A chance to meet the President of India? Who wouldn’t be excited, especially when the man was none other than Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam!
The morning of the meeting, which was going to happen at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, my head was in a tizzy… what would I say, what would I wear, would he ask me something that I didn’t know anything about, would he be interested in listening to my stories? Well, my husband who is quite used to folks with butterflies in the stomach put me at ease – in typical military style!
The meeting was taking place because the President had asked to meet my husband, who was an Army Commander heading the South Western Command of the Indian Army. He was also the Honorary Aide-De-Camp to the President of India, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
Dr. Kalam welcomed us with his charismatic smile. He exuded an aura of positivity that was rare in political leaders. All the initial discussions were regarding the Armed Forces in general and of the North-East in particular, since my husband was also the Colonel of the Assam Regiment. I couldn’t but help wonder if the meeting would end with just these serious discussions.
But ever the gentleman, the President soon shifted his attention to me and was keen to know about my interests. I told him that I was an educationist, author and storyteller and he was all ears. He wanted to know more. I told him about my stay in Nagapattinam after the tsunami, where I used storytelling as healing therapy for the traumatized children. Through books, stories and songs, the attempt was to lessen the pain and trauma they were going through.
I then told him about how I had set up the library in a school in Kashmir. I explained how I had guided the teachers on using story reading to divert young minds from conflict and violence. The magic of books had worked there too. Dr. Kalam was happy that children were at least starting to read and said it was the best way for them to see a world beyond violence.
All my apprehensions of being in the company of the President of India had vanished by then, because here I was, chatting away with him like he was my best buddy!
Dr. Kalam appreciated my work with children and the books I had written, and said that primary education was important for every child. He believed that children could be moulded into good citizens. He particularly praised the point I had made about storytelling and reading and said it should be encouraged across the country. Since he was an avid reader himself, he felt libraries accessible to all children should be set up in every nook and corner of India. And there it was, President and children’s writer nodding in agreement about the things that really mattered!
I still cherish every moment of this meeting with President APJ Abdul Kalam, who was truly and genuinely the People’s President. Of course, since I love telling stories, here’s one I want to share about how children mattered the most to him…
One day, a junior colleague of Dr. Kalam’s at the Defence Research and Development Organization came to him saying he needed to leave early that day to take his children to an exhibition. Dr. Kalam immediately agreed and his colleague got back to work relieved. But he got so engrossed in some urgent scientific project that came up that he clean forgot about leaving early! When he realised this, he ran home to find that his children were nowhere around. Guiltily, he asked his wife where they were. Pat came her response: “Your manager Dr. Kalam was here at 5:15 pm and took the kids for the exhibition!”