WINGS OF FIRE
AVUL PAKIR JAINULABDEEN ABDUL KALAM has
come to personally represent to many of his countrymen the
best aspects of Indian life. Born in 1931, the son of a little
educated boatowner in Rameswaram, Tamilnadu, he had
an unparalleled career as a defence scientist, culminating
in the highest civilian award of India, the Bharat Ratna.
As chief of the country’s defence research and
development programme, Kalam demonstrated the great
potential for dynamism and innovation that existed in
seemingly moribund research establishments. This is the
story of Kalam’s rise from obscurity and his personal and
professional struggles, as well as the story of Agni, Prithvi,
Akash, Trishul a nd Nag - missiles that have become
household names in India and that have raised the nation to
the level of a missile power of international recokoning.
At the same time as he has helped create India’s
awesome weaponry, Kalam has maintained the ascetic
rigour of his personal life, working 18 hours a day and
practicing the veena. With characteristic modesty, Kalam
ascribes the greatness of his achievement to the influence
of his teachers and mentors. He describes the struggles of
his boyhood and youth, bringing alive everyday life in a
small town in South India and the inspirational role of
educators. He describes the role of visionary Indian
scientists, such as Dr Vikram Sarabhai, and of the creation
of a coordinated network of research institutions. This is
also the saga of independent India’s struggle for
technological self sufficiency and defensive autonomy – a
story as much about politics, domestic and international, as
it is about science.
Arun Tiwari worked under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam for
over a decade in the Defence Research and Development
Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad. He is currently Director,
Cardiovascular Technology Institute, Hyderabad, where he
is pursuing Dr Kalam’s vision of developing cost-effective
medical devices using indigenous defence technology.
Dr Kalam is now India’s President. He was elected to
India’s office by a huge majority in 2002.
To the memory of my parents
Sea waves, golden sand, pilgrims’ faith,
Rameswaram Mosque Street, all merge into one,
You come to me like heaven’s caring arms.
I remember the war days when life was challenge and toil—
Miles to walk, hours before sunrise,
Walking to take lessons from the saintly teacher near the
temple. Again miles to the Arab teaching school,
Climb sandy hills to Railway Station Road,
Collect, distribute newspapers to temple city citizens,
Few hours after sunrise, going to school.
Evening, business time before study at night.
All this pain of a young boy,
My Mother you transformed into pious strength
With kneeling and bowing five times
For the Grace of the Almighty only, My Mother.
Your strong piety is your children’s strength,
You always shared your best with whoever needed the
most, You always gave, and gave with faith in Him.
I still remember the day when I was ten,
Sleeping on your lap to the envy of my elder brothers and
sisters It was full moon night, my world only you knew
Mother! My Mother!
When at midnight I woke with tears falling on my knee You
knew the pain of your child, My Mother.
Your caring hands, tenderly removing the pain
Your love, your care, your faith gave me strength
To face the world without fear and with His strength.
We will meet again on the great Judgement Day, My
APJ Abdul Kalam
PROPITIATION CONTEMPLATION Epilogue
have worked under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam for over a
decade. This might seem to disqualify me as his
biographer, and I certainly had no notion of being one. One
day, while speaking to him, I
asked him if he had a message for young Indians. His
message fascinated me. Later, I mustered the courage to
ask him about his recollections so that I could pen them
down before they were buried irretrievably under the sands
We had a long series of sittings late into the night and
early under the fading stars of dawn—all somehow stolen
from his very busy schedule of eighteen hours a day. The
profundity and range of his ideas mesmerized me. He had
tremendous vitality and obviously received immense
pleasure from the world of ideas. His conversation was not
always easy to follow, but was always fresh and stimulating.
There were complexities, subtleties, and intriguing
metaphors and subplots in his narrative, but gradually the
unfolding of his brilliant mind took the form of a continuous