I do not recall when I first met late Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. One early encounter was when I saw him stand outside Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's room, waiting to get some files signed. Gujral later told me these were delayed promotion cases of some of his scientists, so he had brought them personally to cut through red tape. But I knew him well for at least 20 years and was among the so many touched by his kindness and warmth. I am listing my six most interesting memories of him.
1. I wrote two #NationalInterest pieces sharply critical of him. The first was on 28 April 2001, titled Dr Kalam's Banana Republic. The theme was, whenever the defence forces wanted new equipment, DRDO, which Kalam then headed, said "humko yeh banana hai" (we shall make it). But they would never manage to make it, and the forces would be left in the lurch. Just my luck that the very next day (Sunday) I shrank in fright as I saw Dr Kalam coming in walking from the other side of the track at South Delhi's Siri Fort Sports Complex. He lived close by in a DRDO guest house in Asian Games Village and walked there often with one cop following him. I had nowhere to hide, and he stopped, looking me in the eye. Only to say how much he agreed with my piece and how he wished government would take it seriously.
"[S]o I believe you are the one responsible for my freedom having been taken away!"
2. Chatting with him that evening, I realised that for someone so important, it was so risky to walk with just one cop in a fairly isolated place, and that too at mostly fixed hours after sunset. He needed and deserved more protection. In a subsequent conversation I mentioned this to L.K. Advani, then home minister, and he immediately increased his security greatly. A few weeks later as we again caught up walking into each other from opposite directions, Kalam confronted me, mock admonishing me: so I believe you are the one responsible for my freedom having been taken away! He now had three cops with him.
3. I started stalking him for a #WTT when he moved into Rashtrapati Bhawan. He kept me waiting. On a Republic Day reception as our turn came to greet him, he turned to my wife and asked if she still walked so fast, making a sprinter's pumping motion with his elbows. And then he told her, you are my walking partner, so come to Rashtrapati Bhawan and we will walk. Then one day I will call your husband and we will walk and talk. I had to wait till his term came to an and, But it was a wonderful conversation.
"Kalam was sharper at the media game than us journalists."
4. In 2005 he agreed to be the chief guest at an Indian Express event called India Empowered. This was the culmination of a series of articles contributed by prominent people from all walks of life on how to empower our people. The series had been endorsed by him, and he wrote the first article too (those articles were later published by Penguin in a book, India Empowered, which I edited). NDTV was our media partner at the event and Barkha Dutt was moderating it. As is her wont, she started by asking Kalam a sharp question. Kalam firmly raised his finger, told her to sit down, and said he knew what to say and do, and didn't need any help! Then he delighted the audience by asking them questions instead! Kalam was sharper at the media game than us journalists.
5. Another time, as chief guest at the Ramnath Goenka Awards, he not only surprised us--pleasantly--by staying on for the annual state of journalism debate rather than leaving after giving his speech and the awards. Barkha and Rajdeep Sardesai were moderating it. He got involved in the debate, on media ethics, from the front row. And then he got so animated, he hauled himself on the stage and carried on arguing and intervening sitting on the floor! Barkha still has that picture, and I am posting it here!
6. My second #NationalInterest to question him came when he was nominated presidential candidate. It pretty much questioned his credentials for the job. Here is the article: http://www.shekhargupta.in/2002/06/his-rashtrapati-reward/. On the day it was published I was in Mumbai and early morning got a call from Brajesh Mishra, who said Kalam was deeply upset about my article and would like to see me at his office, then in New Delhi's Vigyan Bhawan. I walked in the following day, looking suitably guilty. But he never complained, gave me coffee, signed a copy of a book, said the most wonderful things to me, on how seriously he took me, respected me, etc and even asked if I would join his Vision 2020 programme. I thanked him and politely declined saying the Express Code of Ethics wouldn't allow me to join a campaign. By the end of that meeting, I was totally disarmed, and in awe of the man. This story found mention in much greater detail in the third #NationalInterest I wrote on him, when he demitted office as Rashtrapati.
A seventh incident is related in this column.