Though I have visited a few places in Tamil Nadu on my travels across India, I have not visited Rameswaram. Perched on the South Eastern tip of India, the temple town is seen as synonymous with Dhanushkodi, about 20 kms. away.
When Abdul was a young boy his family used to ferry pilgrims from Rameswaram where he was born, to Dhanushkodi -- which was then in the sea -- for their ritual bath. But when a cyclone devastated their boat the family lost their only source of income.
Young Abdul then sold tamarind seeds to supplement the family’s income. For this he set aside some time from playing at the beach in Rameswaram to collect the seeds. He also earned a little more money picking up bundles of newspapers which were thrown on the platform at Rameswaram station by trains coming from Madras. Since the trains were needed for transporting troops during World War II (1939-45), they did not stop at Rameswaram station.*
When I visited PSG Tech, Coimbatore in 2007 I picked up an audio CD titled, ‘White Mountain.’ This was put out by the Isha Foundation based in the Velliangiri foothills, Coimbatore. On the same trip poet Sivakami Velliangiri of the Prakriti Foundation had organized a poetry reading for me at the Park Hotel, Chennai. I stayed at her estate and she made available a car and driver for me to go to Mahabalipuram.
When Abdul Kalam died I reached for the ‘White Mountain’ CD which I had not played for many years. As the great man merged into eternal stillness, tracks like, ‘Now and There,’ ‘Above the Sky’ and ‘Waterfall’ laved the grief at losing a friend.
I remembered the simple people of Tamil Nadu, towering in fortitude reeling under numerous cyclones. The one in 1964 rendered Dhanushkodi a ghost town which it still is. Odd that even after half a century there is no will to rebuild the rail track from Rameswaram to Dhanuskodi.
As I travelled by bus from Thiruvarur to Vellankanni in 2013 we passed Nagapattinam the epicenter of the Tsunami in 2004. These were sleepy hamlets with fishing nets out to dry, agreeable to whatever fate dealt out to them. Acceptance, not arrogance, was written in the lines on their faces. I had gone to present the work of Goan poet Tanya Mendonsa at a seminar organized by the Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur.
Out of this hard life was Kalam born and tempered like steel. He remained honest to the core, steering clear of any controversies. In a world perpetually craving for material things his was a spiritual vision which fostered India’s self-reliance by augmenting her nuclear capability with the Pokhran test in 1998.
*Srinivas Laxman, Dreams to Reality: A Biography of Dr. A..P.J. Kalam. Illustrated by Prabhakar Wairkar. Navneet Publications.
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 9 August 2015; pix courtesy indiawaterportal.org