Former President A P J Abdul Kalam’s energy levels impressed all those who interacted with him. This energy was clearly visible during a four-nation tour about a decade ago — to Russia, Switzerland, Iceland and Ukraine.
Journalists accompanying him noticed a crate of South Indian vegetables and bundles of curry leaves being loaded on Air India’s “Tanjore”. Soon after takeoff, Kalam walked to the media section. “Enjoy your meal, and drinks,” he said. This was a sentence that he would repeat often during the two-week long sojourn. As it turned out, the first leg of the 2005 trip turned quite newsy, with Kalam getting a late night call in Moscow from then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on dissolution of the Bihar assembly. The President called his Secretary, P M Nair, to his room in the Kempinski and signed his assent after he got the Cabinet papers and then Bihar Governor Buta Singh’s recommendation.
His press secretary, S M Khan, did not divulge much that night. But years later, Nair, in a book, claimed that Kalam had raised the Bihar issue a few days later and told him that he should have waited to decide the next morning. If the Bihar decision weighed heavily on him, given the criticism it generated, Kalam showed no signs during the Switzerland leg of his trip. He was at his curious best at CERN, the world’s largest physics laboratory located on the France-Switzerland border. The following day, scholars and students flocked to the auditorium at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne to hear Kalam.
While covering a presidential tour usually generates only “routine” copy, a trip with Kalam was different. For instance, one day we were given copies of an “impromptu” poem he penned in Switzerland. Another day, then ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair, who was traveling with us, was asked to produce pictures of the Alps taken by an Indian satellite, which were then gifted to his Swiss counterpart.
If the Swiss government declared the day of Kalam’s arrival (May 26) as Science Day, Iceland went all out to welcome the first visit by an Indian head of state to Reykjavik. An Indian restaurant had arranged for authentic South Indian fare, including sambar and vadas, to be served to him. Whichever scientific installation he was taken to, Kalam looked for an Indian angle or future collaboration. At the end of the trip, Kalam was clearly taken in by Reykjavik’s moonscaped landscape. On the way to the Keflavik airport, seeing the lava fields on either side, he suggested that a team of landscapers from Rashtrapati Bhavan could fly down and transform a plot of land in Reykjavik.
After every foreign tour, Kalam is known to have sent suggestions to the government on all the bilateral discussions he had abroad, which included his wishlist. But typically, few of them were ever implemented.