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Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam shares the story of his life- his struggles, dreams, aspirations, the lessons that he learnt from his father and teachers in his latest book, My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Action. We bring you an excerpt from the book.

My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Action
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages: 147
Rs. 195

Living on the island of Rameswaram while I was growing up, the sea was an important part of our lives. Its tides, the lapping of the waves, the sound of trains passing on the Pamban bridge, the birds that always circled the town and the salt in the air are sights and sounds that will always remain linked with my memories of childhood. Apart from its sheer presence around us, the sea was also a source of livelihood for our neighbours and us. Almost every household had some connection with the sea, whether as fishermen or as boat owners.

My father, too, operated a ferry that took people back and forth between the islands of Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, which is about 22 kilometres away. I still remember the time when he got the idea for this, and how we built that boat.

Rameswaram has, since antiquity, been an important pilgrimage destination. Rama is believed to have stopped here and built the bridge to Lanka when he was on his way to rescue Sita. The temple of Rameswaram is dedicated to Shiva, and houses a lingam fashioned by Sita herself. Some versions of the Ramayana say that Rama, Lakshmana and Sita stopped here to pray to Shiva on their way back to Ayodhya from Lanka.

People visiting our town would go to Dhanushkodi as part of their pilgrimage. A bath at Sagara-Sangam here is considered sacred. The sangam is the meeting place of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Dhanushkodi is now connected by road and vans take pilgrims there, but way back when I was a child, a ferry was also a good way of reaching the island.

My father, looking to supplement his not very substantial income, decided to start a ferry business. He started building the boat that we needed for this, all by himself initially, right there on the seashore.

Watching the boat come to life from pieces of wood and metal was perhaps my first introduction to the world of engineering. Wood was procured and Ahmed Jalalluddin, a cousin, arrived to help my father out. Every day, I would wait impatiently till I could go to the place where the boat was taking shape. Long pieces of wood were cut into the required shape, dried, smoothened and then joined together. Wood- fires seasoned the wood that made up the hull and the bulkheads. Slowly the bottom, then the sides and the hull began to form in front of our eyes. Many years later, in my work, I would learn how to make rockets and missiles. Complex mathematics and scientific research would be the bedrock of those engineering marvels. But that boat coming up on a seashore, which would take pilgrims and fishermen back and forth...who is to say it was not as important or momentous in our lives then?

The building of the boat was an important influence for me in another way. It brought Ahmed Jalalluddin into my life. He was much older than me, yet we struck up a friendship. He recognised the inherent desire within me to learn and question, and was always there to lend a patient ear and give words of advice. He could read and write English, and spoke to me about scientists and inventions, literature and medicine. Walking with him in the streets of Rameswaram, or by the seaside, or by our boat as it took shape, my mind began to form ideas and ambitions.

My thoughts travelled again and again to the open seas. Was anyone trapped there? What was it like to be in a storm such as this...?       

The boat business was a great success. My father employed some men to operate it, and groups of pilgrims would use the service to reach Dhanushkodi. There were days when I would slip in among the crowd and sit with the crew as they steered the boat to and from Rameswaram. I heard the story of Rama and how he built the bridge to Lanka with the help of his army of monkeys; how he brought back Sita and stopped at Rameswaram again, so that they could perform penance for having killed Ravana; how Hanuman was told to bring back a large lingam from far up north, but when he took too long, Sita would not wait and fashioned a lingam with her own hands to worship Shiva. These stories and many others washed around me in different tongues and shapes, as people from all over India used our ferry service. A little boy among so many was always welcome and there would be someone or the other willing to talk to me, share the story of his life and his reasons for making the pilgrimage.

And so the years went by. My school, teachers, Ahmed Jalalluddin and others taught me so many things. But the boat and the people who sailed in it were no less important. In this way, among the waves and the sands, laughter and stories, the days flew by. Then one day, disaster struck.

The Bay of Bengal is hit frequently by cyclones. The months of November and May in particular are dangerous in this regard. I still remember the night of that terrible cyclone vividly. The wind had picked up speed for days, till it became a howling gale. It screamed and whistled in our ears and pulled and hacked at the trees or anything that stood in its way. Soon, a torrential rain started. We had retreated into our houses much earlier. There was no electricity in those days, and the lamps barely managed to stay alive. In that flickering darkness, with the wind working itself into a frenzy, the sound of the rain lashing down outside, we huddled together and waited for the night to pass. My thoughts travelled again and again to the open seas. Was anyone trapped there? What was it like to be in a storm such as this without your mother’s comforting presence close by?

The next morning, after the storm died down, we saw the unbelievable destruction that had been wrought all around us. Trees, houses, plantations were uprooted and devastated. The roads had disappeared under the water and debris blown in by winds that had come in at speeds of over 100 miles an hour. But the worst news of all was the one that hit us like a punch to the stomach. Our boat had been washed away. Now, when I think of that day, I realise that perhaps my father had known this would happen the night before, while we waited for the storm to pass. In his life he had already witnessed so many storms and cyclones. This was just one of them. Yet, he had tried to calm us children down and had made sure we went to sleep without infecting us with his worries. In the light of the morning, seeing his drawn face and the worries lining his eyes, I tried to gather my thoughts. In my mind I mourned our lost ferry boat fiercely. It felt as though something I had made with my own hands had been gathered up and tossed away thoughtlessly.

Yet, my father’s stoicism is what saw us through this crisis too. In time another boat came, and business resumed. Pilgrims and tourists returned. The temple and the mosque filled with worshippers and the markets bustled with men and women, buying and selling once more.

Cyclones and storms struck us again and again. I even learnt to sleep through them. Many years later, in 1964, when I was no longer living in Rameswaram, a massive cyclone struck. This time, it carried away a part of the landmass of Dhanushkodi. A train that was on Pamban Bridge at the time was washed away, with many pilgrims inside. It altered the geography of the area, and Dhanushkodi became a ghost town, never really recovering its former character. Even today, remnants of buildings stand there as monuments to the 1964 cyclone.

My father's stoicism is what saw us through this crisis too. In time another boat came, and business resumed. The pilgrims, tourists returned.

My father lost his ferry boat once more in that storm. He had to rebuild his business yet again. I could not do much to help him practically, for I was far removed from that world. But when I struggled to give shape to the satellite launch vehicle (SLV) rocket, or the Prithvi and Agni missiles, when countdowns and takeoffs were disrupted, and rain came down on our rocket launch sites situated by the sea in Thumba and Chandipur, I always remembered the look on my father’s face the day after the storm. It was an acknowledgement of the power of nature, of knowing what it means to live by the sea and make your living from it. Of knowing that there is a larger energy and force that can crush our ambitions and plans in the blink of an eye, and that the only way to survive is to face your troubles and rebuild your life.

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