‘Squaring the Circle: Seven Steps to Indian Renaissance’, before an audience of 200 academicians, journalists, scientists, engineers
My fifth book with Dr. Kalam was ‘Transcendence: My Spiritual Experiences with Pramukh Swamiji’, based on his 13-year-long fellowship with the Chief of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS), Pramukh Swamiji. On June 20, 2015, I accompanied Dr. Kalam to present the book to Pramukh Swamiji at Sarangpur, Botad, in Gujarat. Little did I know that this was to be my last meeting with Dr. Kalam. On July 26, 2016, he called me over the phone regarding his lecture the next day at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. This was our last conversation. The next day, I received the shocking news of his death. I flew in a C-130 aircraft carrying Dr. Kalam’s mortal remains from Delhi to Rameswaram. Throughout the journey, my mind kept traveling into the past and the memorable times I had spent with him. How does one come to terms with the loss of someone who has been such an integral part of one’s life? That’s when I decided to live practicing his
As a tribute, I wrote a more than 500-page tome on the life of
BAPS literally took over Dr. Kalam’s role in my life and embraced me as his spiritual successor. The book, ‘Transcendence’ turned out to be a modern-day classic, selling a million copies and being translated into six languages, namely, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. Pramukh Swamiji passed away on August 13, 2016. The new spiritual guru of BAPS, Mahant Swamiji, blessed me and the protective umbrella continues to safeguard me.
In 2018, I published ‘A Modern Interpretation of Lokmanya Tilak’s Gita Rahasya’ to bring back the pride among the youth regarding our lost civilization. The book got a grand release in Lucknow at the hands of Yogi Adityanathji and Devendra Fadnavisji, the Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra respectively, to mark the 101st year of the Lokmanya’s famous declaration made in the city, “Swarajya is my birthright and I shall have it!” The Marathi version of the book was released on February 15, 2019, at Pune by Mahant Swamiji Maharaj.
Dr. Soma Raju remains my guide. I have fast friends in Dr. Girish Sahni, a microbial scientist; Dr. Vilas Tonapi, a millet researcher; Dr. S. Chandrasekhar, a renowned plant medicine chemist; and Mahesh Patel, founder of ETG and Afro-India Technology and Societal Transformation Foundation (AITST), working to promote Indian technology to help improve the living conditions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. The TCIL has invited me as an Advisor to the Pan-Africa eNetwork Project – Phase II for the implementation of the e-Vidya Bharati and e-Aarogya Bharati (e-VBAB) Network Project between India and Africa. M.S.R. Prasad is now Director General, Missile Systems, at the DRDO. G. Satheesh Reddy is the Chief of DRDO. S.G. Prasad, who has been with me since 1996 at Care Hospital, Ram Gopal Shukla, Gopi Krishna Reddy and M. Ramakrishna who came into contact with me later, in that order, are my close associates in my societal work. Otherwise working in their own systems, they have given their best support, sometimes following me, sometimes guiding me, but never leaving my side.
I have recently completed ‘A Modern Interpretation of Goswami Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas’ for Sakal Publications and ‘India 3.0: Rising of A Billion People’ for HarperCollins. I plan to write in 2019, ‘Continent on The Other Shore’, aimed at introducing the rise of Africa to the Indian people, and ‘Enduring Edifice for Character’ with Dr. B. Soma Raju, to present the insights of his five decade-long career in medicine and scholarship to the aspiring youth.