It's difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that we are now in a world without Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. I had the privilege of knowing him well over the years and had nothing but the greatest of admiration for him.
I first met Kalam when I was a student at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad in the sixties. He was at the time being considered for an assignment by Dr Vikram Sarabhai and I was of course studying there.
We were not in touch for a while after that but when I became chairman at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), he was heading DRDO (Defence Research And Development Organization). We started meeting regularly then. Whenever I was in Delhi, he would make sure that we meet in the evening. I remember we always used to have dinner at Hotel Janpath and he would never allow me to pay.
He was interested in a wide range of subjects--science, technology, society and education were his main areas of interest. We used to have discussions about all of them.
Then when he became President, we remained in touch. He was interested in the affairs of the ISRO and I would give him periodic status reports.
We instituted the Satish Dhawan memorial lecture at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram and Kalam delivered the first lecture. I remember that day very well. He was so popular as president that a large crowd had gathered all around VSSC. The staff at the organization itself numbered more than 5,000. And everyone wanted to shake his hands. And he was so happy and thrilled to be among people. He was determined to shake as many hands as possible.
I remember one evening when I was visiting him at Rashtrapati Bhawan, he invited me to have dinner with him. When we were in the dining room, he made me sit at the head of the table. "You are my guest today, you are the most important person here," he said. So I sat at the head of the table and he sat next to me. It was just the two of us!
And he had ordered a special south Indian dinner. His attention to detail was meticulous--even the podi served that day tasted exactly like it does back home. He was exceedingly generous.
After dinner he said he would show me around. He took me to his library, heaving with books on a range of subjects and themes. So we talked about all of that.
He also showed me his bedroom. There was a lungi hanging on the wall--the same kind that must have hung on his wall for years as a young engineer in Thiruvananthapuram. There was his veena on one side, a small cot and some basic essentials.
Power and position never really went to his head. He continued his frugal and spartan way of life irrespective of the position he was serving.
Once I met him in Sriharikota when I was an MP and he was also there for a launch. I was concerned about being back in Delhi the same day for a meeting. So he told just hop on to my flight and you'll get back on time.
Somebody advised me that it might be inconvenient to board a high security plane with a lot of luggage so I changed my mind and left for the airport. By then his entourage had left and because of the traffic blockade, I ended up missing my flight.
A few weeks later when I met him at an event he asked me why I hadn't gone along on his plane. "I was looking for you, I had even told our people to make sure there is some good sambar on the plane," he said. That was the kind of warmth he was able to extend to friends even in the midst of a hectic schedule.
More recently, when I was leaving Delhi after my stint at the planning commission, I had gone to meet him. I showed him the work I had been doing. He was interested in my report on Western ghats and asked if he could keep a copy. He had wanted to read it. When I was leaving, it must have been around 9 or 9:30, I was amazed to see a crowd of students at his house. He was taking some classes for them. He introduced me to them. He was so active and his passion for teaching was tremendous.
That was the last time I met Kalam.
His dedication, love and commitment to the country was unparalleled. He was 110% an Indian. He was a great team builder and leader, and had this phenomenal ability to bring together people from different disciplines and enthuse them to work together. His contributions to India's space and various sensitive defence projects are tremendous.
His passing is a huge personal loss for me. There is now a void that will be very hard to fill.
He passed away while doing what he loved the most--teaching--and amidst students, who he loved being with. Dr Vikram Sarabhai also passed away similarly. People had seen him working and in meetings till late at night. And then the next morning he wouldn't wake up at the Kovalam guest house where he was staying.
Both men are true karmayogis who served this nation with great distinction.