Book Review: Wings of Fire by APJ Abdul Kalam
APJ Abdul Kalam is a renowned Indian scientist who went on to become 11th President of India (2002-2007). He is very well known across India and is a recipient of India’s three highest civilian awards – Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna. Wings of Fire is an autobiography of APJ Abdul Kalam written jointly by Arun Tiwari and Abdul Kalam. It covers Kalam’s life before he became president of India and in 2013 another autobiography titled “My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions” was released.
Book Review: Wings of Fire by APJ Abdul Kalam
Wings of Fire is an autography of APJ Abdul Kalam covering his early life and his work in Indian space research and missile programs. It is the story of a boy from a humble background who went on to become a key player in Indian space research/Indian missile programs and later became the president of India. The book has been very popular in India and has been translated into multiple languages. I recently picked up a copy and read it in a couple of days. It was very engaging initially, but tended to drag a bit towards the end with lot of technical details and procedural information of his space research and missile projects.
I loved the initial chapters of Wings of Fire since it gives a vivid picture of our country during 1930 – 1950s. Kalam was born in Rameswaram, a southern religious town in Tamilnadu. The initial chapters provides an interesting glimpse of religious harmony which existed before India’s partition,
The famous Shiva temple, which made Rameswaram so sacred to pilgrims , was about a ten-minute walk from our house. Our locality was predominantly Muslim, but there were quite a few Hindu families too, living amicably with their Muslim neighbours.
The high priest of Rameswaram temple, Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, was a very close friend of my father’s. One of the most vivid memories of my early childhood is of the two men, each in his traditional attire, discussing spiritual matters.
One day when I was in the fifth standard at the Rameswaram Elementary School, a new teacher came to our class. I used to wear a cap which marked me as a Muslim, and I always sat in the front row next to Ramanadha Sastry, who wore a sacred thread. The new teacher could not stomach a Hindu priest’s son sitting with a Muslim boy. In accordance with our social ranking as the new teacher saw it, I was asked to go and sit on the back bench. I felt very sad, and so did Ramanadha Sastry. He looked utterly downcast as I shifted to my seat in the last row. The image of him weeping when I shifted to the last row left a lasting impression on me. After school , we went home and told our respective parents about the incident.
Lakshmana Sastry summoned the teacher, and in our presence , told the teacher that he should not spread the poison of social inequality and communal intolerance in the minds of innocent children. He bluntly asked the teacher to either apologize or quit the school and the island. Not only did the teacher regret his behaviour, but the strong sense of conviction Lakshmana Sastry conveyed ultimately reformed this young teacher.
Kalam in younger years wanted to be an officer in air force, however he couldn’t clear the interview. He met Swami Sivananda after this failure and I found his words to Kalam interesting and in a way prophetic,
Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life. You are not destined to become an Air Force pilot. What you are destined to become is not revealed now but it is predetermined. Forget this failure, as it was essential to lead you to your destined path. Search, instead, for the true purpose of your existence. Become one with yourself, my son! Surrender yourself to the wish of God,
In the book we learn how Kalam started his career in Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and was involved in the design of a hovercraft. Later he moved to Indian Space Research which was the brain child of Vikram Sarabhai. In 1963, Kalam went to NASA facility in Maryland(USA) as part of a training program on sounding rocket launching techniques. There he came across a painting which depicted Tipu Sultan’s rocket warfare against the British,
Here, I saw a painting prominently displayed in the reception lobby. It depicted a battle scene with a few rockets flying in the background. A painting with this theme should be the most commonplace thing at a Flight Facility, but the painting caught my eye because the soldiers on the side launching the rockets were not white , but dark-skinned, with the racial features of people found in South Asia. One day, my curiosity got the better of me, drawing me towards the painting. It turned out to be Tipu Sultan’s army fighting the British. The painting depicted a fact forgotten in Tipu’s own country but commemorated here on the other side of the planet. I was happy to see an Indian glorified by NASA as a hero of warfare rocketry.
The book covers a lot of “behind the scene” information and technical details about India’s satellite and missile program (SLV-3, Prithvi, Agni, Thrisul, Akash and Nag). This might interest technically inclined readers but is sure to put off readers who bought the book to get to know Kalam or to know his principles/ideas. Space and missile programs are huge complex projects and managing them is extremely challenging. The book does give a glimpse of the participatory management technique adopted by Kalam, but at the same time it doesn’t go into details.
Wings of fire covers Kalam’s personal life only briefly which is strange for an autobiography. For example, we don’t know why he decided to remain single or his activities outside space research (even though we can conclude in the end that he was married to science and technology).
Kalam is a poet and is a huge fan of poems. The book contains many of his own poems and his favorite poems. Here is an example,
Do not look at Agni
as an entity directed upward
to deter the ominous
or exhibit your might.
It is fire in the heart of an Indian.
Do not even give it
the form of a missile
as it clings to the
burning pride of this nation
and thus is bright.
Through Wings of Fire, we come across some brilliant people who worked behind Indian space research such as Vikram Sarabhai and Dr. Brahm Prakash. The book also contains about 24 photos and I found the ones from the early days of Indian space program very interesting. This alone is worth the price of the book!
One of the things that stands out throughout the book is Kalam’s positive thinking. He held many high ranking positions in various organizations. Yet in the book he rarely mentions anything about lethargy/corruption of bureaucracy or politicians. The secret to his success seems to be his ability to ignore negative things around him. The book also gives a clue to his popularity in India. Kalam is a simple, secular, inspiring humanitarian.