I was 13 years old when I wrote him a letter.
Idealistic and patriotic, I was no different from the millions of teenagers across the country who were dazzled by the achievements, and touched by the magnitude of kindness and character of President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Having grown up in the brand new materialistic frenzy of the 90s with a conspicuous absence of models of character, he had taken young minds by storm. Many suddenly wanted to be scientists, many wanted to fulfill the 2020 vision. Most importantly, many wanted to be a man (or a woman) just like him.
My 13-year-old self, on the other hand, simply admired the great man. Given my disinterest in science and technology, I could never fully grasp the work he did, but I was fortunate enough to understand, as much as I could, the man he was. Reading through Wings of Fire taught me that human strengths and virtues are truly universal; they can find solace across borders, religions, genders and time if one opens up to them.
Wings of Fire also made me feel something else – that he probably loved the sea and missed it. Out came pen and paper. After the ritualistic introduction, in a neat, school-girl handwriting, I wrote that I ‘knew’ how much he loved the seashore and how much he missed it so far away in New Delhi. And to make him feel better, I enclosed a poem I had recently written about collecting seashells and watching a sunset at a beach. Then I scribbled “To, The President of India, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Delhi” on the envelope, and posted it.
Weeks passed, and I did not think about it. In fact, it had completely slipped my mind when I arrived at home one afternoon from school and my very smiling grandmother told me I had a letter from New Delhi. I was excited! I tore open the envelope, and pulled out the thick, shiny paper, with a shiny emblem (I strongly feel it was the Ashoka Chakra with “Satyamev Jayate” embellished under it) and a neatly typed out letter addressed to me.
It began with hoping I was well and thanking me for the letter I sent. Then it wished me all the best for my studies and my future.
The last paragraph began to thank me again, and oh!
There it was – a crooked arrow inked next to the words “Thank you again for your letter”, and on the top was scribbled, “and the beautiful poem”, narrowly missing the daintily typed “Best Wishes”!
And there was his signature.
I was thrilled, spilling tears of joy, so thoroughly touched. I had heard from the President of my country!
And despite the countless letters that poured in his office, day in day out, mine could make him happy.
I took it to school next day. It was declared in the school assembly. Every teacher and every classmate scrambled to my desk for a look. It was a rainy day, and as I walked home, I was stopped now and again by random, unknown students who wanted to see the letter. The hustle of it caused a raindrop to fall on it, and almost encroach on the precious ink; I wiped it out on time.
Years have passed and I have changed homes, lives and minds. The idealist is more cynical; the patriot wants to flee the country. While I have gathered individuals I look up to, the silence in the area of a public figure with integrity, compassion, simplicity and generosity is deafening. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam is no longer the President, and I have no role models.
And in the tussle of daily life, the letter is lost.
I think I lost it while shifting from one place to another; something I did several times in the past 12 years. Or perhaps, it is sitting somewhere in my countless files and document folders, waiting to be sorted out, to see light; a task I have been avoiding for years. Yet, I have looked for it in all the usual places.
It is gone.
Of course, it feels terrible to have lost such a treasure I could have actually passed on to the next generation. It has left behind hollowness, a deep regret, a chiding for the careless, dumb self which can neither be forgiven nor punished. The loss has planted and strengthened an urge to conserve all that is left – a precious memory – till my dying day. It will definitely be a story I tell my children and grandchildren with utmost sincerity.
The loss also nags me deep inside to gather and conserve memories and relics of a precious past, be it mine, or of those near and dear to me. Certainly not someone to dwell in the past, I sometimes hesitate at the irrepressible tug of the future in me as it rolls forward, bouncing off the track recklessly. It moves fast and well, but it gathers no moss.
It wouldn’t hurt to. A memory well preserved is a fitting story of a life enriched, and can serve as a value, inspiration, or simply, a comfort to one’s old age, and one’s descendants. A window to the past, when oiled well and opened to breezes and sunshine, can be a window to a fascinating world.
Tossing away such a precious relic unknowingly has no respite. For it is not those precious words that are lost, it is me. The letter stored a part of me that was naïve and idealistic, but also very clear. It did not have the doubts, the distrust, the suspicion my mind resorts to, by default, every time the world comes with a tiding. The letter lost, I lost.
Now I tread uncertain territory. You never know…
The news of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam passing away today while delivering a lecture at IIM Shillong (how befitting for a great teacher), on Ashadhi Ekadashi, an auspicious day for Hindus, reinforced my unexplained belief that good people die on an auspicious day and get a better, more enriched life in their next birth. I did not cry, but I was quiet. This was by no means the first time I had heard of the demise of a public figure, but while other demises were ‘news’, this was a loss. As Facebook and the rest of the Internet exploded with a young, mourning India, I read and watched my generation grieve – feel genuinely – for a man who taught us to dream right. He held our hand and led us into a land which was filled with a billion achievements, each nursed with the same integrity and character. He is gone, leaving the young in that land, many still reaching out for the goal, many dropping out, and many simply wondering what to do. With the guiding figure gone, a bit lost.
Like the letter.
27 July 2015