It is long past my usual bedtime but I am unable to sleep. Somehow Kalam’s passing is like the death of a close relative. True, he was 83 but somehow I thought he would always be around – simple in his joys, straightforward in his communication, honesty personified, friendliness radiating from his eyes…In a nation whose leaders are by and large arrogant crooks (except during elections), he made a difference and somehow held out a hope. If a man of such humble origins could make his way to the top through just hard work, surely India was a meritocracy? And now he is gone. Today I am able to understand why men wept and women broke their bangles on January 30, 1948.
I met Kalam only once and briefly at that. And that is not the story I want to relate. The one I am writing about is of his coming in 2002 to inaugurate the December Season at the Music Academy. The Sikkil Sisters were selected for the Sangita Kalanidhi and this being the platinum jubilee of the Academy, four great musicians – Semmangudi, MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and Pt. Ravishankar were to receive a special award. Of the four, only Semmangudi made it, MS and DKP were quite frail in health and Raviji was abroad.
The Music Academy as you know, has a fetish for punctuality. It had in the past once drawn the curtain when Madurai Mani Iyer failed to finish on time. A wooden box that had a red bulb in it would greet those giving lecture demonstrations. This would be placed on the lectern just below the nose of the speaker and in case he/she exceeded the time limit, it would begin to glow. Time if not tide, did not wait for anyone at the Academy. It was said that its second President, KV Krishnaswami Aiyar began the trend. It slackened somewhat under his successors but picked up pace from 1982, when TT Vasu became numero uno.
Vasu became the red bulb himself. Giving his trousers a characteristic hitch, he would think nothing of bounding up to the concert performer or speaker and wag an enormous finger in front of their face in case they exceeded time. He would also begin a countdown of sorts, waving five, then four fingers and so on till just the forefinger would remain standing. The curtain would descend almost simultaneously. I cannot say I disapproved of what Vasu did. In a tightly packed typical Season Day, this discipline was needed. But perhaps it could have been done more gently.
Vasu’s terror tactics did not work with Kalam however when he, as President of India, came to inaugurate the Academy’s platinum jubilee concert series. The curtain went up to reveal Vasu, Kalam, a couple of Secretaries, Semmangudi and the Sikkil Sisters on stage. It was clear from the word go that the time schedule was going to be shot to pieces. After the standard nAdatanum anisham invocation, Dr VV Srivatsa, one of the Secretaries, led Sikkil Kunjumani to the mic. They were so slow in their progress that Vasu began to grunt impatiently. Kalam however beamed beatifically. Kunjumani then began a longwinded speech that clearly overshot the time allotted to her. Vasu began to get up, finger already uplifted when Kalam smiled at him in a soft fashion and grasping his hand, pushed him gently back into his seat. “It is all right Vasu sar,” said Kalam. It was a quite a sight – the President of India cajoling the President of the Music Academy to calm down! Poor Vasu did not say anything and squirmed considerably in his seat. Kunjumani eventually finished her speech and was led back by Srivatsa as slowly as she had come to the mic. Semmangudi received his award and when asked to speak said in his characteristic fashion that Vasu had told him to be brief (Vasu enna romba pEsa kUDadunnu sonnAn). He spoke little and then sat down.
This was a day when Vasu got an award as well – a silver plaque with a verse in his praise. Kalam handed it over. Vasu spoke briefly and then it was Kalam’s turn. We were already ten minutes behind schedule and with some luck would get the concert of the evening going some half an hour late. But the Academy had not contended with Kalam or the audience adulation of him.
Every move he made was received with thunderous applause. This was no President but a matinee idol. The Academy lectern was too tall for him and a special platform was placed behind it for him to climb on. When he achieved this simple task, we all cheered. He delivered his speech in English and there was loud clapping at the end of every sentence. This was no prim and proper Academy inauguration but a college graduation day.
The speech came to an end and everyone clapped once again. Vasu stood up, ready to get a Secretary to deliver the vote of thanks. Kalam however was not getting off so easily.
“Mr President,” he said. “I am aware that there are many people in the audience who know only Tamil and so I have brought a Tamil translation of my speech. With your permission sir, I will now read it.”
I don’t think anyone else could have got away reading the same speech twice in the same evening, even if its second declamation was in another language. But Kalam achieved this impossible feat. And what’s more, the audience cheered all over again. Vasu had to grin and bear it.
The speech came to an end and Vasu was once again on his feet. But Kalam had other plans.
“This is a great occasion Mr President Sar,” he said. “And so I have composed a special song for it. My DRDO members will now perform it. But before that one of my colleagues will read out the lyrics.”
The applause hit the rafters even as what looked like a minor army came on stage bearing all kinds of musical instruments. Vasu had given up by then. The instruments were tuned and then even as Kalam beamed with joy, the song was sung by a couple of scientists to the accompaniment of other scientists in the orchestra.
By the time the national anthem was sung (and here Kalam entreated everyone of us to sing loudly), we were a good 45 minutes late – an unpardonable crime at the Academy.
The next day’s papers revealed that Kalam drove from the Academy straight to MS Subbulakshmi’s house and presented her with the award in person.
We have never seen such crowds at any Season inauguration day ever since at the Music Academy. And never again has the audience cheered a speech or song so much. Simplicity was the hallmark of this great man and that is why we loved him. India and the world is poorer by his passing.