By Srijan Pal Singh:
In March 2012, Dr Kalam visited the remote district of Jaunpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Jaunpur is a relatively arid region and, in the month of March, it witnesses significant temperature variations from day to night.
The main reason behind the visit was a small school called Sujanganj Pranavam Intermediate School. It was a low-income educational institution run by a couple who had migrated from Kerala two decades ago. They had learnt the local language and had dedicated their lives to the cause of education. The spirit of service had brought the couple to the dry, dusty city of Jaunpur, a thousand miles away from their home. They had built their school in the middle of the wheat farms in the city.
A few months ago, the couple had visited Dr Kalam’s house in Delhi. He was so thrilled to hear their story that he had promptly arranged a visit to Jaunpur. In many ways, he could relate it to his own childhood when he received an education amidst economic difficulties.
Jaunpur is not connected by air from Delhi, and the nearest airports are located in Allahabad and Varanasi. These places are quite far away from the village and Dr Kalam always insisted on travelling by standard commercial airlines only, as he never wanted to burden the organizers with special flights. So our itinerary was elaborate. We were to land in Allahabad on 13 March and spend the night there.
The next day we were to reach Jaunpur, about 120 kilometres away. After the event we were supposed to travel to the holy city of Varanasi, 70 kilometres away from Jaunpur. From Varanasi we were to fly back to Delhi. Travelling through eastern Uttar Pradesh for 200 kilometres in a 4 tonne, bulletproof, airtight, rumbling Ambassador can be extremely exhausting but Dr Kalam always approached difficulties with the unflinching enthusiasm of a twenty-year-old.
We landed at the Allahabad airport late in the afternoon. Our travel entourage was quite large, in accordance with security protocol. The convoy consisted of more than half a dozen vehicles, including an ambulance. Dr Kalam always ensured that I was sitting next to him in his car. Next to the driver sat a Private Security Officer (PSO). His job was to accompany Dr Kalam every single minute. The person always standing behind a VIP, often wearing dark glasses — even when the latter is speaking on stage — is the PSO.
Dr Kalam would often engage in conversation with his PSOs, asking them about the local news and people. In fact, he would always begin his speeches with two sentences spoken in the local language. More often than not, he would learn these local words from his PSOs. While travelling to Jaunpur, Dr Kalam asked the PSO what the area was famous for, but the answer he received shocked us both.
“Sahib, the only thing famous here are the people,” said the PSO.
Even more intrigued, Dr Kalam asked, “What kind of people?”
“Gundas,” he said. “Sahib, we are renowned for housing big gundas. Every household seems to produce at least one gunda. The situation is pathetic.”
Dr Kalam looked at me.
I too am from Uttar Pradesh so I felt compelled to defend this allegation against my home state. “No, no. It is not so,” I interjected, trying to come up with a few illustrious names to dispel this notion. “This is the land where Indira Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan were born!”
But our PSO was more pessimistic than I thought. “Yeh sab purani baatein hain. Ab to sab mahan gundey hain. Badi moocchon wale gundey.” (These are all tales of older times. Now we just have infamous goons, goons with thick moustaches.)
I gave up.
The driver, who incidentally donned a bushy himself, shot the PSO an irritated look.
Dr Kalam smiled at my defensive stance. Then he said, “There is no gunda here! You keep watching. Something good will happen.”
We reached the circuit house in Allahabad late in the evening. As the sun slipped behind the horizon, the weather began to cool down. Soon we were shown into our rooms. It was an old colonial building, a beautiful structure with whitewashed walls and thick, creaky two- panelled doors.
Before dinner, I decided to take a walk around the circuit house. Evening had fallen, bringing with it a swarm of pesky mosquitoes. Sometime during my walk, I heard voices; two men in white clothing were talking to the security personnel at the main gate. A surge of curiosity overwhelmed me, and I decided to find out what was going on.
The men looked like they were from the village. One of them was more than sixty years old, wearing an oversized shirt and trousers with a small cloth towel around his neck. The other was around forty, and he wore a khadi kurta with large mud stains in the front. Both of them were carrying a large dark-coloured sack. I went up to them.
The men were sweating — they had probably travelled some distance on foot. “Baba, kya hua?” (Baba, what happened?) I asked.
The younger man spoke Hindi, interspersed with Bhojpuri. “Sir,” he said, “we have something special to show to the Jan Rashtrapatiji. We have travelled 40 kilometres just for this.” He lowered the sack and started pulling out a wooden block from it.
Jan Rashtrapati means the People’s President, which Dr Kalam was still known as, even after he had left the office of President. It was remarkable to see the resident of a remote village in eastern Uttar Pradesh warmly addressing him by this title.
He continued, “Sir, this man is my father. I am his eldest son. We have an invention which can change India!”
“What is it? What does it do?” I asked, curious.
“Sir, as inventors of this model, our only condition is that we will reveal it to the Jan Rashtrapatiji. As he is also a scientist, he will surely appreciate it.” The older gentleman could not hide his excitement anymore and interjected, “This will be very useful for the railways, I am sure!”
I checked my watch; dinner was to be served in ten minutes. Yet I knew that Dr Kalam would not like to miss an opportunity to see the innovations of common citizens.
I recalled his words — “Sometimes the biggest roadblock for the greatest inventor is not the absence of ideas but the lack of opportunity.”
“Come with me,” I said.
The iron gate creaked open. The younger man clutched the sack carefully, indicating that the invention inside was truly precious to him. I ushered them towards Dr Kalam’s room where a few policemen were waiting. As soon as we reached, Dr Kalam’s door opened. The coincidence caught the father-son duo completely off guard.
Seeing him, the two immediately folded their hands and bowed to him. Their elbows collided as they hurried to touch Dr Kalam’s feet.
As I quickly narrated their story to Dr Kalam, he smiled. He seemed to be in no rush for dinner. Seeing their nervousness, he said in Hindi, “Dikhaiye! Kya hai?” (Show us! What is it?)
The old man found courage in these words. He pulled out two large, wooden blocks, with wedges at their ends, from the sack. The items seemed custom-made. He fitted the pieces perfectly together and then pulled them apart again. He then fitted them back together and began to tell his story.
“Sahib! I am not very educated. I failed class six twice, so my father forced me to take up simple jobs. Thankfully I got a job in the Indian Railways. In fact, I have worked in the railways for most of my life. I have travelled as an attendant in the Northern Railways, journeying many thousands of miles in my career. I just loved boarding trains and going to distant places. But I experienced one problem. Whenever I tried to sleep, I was disturbed by the khat-khat, khat-khat sound of the carriage wheels rolling over the railway tracks. I noticed that my passengers didn’t like the racket either. Even the ones in the AC compartments were bothered by it.”
I could see that they had got Dr Kalam’s attention.
The old man’s son, who was standing nearby, took the wooden block from his father and continued playing with the two pieces, pulling them apart and assembling them back again. He seemed thrilled to be able to show Dr Kalam their invention.
The old father continued his story. “I did not understand why the train made this sound. So I went about asking everyone. I asked the teacher at school, the elderly people in villages, and the officers in the railways, but nobody ever gave me an answer.”
He wiped his face with towel on his shoulders and continued with renewed vigour.
“Rashtrapati Sahib, I am a small man. But I wanted to solve this problem of the masses. Crores of people travel in the railways every day, and I wanted to bring ease to them. Then one day, a young engineer, who was travelling in the train, struck up a conversation with me. He told me that the gaps which are left in the railway tracks are the reason for the sound. I stared at the railway tracks and indeed noticed the gaps, which were left there in order to accommodate the expansion and compression of metallic rivets.” His voice had gained confidence by now, and Dr Kalam and the others around him were listening to him with rapt attention.
He then took the wooden blocks from his son and displayed it proudly. “I went home and every night I started working on wooden planks, trying to make a better track-joint so that there won’t be any more of that noise when the train runs. I am also a part-time carpenter, you see. Everybody laughed at me, saying that I was poor and uneducated and that I wouldn’t be able to do any of this. I should rather do manual labour is what they said.”
He looked at Dr Kalam, as if trying to read something on his face, before continuing.
“Then you became the President. I was so inspired by your story. I told all those villagers that if one poor man can make missiles fly, then another poor man can make the trains run smoother. So I tried and tried, for four or five years, and finally came up with this design.” He pointed at the joint between the two wooden wedges. “This is an interlocking device and, yet, it provides room for expansion as well. I am sure this will end the khat-khat forever.” He folded his hands and, seeing him, his son did the same.
“Sahib, I don’t need any money for this. I just came here to ensure that this reaches the right people, so that they can actually implement it. I am sure this will help the nation at large. People can sleep well, even on wheels!” Saying this, he handed the model to me.
Dr Kalam was greatly moved. The innovation and benevolence of the old man had clearly struck him. He said to him, “Bohot achha!” (Very good!) And then he asked me to translate the next few sentences.
“I am very glad to see your sensitivity and your innovation. You have a very kind mind to have thought of solving the problems of so many. I will take photos of your model and send them to the railway people and share them with everyone on the Internet. You are a fellow scientist, dear friend!”
Then he paused, turning around to the pessimistic PSO.
“Dekhiye! See, what Allahabad is producing. These are the people we need to remember.”
The PSO nodded sheepishly in agreement.
Note: Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from “What Can I Give? Life Lessons From My Teacher, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam” by Srijan pal Singh.