I recently read Abdul Kalam’s (the 11th President of India and one of India’s greatest sons) biography, ‘My Journey – Transforming Dreams into Actions,’ which was a brief book about his early childhood, his development and anecdotes about how his life was shaped.
In the book, Abdul Kalam touched on the topic of books that shaped his worldview. I wanted to share his thoughts about books and the ones that shaped his life as he himself said: “the transfer of thoughts and ideas, ideals and principles is a part of the circle that is life.”
Abdul Kalam describes books having always been “close companions” in his life life and how he used them to help him“understand the world.”
The works of Leo Tolstoy, Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy were constant companions of Abdul Kalam. He also was moved profoundly by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Lewis Caroll and Wlliam Butler Yeats.
He however highlighted a few books that had a last impact of him.
The first was ‘Light from Many Lamps,’ which was an anthology of inspiring stories by various authors and edited by Lilian Eichler Watson. He describes the impact this book had on him as thus: “If I am ever in danger of being swept away by my own emotions, this book brings about a balance in my thinking.”
The second book was the Thirukural by Thiruvalluvar, a collection of Tamil rhyming couplets.
Written over 2000 years ago, the Thirukkural is arguably one of India’s greatest written work and discusses the human condition, ethics, morality and virtue.
He describes this particular kural (or rhyming couple) as one that has influenced him profoundly:
உள்ளுவ தெல்லாம் உயர்வுள்ளல் மற்றது
தள்ளினுந் தள்ளாமை நீர்த்து
(Think of rising higher. Let it be your only thought.
Even if your object be not attained, the thought itself will have raised you.)
Finally, the religious texts of India, including the Quran, the Vedas and the Bhagawat Gita were also instrumental in Abdul Kalam’s development.
He considered that these religious texts “all hold deep philosophical insights into the plight of man and have helped me resolve many dilemmas.”
From the Quran, he narrated how an excerpt from verse 35 of Surah An-Nur (‘The Light’) had a particularly profound impact on him,
نُورٌ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ ۗ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ
“Light upon light. Allah guides to His Light to whom He wills”
From the Bhagavat Gita, Abdul Kalam narrates the words of Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the battle of Mahabharata (during another vision of the garden where all the flowers which blossomed in the morning now fall to the ground)
See the flower,
how generously it distributes
perfume and honey.
It gives to all,
gives freely of its love.
When its work is done,
it falls away quietly.
Try to be like the flower,
despite all its qualities.
Abdul Kalam once wrote a poem which he used to recite to young people he met which best describes his feelings about the written word:
Books were always my friends
Last more than fifty years
Books gave me dreams
Dreams resulted in missions
Books helped me confidently take up the missions
Books gave me courage at the time of failures
Good books were for me angels
Touched my heart gently at the time
Hence I ask young friends to have books as friends
Books are your good friends.
This was the legacy of the great Abdul Kalam.
“Hard work and piety, study and learning, compassion and forgiveness – these have been the cornerstones of my life.”