The Schwartz higher secondary school in Ramanathapuram wore a deserted look Tuesday. School principal T Paul Maran sat in a verandah, next to a framed photograph of Kalam, having just finished paying tributes to “our great student” whose body would be brought home to Rameswaram, 50 km away, on Wednesday.
The school’s most prominent student “used to visit and spend time with children whenever he would come to Ramanathapuram”, recalled Maran. “Once, he objected to our decision to name a new block after him. That incident reflected his principles.”
Among those waiting for Kalam’s return to Rameswaram was his Schwartz classmate V Stephen Jeyaseelan, who last met the “short boy from Rameswaram town” on a hot afternoon in March 2000 at a school reunion — their first meeting since they left school in 1950.
“One of the teachers decided to test Kalam’s memory and asked him if he remembered me, but he was unable to recall who I was. Then, the teacher asked him whether he remembered his class teacher, my father J Issac Velamuthu. He smiled and patted my shoulder — his teacher’s name was enough to jog his memory, and he immediately remembered my name,” the 82-year-old said.
For, Kalam, who became a teacher to millions, always held his own teachers in the highest regard.
“We spent half an hour talking about school days. While many revel in becoming popular, my classmate, who became the President, was content talking about the time he was just another student,” said Jeyaseelan, who studied with Kalam at Schwartz higher secondary school in Ramanathapuram.
Even as a child, Kalam always excelled, recalled his friend, adding that he did not have his trademark “long, curly hair” back then.
“He used to stay at a hostel, paying Rs 2 per month for meals. He was a star student who won all inter-school competitions on essay writing and debating,” said Jeyaseelan.
“But life was tough for students like Kalam, who came from a poor background. I remember my father telling me about how some teachers and the head clerk had volunteered to pay his tuition fee of Rs 1.50 because he ran short of money,” Jeyaseelan said.
He said that when other children would play football, Kalam would sit with a book under a tree, next to a small water tank. “I was reminded of that when Kalam’s name started appearing in the newspapers in the early 1970s,” he said, referring to the time when Kalam started to make his mark as the ‘missile man’.
The chance encounter in 2000 was the last time the two men would meet.
By Tuesday evening, the ‘House of Kalam’, his ancestral home in Rameswaram, was surrounded by hundreds of people, some of whom had come from as far as 170 km away.
“When my father, a relative of Kalam, married my mother, a Hindu, they faced backlash from the community. It was Kalam who supported my father at the time. When I turned 20, Kalam gave him Rs 1,000 to build a house before my marriage,” said Malarvizhi, a 54-year-old fisherwoman.
Police put up barricades at the entrance of the narrow street leading to the house, as news spread that several VVIPs would come for his funeral Thursday.
As neighbours and relatives made arrangements, Kalam’s eldest brother, A P J M Maraicayar, 96, sat inside the house with his daughter.
“He used to call us almost every week. As his eldest brother could not hear properly, Kalam used to insist that his daughter turn on the cell phone speaker so they could communicate better. He lived for the country and always reminded us not to expect any favours from him,” said Zainul Abuddin, Maraicayar’s son-in-law.