July 26, 2020
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Under The Shade Of Two Thousand Umbrellas

Nair recounts all the goodness of the man, but also his flaws: his unfailing unpunctuality, pedagogy

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Under The Shade Of
Two Thousand Umbrellas
Under The Shade Of Two Thousand Umbrellas
The Kalam Effect: My Years With The President
By P.M. Nair
HarperCollins Pages: 180; Rs. 250
Of the 14 presidents this country has had so far, only R. Venkataraman, now in his 90s, has written an eminently readable book on his years in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Giani Zail Singh also wrote a memoir of sorts that someone else translated into English, but it had little to say. Captain (later Colonel) R. Dutt, an ADC to the first two presidents, Rajendra Prasad and S. Radhakrishnan, recounted those years in With Two Presidents. Now we have P.M. Nair’s account and assessment of his years as secretary to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The title of this slim book, The Kalam Effect, gives its essence. Kalam had handpicked Nair for the secretary’s job. The two had worked together in harmony at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thumba in the early ’80s, Kalam as a respected scientist and the ias officer as the centre’s "Controller". Ironically, Nair was reluctant to take up the offer, until two men he respected told him tersely "not to be a bloody fool" but jump at it.

Nair’s deep admiration for Kalam is as manifest in this book as the trust reposed in him by the president he served. Yet, to his credit, the author hasn’t gone overboard. In the words of Fali S. Nariman, who has contributed a brief Foreword, Nair has written on Kalam’s undoubted qualities "with frankness, sincerity and affectionate reverence, and without flattery and fawning". His portrait of the great scientist-turned-arguably the most popular president makes no attempt to hide the warts. Kalam’s unfailing unpunctuality was a source of much inconvenience and irritation all round, but he made no attempt to remedy it. Ditto his penchant to be pedagogic at almost all gatherings, including breakfast meetings to which he invited members of Parliament and other distinguished people. Heavily outweighing these flaws were Kalam’s simplicity, humility, uprightness and, above all, sterling integrity. Refusing to spend public money on an ostentatious Iftar dinner—a must during the month of Ramzan for everyone in high office—he directed that the estimated two-and-a-half lakh rupees to be spent on the lavish meal be donated—in kind, not cash—to orphanages. He also insisted on contributing a lakh of rupees from his personal resources.

The "newsy" and "juicy" parts of the book have already been publicised. But among its other notable sidelights is Nair’s account of the President’s "morning meetings" that usually took place in the afternoon. Kalam was always willing to listen to views contrary to his. He was also punctilious about paying detailed attention to every piece of paper or e-mail received at Rashtrapati Bhavan or on his website. Their volume was enormous and some letters were clearly sent by mentally disturbed people. A particularly hilarious communication was from a woman in Patna offering to serve as "Official Hostess (First Lady) of Rashtrapati Bhavan", and stating that the letter had the consent of her husband, "a free-minded social being".

Of Nair’s own flaws, a major one is that even while trying to be objective, he sometimes errs on the side of subjectivity. A glaring example is his laboured and lame defence of the prompt presidential assent, from distant Moscow, to the May 2005 dissolution of the Bihar assembly, rightly held by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional and improper. Interestingly, according to Nair, while the President was mulling the issue, it was he who had advised Kalam, "Sir, please sign." Similarly, it is true that popular support for a second term for Kalam was overwhelming. But the spin Nair tries to put on Kalam’s shifting statements on the subject is untenable.

Nair recounts former chief justice of India M.N. Venkatachaliah as telling him that sitting next to President Kalam, the CJI had felt "palpable sensations of godliness and divinity reverberating in me..." Was it because of this touch of divinity that heavy rain that looked like washing out the President’s Independence Day reception stopped in good time and resumed just as he had left? The panicky dispersing glitterati and chatterati were saved from being drenched by the 2,000 umbrellas thoughtfully collected in advance. But, as Nair charmingly puts it, at the end of the day a large number of umbrellas were "found missing".

Altogether, The Kalam Effect is a nice read that should not be missed.

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