Wings of Fire: Autobiography of APJ Abdul Kalam, the Missile Scientist Turned President of India

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I: Autobiographies, An introduction:

Writing an autobiography is a risky affair since any person is subject to personal weaknesses and failures. He is expected to openly admit his failures, notwithstanding the criticisms. Only a very few people like Mahatma Gandhi would be able to venture it. Since they are very great people their failures and weaknesses would not be able to diminish their popular and genuine images

There are some autobiographies, covering only one aspect of their lives (say, their profession), where there is not much exposure to their personal weaknesses. So there is no need to openly tell them since they will not come in the way of their narration. Most of the autobiographies we read nowadays belong to this second category.

II: Autobiography of APJ Abdul Kalam:

‘A.P.J Abdul Kalam’ is a magic name, sending electrical signal to millions of Indians, especially the youth who want to achieve something in their lives for the country. He is like Mahatma Gandhi in simplicity, Kennedy in charisma and Einstein in advancement of Science and Technology. As told in the foregoing paragraphs, in his autobiography he has covered the ‘failures’ in his experiments and personal losses too and hence his autobiography is also a must read for all the youth, like ‘My Experiments With Truth’ of Mahatma Gandhi.

In this book, he has covered important aspects of a Missile Technologist and how to come out successful in his mission. In the course of his narration, he has also given importance to Faith in God with a secular approach, devotion to elders, obedience to teachers, utmost loyalty and single minded dedication to duty, efficient managerial capabilities with a sense of team work etc which have taken him to the highest step in the ladder of profession and public life.

This is a brief review of his autobiography presented for the benefit of readers with a request to share the pleasure of taking right managerial decisions at the right time.

III. A Brief Discussion of His Autobiography:

His life may broadly be classified into three parts:

1. His early life till he becomes a missile Scientist, for which only a brief coverage is given in this review.

2. His role as a Scientist and Head of DRDO: This is the essential part of his book and hence this review. His rise from an ordinary Science Assistant to Chief of Directorate of Defence Laboratory with reasons thereof up to the eve of retirement is explained in this part.

3. Life after his retirement including his getting the highest civilian award Bharath Rathna and also his service as the President of India (2002-2007) are not covered in the book and so or in this review. Let us sincerely hope that concluding part of his autobiography, covering these aspects of his life may come out in a near future for our pleasure.

IV: His Early Life till He Joins as a Technical Assistant.

The first three chapters, widely classified into one group under the head ‘Orientation’

Cover his early life till he becomes the chief of the Rocket launching station at coastal town Tumba (Kerala).

He was born in an ordinary family in the Holy coastal town of Rameswaram in Tamilnadu, India. His father was a boat owner having fishing as his profession. He had a very humble beginning and had a very simple life as a school boy. On several occasions he had to earn to take care of himself.

There were several reasons for his possession of an honest, faithful, devoted, orthodox and secular outlook all along his life. He belonged to a simple orthodox Muslim family and hence he followed Muslim way of worship. He was born in a Hindu Pilgrim Centre (A visit to Rameswaram will clear a Hindu from all his sins) and so he had (and continues to have) great respect for Hindu Religion. He was taught by Christian and Hindu Brahmin teachers whom he acknowledges as the greatest influence in his life. Above all, he is an un-tiring worker who works 18 hours a day, even at the age of 81. Later chapters in this book show him as a very good go-getter, having excellent command over team working which are the most essential qualities of management. He is a lover of Karnatic music and is able to play Veena one of the most difficult musical instruments. He is highly religious, has unshakeable faith in the Divine will and pre-decided destiny. For this, he often quotes from Quran and other religious scriptures. He is a poet himself and writes poems in his mother language Tamil.

An account of his education at Rameswaram, Ramanathapuram, Trichy, and M.I.T at Chennai was given in the beginning chapters. Then the book narrates how he narrowly missed a job in Air force and got a job in Directorate of Technical Development and Production.

The rest is History and is covered in subsequent parts.

V: The Becoming: The Success Story of India’s Space Rocketry.

In fact, the Techno-Scientific life of Dr Kalam started so early as when he, along with his two juniors constructed a model Hover Aircraft named Nandi (Bull, the vehicle of the Hindu God Shiva), which was appreciated by none other than the then defence minister of India Mr V.K.Krishna Menon. However, the project Nandi was shelved. Later he was sent for a six months training in NASA which changed the course of his life.

Abdul Kalam traces the History of Indian Rocketry to the period of Tipu Sultan who ruled Mysore in 1799. After the death of Tipu Sultan, Indian Rocketry also met with its demise, to be reborn after 150 years due to the technological vision of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Prof Vikram Sarabhai, the Chairman of Indian Space research Organisations.

The following is the sequence of Space missions sent directly under the supervision of Mr Abdul Kalam.

V.1. On his return from NASA, India’s first rocket launch took place on 21st Nov, 1963. It was a sounding rocket named Nike-Apache and made at NASA. It provided excellent flight data. (Dr Kalam records with deep regret, the assassination of J.F.Kennedy, the then President of USA, the next day evening.)

V.2. The first Rohini rocket, consisting of single solid propulsion motor weighing a mere 32 kg lifted a nominal 7 kg payload to an altitude of 10 km was launched next. It was followed by another, to which one more solid propellant stage was added to dispatch multi-experiment payloads weighing nearly 100 kg to an altitude of over 350 km.

V.3. Prof Vikram Sarabhai, Director decided in 1969 to go full steam ahead with the task of establishing indigenous (fully made in India) capability in building and launching our own satellites. SHAR Rocket Launch Station was born in Sriharikota, near Chennai. It was then the Satellite Launch Vehicle was conceived.

On 10th Aug, 1979 the first experimental flight trial of SLV 3 was launched. The first stage was a success. There was a smooth transition to II stage. Suddenly it went out of control. The flight splashed into sea 560 km away from Sriharikota.Hence, launching of SLV 3 on 10.8.79 was a failure.

VI: Failures and Losses:

As hinted already, Dr Kalam lists out the failures in his mission and tragic losses in his family in his autobiography. He listed three major failures of his career in his book. The first one was the death of his hovercraft project (Nandi), the second one was shelving of the project RATO (Rocket Assisted Take-off System) and the third was abortion of the SLV 3.

On the family front, he mentions about the death of his parents and his elder brother, thus he had to take the burden of his entire family, mainly his brother’s younger daughter. In the beginning, he met only with failures. How did he pursue fresh dreams and came in terms with success is the most important part of his autobiography, which he shares with the readers without reservations so that youngsters will stand to gain and start Dreaming about a prospective future. “Start dreaming in a constructive manner” is the Mantra of Dr Kalam and thousands of youth were benefited by following this guidance in achieving their goals in their lives.

VI: Further Space Missions:

VI.1: The First Success: Un-deterred by the failures in missions and losses in family, Dr kalam started concentrating in his further space missions. On 18.7.1980, SLV 3 was again launched with Rohini Satellite carried as payload. Dr Kalam writes so: “Mission Director calling all stations. Stand by for an important announcement. The fourth stage apogee motor has given the required velocity to put Rohini Satellite into orbit”. He says that these are the most important words he spoke in his life. There were happy cries everywhere; there was a great jubilation and celebration. The mission was a total success!.

The modesty and simplicity in Dr Kalam makes him to contribute this success to the Team and not for him. While he accepted the whole responsibility for the earlier failure, he shared the victory with all. Is it not a good quality for a Manager to be followed by everybody?

VI.2: If launching of SLV 3 with Rohini satellite is number one important day in his life, inauguration of IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme) was considered the second important day in his life. The proposed (integrated) projects were reflections of India’s long cherished self reliance and christened in India’s most traditional names as follows:

a) Prithvi (Earth) which represented Surface to Surface weapon system.

b) Trishul (The trident of Lord Shiva) represented the tactical core vehicle

c) Akash (The Sky) represented Surface to Air defence system

d) Nag (Cobra) represented The anti-tank missile project and finally

e) AGNI (Fire) the long cherished name of REX, personally chosen by Dr Kalam.

VII. The Final Thrust:

Dr Kalam explains briefly how did he choose five scientists to lead the above five programs and the people who would assist them. These are in fact, to be placed in the syllabus of any MBA course. Tirukural, the Tamil Veda, written 2000 years ago by the poet Saint Tiruvalluvar states, ” before entrusting responsibility to somebody, one should weigh the nature of the job involved, the instruments to be used by the person to complete the job, analyse all the aspects and entrust the job to the right person.”. Dr Kalam did the same thing to entrust the job to 5 efficient scientists. Though his selection process received the ire of some people around him he proved right in the end by the success of the mission.

This is an important part of his autobiography because, as told already, managerial aspects received maximum attention in this book rather than technical aspects, perhaps because of the defence norms that more technical details should not be poured in any book. Hence more intricate technical details were carefully avoided.

The first attempt to launch the vehicle Agni was fixed at 20.4.1989. But it was withdrawn due to a technical snag in the last minute.

The second attempt was on 1st May, 1989 after 10 days’ hard work. But here also, the program was postponed due to a technical snag.

Finally, on May 22, 1989 the launch was successful and it entered and went through the sky with golden flames both sides like ‘Wings of Fire”.

Let me reproduce the poem written by Dr Abdul Kalam himself in his diary that night:

Do not look at Agni as an entity directed upward

To deter the ominous or exhibit your might.

It is fire. In the heart of an Indian,

Do not even give it the form of a missile

As it clings to the burning pride of this nation

And thus is bright.

VIII Conclusion:

Thus Wings of Fire is the autobiography of a patriotic Indian, born in a simple family who rose to the position of President of India only because of dedication and hard work. His mission was to make India self reliant in Space research and has achieved it by dedication, hard work and team spirit. This book is worth 1000 management books. Anyone who reads the book will become friendly with the author and feel one with him which is the purpose of autobiographies. In this respect this is an honest and sincere attempt for self motivation and personality development.

If the readers are motivated towards that end, the author will feel happy that the purpose of this article is accomplished.