Building the Kalam Spirit


I want to congratulate all the proud graduands of the day, and their equally proud teachers and parents. And my dear parents, education is the best life time gift that you could have given to your children. After all, education is future.

When my generation graduated about fifty years ago, India was struggling as a `third world country’. When you graduate today, everyone expects India to be the `third most powerful country’ in the world. And my friends, it is you who will be charged with building this great future of our great nation.

You all are also entering a world which is exciting as well as challenging. I say challenging, since we realize that we are living in a VUCA world, which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. They say that institutions can’t build `the future of the young’, but they can build `the young for the future’. You are fortunate that this university has equipped you with skills and tools to deal with this challenge most confidently.

I am grateful to the university for bestowing upon me an Honorary Doctorate. This will be my 40th Honorary Doctorate. But I assure you that this will be the most memorable one, as it is given by a university which bears the name of legendary Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Dr. Kalam and I enjoyed a special relationship. He was my guru, guide, friend and philosopher. He inspired and influenced me enormously, just as he did a billion Indians.

The theme I have chosen for my lecture is `Building the Kalam Spirit’. Let me begin by sharing some personal anecdotes, which are not widely known. These will show some of his human qualities like simplicity, humility, empathy, liberalism, open mindedness, etc., which I experienced personally.

I saw evidence of his extraordinary humility and willingness to learn from others in the year 1992. I was then the Director of National Chemical Laboratory. I got a phone call from Dr. Kalam. He was then the chief of Defence Research and Development Organization with a chain of more than 50 laboratories. Dr. Kalam told me that they were going to have a Directors’conference in Pune and he wanted me to deliver the inaugural address. I happily accepted the invitation and asked Dr. Kalam as to what should I speak on. India had just been liberalized in 1991, opening up its doors for trade with and investment from the rest of the world. Dr. Kalam suggested that I should speak on ‘fighting it into the market place in the post liberalized era’. He wanted me to talk about what Indian science & technology could do in this fight. I remember addressing the gathering, which was chaired by Dr. Kalam. While beginning the lecture, I addressed Dr. Kalam as ‘Mr. Technology of India’. I went on to dwell on the theme of India’s big challenge in the coming years as we opened up. My penchant for patents was well known then. In 1989 itself, I had launched this ‘movement on patent literacy’ and put NCL on the path of becoming strong in patents, even licensing our patents to the advanced world.I referred to this issue of ‘patent literacy’ and said as to how patent illiteracy had to be removed in order for India to face stiff global competition.

After the lecture, there was a lunch. Dr. Kalam came to me and said “Mashelkar, you have addressed me as ‘Mr. Technology of India’. You also talked about patent literacy movement. But can I tell you that your ‘Mr. Technology of India’ is also ‘Mr. Patent Illiterate’ of India!” I asked him why he said that. He replied that he had little knowledge of patents, why they were important and what his organization DRDO could do. I explained. He immediately called someone and issued instructions to set up patent cells in each of the fifty plus DRDO laboratories. Today, DRDO has become not only aware of but also strong in patents. This simple instance actually shows on one hand the humility of the great man, where he was prepared to admit what he did not know well, and at the same time his acting so fast and decisively.

Simplicity and humility signify the essence of the ‘Kalam Spirit’.

I found Dr. Kalam to be an extremely warm-hearted and simple individual. I have personally experienced his warmth and affection. I remember Dr. Kalam calling me on phone one day at 11.00 A.M. in the morning in my office. He said that he had fixed up a meeting of the Knowledge Task Force set up by the Prime Minister. He and I were working together on the steering committee.

I said that I would be unable to join him because I had to leave by the 4.00 P.M. flight to Pune. I explained to him that only that morning I had received a call from Pune saying that my wife was in serious pain. I desperately needed to be in Pune. I was so tense that I could not control myself and broke down on phone. Dr. Kalam consoled me. We ended the telephonic conversation. After 15 minutes, I was surprised to see that Dr. Kalam was there in my office, leaving a meeting that he was to chair! He spent an hour with me. And later on, he kept on inquiring about my wife’s health regularly.

Thus compassion, empathy and warmth from an essential part of the `Kalam Spirit.’

Dr. Kalam was convinced that children were our future and we had to ignite their minds. When he was Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, I remember I had gone to meet him for some discussions. The conversation as usual drifted to talking about the future of India and how it will be built by our children. I still remember his telling me that in future he wanted to dedicate himself to the cause of igniting the minds of children. He said that he would interact with at least 100,000 children in one year. He asked me ‘Mashelkar, why don’t you join me in this grand adventure. We two can go and inspire children from a common platform’. I remembered to have agreed to this enthusiastically but of course, could not really join him.

Soon afterwards, Dr. Kalam became the President of India. I went to meet and congratulate him. The first thing he did was to remind me of this conversation. He asked me as to how many children I had addressed. He said that he had already addressed 50,000 children. I said I had addressed none. He said that not only I must address them, but also that he will exchange with me the number each one of us would have addressed. We followed this practice for two to three years, I remember!

So this is also a part of the `Kalam Spirit’ – a deep commitment to a cause for national good.

In all our conversations, I found Dr Kalam to be deeply disturbed by societal disconnects.Once he told me that his father and the high priest of Rameshwaram temple could discuss Bhagwad Gita and Holy Quran in their houses. He mentioned several times as to how a church was transformed into a technology laboratory and became the birthplace of the nation’s rocket technology. To him that was the result of the fusion of science and spirituality, and he wished that such fusion should happen in all fields in continuum.

So this is yet another part of the `Kalam Spirit’ – liberalism, tolerance and open-mindedness.

I will give you five mantras that resonate with the `Kalam Spirit’. They have helped me in my life. I hope they will work for you too.

First, your aspirations are your possibilities. So always keep them high. Keep your eyes on the stars, and not down at your feet.

Let me explain from my own learnings. When I took over as Director of National Chemical Laboratory in 1989, it was in the pre-liberalised India, which highly protected the Indian industry through huge tariff barriers. All our scientists were busy doing just import substitution by only copying foreign processes, products, etc. NCL budgets were very small. I said to my scientists, “It is not the size of the budget that matters, it is the size of the idea. Let’s think big. Rather than just being borrower of ideas and technology from foreign companies, let’s export our technology, let us license our patents to them”. Everyone thought that this was impossible to achieve. However, within two years, in 1991, we were able to license three of our US patents for close to a million US dollars to a multinational company, who was a leader in the field in which we had got these patents. This was the first ever reverse transfer of technology from an Indian national laboratory to a foreign multinational. It was sheer magic!

But who made this magic possible? The same NCL scientists who were merely copying so far. And why? Because they were fired up by the high aspiration of moving from copying to creating – from importing to exporting, from merely doing something that was first to India to doing something that was first to the world.

Second, perseverance always pays. It is always too early to quit. Winners never quit and quitters never win. As Dr. Kalam had said, let the problems not defeat you –you should defeat the problems.

Michael Jordon, the legendary basketball player has said `I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed’.

So my friends, look at the world FAIL differently. FAIL is First Attempt in Learning. As long as you keep on learning from the errors you have done and not repeat them, you will ultimately win.

Third, be always a part of a solution, never a part of the problem. If you can’t find the way, create a new way. Don’t just knock on doors of opportunity. Create your own doors.

Let me again explain through my own experience. I returned to India in 1976. I needed sophisticated imported equipment to carry on my research in the field of rheology, in which I was researching abroad. There was acute shortage of foreign exchange in India. DGTD clearance, not manufactured in India certificates were needed for importing any equipment. In my case, I was told it would take 2 years.

So I opened my own new door of opportunity, which did not require any equipment I got into the field of mathematical modelling and simulation. We were so successful that within a short time, I got the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize, one of the highest scientific awards in the country. Just imagine what would have happened if I had just waited for that door of opportunity to open which required foreign equipment!

Fourth, like instant coffee, there is no instant success. There is no substitute for hard work. You may be talented, but remember hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard enough.

I am over 75 years old. But I have always worked 24×7, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year – and will continue to do so till I breathe my last.

Fifth, there is no limit to human endurance, to human achievement, to human imagination, except the limits you put on yourself.

Let me illustrate this with recent inspiring examples.

Swapna Burman is a girl with 6 toes in both legs but with no money for special shoes. Her father was a rickshaw puller. Her mother was working in a tea garden. She ran for India in the final event of Heptathlon in the recent Asian games with a bandaged jaw. She won a medal for India.

Arunima Sinha was a national level volleyball player. She was pushed from a running train by some robbers in 2011. As a result, one of her legs had to be amputated below the knee. She was inspired by cricketer Yuvraj Singh, who had successfully battled cancer. She said, if he can do it, I will do it too. She decided to do something special with her life. She hoisted the Indian flag on Mount Everest on 21 May 2013, just two years after she lost her leg.

My friends, that’s why I say that there is no limit to human achievement, except the limit you put on yourself.

Let me come back to Dr. Kalam and the ‘Kalam Spirit’.

You are all looking for a role model. What better role model could you have than someone who was the son of a boatman in Rameshwaram and went on to occupy the position of the President of India? What better role model could you have than this simple and humane individual, blessed with the qualities of simplicity, humility, empathy, tolerance and open mindedness? What better role model could you have then an individual, who was a staunch nationalist, and who was a great dreamer and visionary at the same time? What better role model could you have than an individual who strongly emphasised that ‘strength respects strength’ and wanted to see a Developed India in our life time?

As you exit the portals of this university as confident graduates, the name of this university itself should inspire you every day, every moment.

In true `Kalam Spirit’, you should say every day ‘Yes, I can. Yes, we can. Yes, India can. Yes, India will’.

Thank you.