I met Kalam for the first time in July 1970 when I arrived in Trivandrum soon after I got married. I had heard a lot about him, of course, as he and my husband, Aravamudan (known throughout ISRO as Dan) were friends since 1963. They also lived next door to each other in a lodge in Trivandrum. Dan and he belonged to a select group of young scientists who had been sent to NASA by Vikram Sarabhai to be trained in space technology. Dan had stayed for a year. Kalam had come back a little earlier. But I had heard all about their exploits on Wallops Island in Washington.
Soon I became a part of Dan’s group of bachelor friends from the Indra Bhavan Lodge in Trivandrum. Kalam was the one who organised a welcome dinner for me at Mascot Hotel and when I decided to resume my journalistic writing he was the one who lent me his personal portable typewriter which he had brought back with him from Washington.
Dan and Kalam would share with me their stories of bachelorhood in Trivandrum where there was nowhere to go in the evening. They would wander about the streets of the city, they said, and for lack of a better name they dubbed it their Sanitary Inspection rounds! Many, many years later, Kalam became President of India. When we called to congratulate him, I asked whether he had ever imagined during those “sanitary inspection” days that he would become the President. He laughed and said “Not in my wildest dreams! I would have laughed if anyone had told me that!”
Those early days were relatively carefree. The work at Thumba had yet to pick up pace and Dan and I had not started a family. We would go in the evenings to the Rocket Recreation Club which Dan and Kalam and some other pioneering young men had set up in an old colonial bungalow called Ingeldene. There we would play shuttle and table tennis and take “bonji” bets …bonji being the nickname for lime juice in Trivandrum. Kalam would turn up in our house on many Sundays to have home-made dosa or rasam and his very favourite potato fry made South Indian style. Since he was a vegetarian too, he really loved the food in our house. Later we would sit and talk about books…especially his favourite Atlas Shrugged.
Work picked up, he moved out of ISRO, we got involved in our own lives and slowly the bonds loosened. We built our house in a colony with other colleagues. He still lived in Indra Bhavan. We had tried to fix him up a couple of times with girls suggested by friends. But he always chickened out in the last minute. In the mid 1980s he moved out first to Bangalore, then Hyderabad and finally Delhi as the Defence Advisor. We met him occasionally. Dan moved on to become Director of the Srihraikota Range and we would spend time with Kalam when he visited.
And then of course he became President. Soon after that we visited him at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I was researching my book Disappearing Daughters on sex selective abortion. He was so excited by the idea that he immediately offered to write a foreword. Not only that. When the book finally came out, he released it at Rashtrapati Bhavan and also got us to stay with him as his guests for a week.
Those were wonderful days again when we relived our Trivandrum youth while walking in the Rose Garden or sitting next to the musical fountain sipping the “bonji” he had got specially made. He even served fried potatoes in a small dinner he hosted for us and proudly told me he had taught the cooks to make it the way he liked it.
He was a simple man. A genuine person, who never changed his lifestyle even in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Everyone could relate to him at a very personal level and therein lay his popularity and greatness.
My last glimpse of him was at the Jaipur Literary Festival where, thanks to his rock star image I could not even get past the throngs of young people to say hello to him. Later on the phone in Delhi he sounded tired but happy. The young he said were the ones who gave him energy to go on.