Three books that influenced APJ Abdul Kalam deeply
Here are three books that inspired Kalam.
By A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Editor's note: It's no secret that APJ Abdul Kalam was a bookworm. Fiction, poetry, religious tomes, novels — Kalam enjoyed it all. So much so that it wasn't unusual for him to rattle off a few lines by TS Eliot in the middle of a discussion on science. In My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions, Kalam wrote about his favourite books and his love for these volumes is unmistakable. “Books are your good friends,” Kalam had written. We couldn’t agree more. In this excerpt from My Journey are some of Kalam’s best literary buddies.
Over the years I have read innumerable books. But if I were asked to name those that are most dear to me, or the ones that affected me deeply, I would mention three.
The first is called Light from Many Lamps, edited by Lillian Eichler Watson. I first came across this book in 1953, in the very same second-hand bookstore in Madras I had mentioned earlier (the joys of browsing in a crammed bookshop and stumbling upon a rare treasure like this is indescribable). I consider the book to be my companion, because I have leafed through it and read and reread it so many times over the years that I have possessed it.
Considered a classic inspirational work, Lights from Many Lamps contains the writings of various authors. The editor has compiled inspiring stories written by different writers, and has also, very helpfully, mentioned how these came to be written and the lessons to be derived from them.
There has hardly been an occasion when the works mentioned in the book have not brought me solace in my hours of sadness, or uplifted me when I needed advice. If I am ever in danger of being swept away by my own emotions, this book brings about a balance in my thinking. My copy of the book has been bound and rebound so many times that I was delighted when a friend found a new edition and gifted it to me some years ago.
The second work that has been influential in my thinking is the Thirukural. Written by Thiruvalluvar more than 2,000 years ago, it is a collection of 1,330 rhyming Tamil couplets or aphorisms (kural). This work talks about almost every aspect of life and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of work in Tamil literature.
To me, it has provided a code of conduct for my life. It is a work that truly elevates the mind. Here is a kural that is particularly dear to my heart:
Ulluvathellam uyarvullal matratu
Tallinum tellamai nirttut
(Think of rising higher. Let it be your only thought. Even if your object be not attained, the thought itself will have raised you.)
The next book that I would like to mention is called Man the Unknown by the Nobel laureate and doctor-turned-philosopher Alexis Carrel. In it, he talks about how humans can be healed when both the body and mind are treated together.
His description of the human body—how it is an intelligent, integrated system—is explained clearly and brilliantly. I think this work should be read by everyone, in particular those who aim to study the medical sciences.
Religious texts of different religions have influenced me greatly. I have studied these and tried to find the answers to questions that have appeared in my mind through my life. The Koran, the Vedas, the Bhagwad Gita, all hold deep philosophical insights into the plight of man and have helped me resolve many dilemmas at different times in my life.
Poetry has been one of my first loves in the realm of literature. The works of T.S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll and William Butler Yeats have played out in my mind over and over again, appearing to give context and meaning to various happenings. In my endeavours in the scientific arena, how appropriate have been these lines by Lewis Carroll:
Let craft, ambition, spite,
Be quenched in Reason’s night,
Till weakness turn to might,
Till what is dark be light,
Till what is wrong be right!
And when work was an endless cycle of back-breaking hours, and days merged into days till I could hardly tell one from the other, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words described my state of mind the best:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath, nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean
Often, I have had to work trying to meet impossible deadlines. A colleague, Group Captain Narayanan, was impatient to achieve our goal of creating guided missiles. He told me once, ‘You name the thing and I will get it for you, but do not ask me for time.’ At the time I had laughed at his hurry and quoted these words by T.S. Eliot:
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow.
These are just some of the writers and works that have influenced me deeply. They are all like old friends—familiar, well-meaning and reassuring. They know when to enter my mind; they know when I am in some dilemma, or my moments of sadness and contemplation. They are also with me in my most deeply joyous moments. In this age of quick and easy communication, when information comes to us in byte-sized pieces, the charm of the written word can never be allowed to be lost. I once wrote this poem on books that I often read out to young people. It sums up my feelings for the written word:
Books were always my friends
Last more than fifty years
Books gave me dreams
Dreams resulted in missions
Books helped me confidently take up the missions
Books gave me courage at the time of failures
Good books were for me angels
Touched my heart gently at the time
Hence I ask young friends to have books as friends
Books are your good friends.
Excerpted with permission from My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Rupa
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