Wings of Fire is the autobiography of former Indian president and eminent scientist Late APJ Kalam. It covers his early life and his work in Indian space research and missile programs.
This is a story of the humble beginning and the simple life of an extraordinary man. He shares his journey starting from the streets of Rameshwaram to building the first Agni missile.
This is also the narrative of independent India’s struggle for technological self adequacy & sovereignty in defense systems – a story as much regarding politics, as it is regarding science.
This describes how Kalam flourished from darkness into the bright sunlight, his personal and professional effort.
The book is mainly divided into 4 sections of Kalam’s life:
The first part describes the life of young Kalam.
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was born on 15 October, 1931 and raised in South Indian coastal town Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu. He hailed from a middle class Tamil Muslim family.
“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.”
He got selected at Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) for engineering and chose aeronautical engineering because he always dreamt of flying an aircraft. He studied hard to get the scholarship as their financial condition was not very good.
He wanted to join the airforce, however he was unable to clear the interview. Disappointed at the rejection he met Swami Sivananda who explained to him:
“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.”
This part describes the initial work life of Dr. Kalam. It shows his progress in the field of aeronautics.
After graduating from the MIT in 1960, Kalam joined the Aeronautical Development Establishment of the Defence Research and Development Organisation as a scientist. He started his career by designing a small hovercraft. However, his indigenous hovercraft ‘Nandi’ got shelved. But it created some interest and landed Dr. Kalam an interview with Professor Sarabhai, father of the Indian space program. Dr. Kalam was highly inspired by Professor Sarabhai and joined Indian Space Research Organization where he was mentored by some of the brightest minds of Science like Professor Vikram Sarabhai, Dr Werner Van Braun, and Professor Satish Dhawan.
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.
He faced failure when the first flight trial of Indian SLV-3 crashed for which Kalam took responsibility as a leader. Between the 1970s and 1990s, Kalam made an effort to develop the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and SLV-III projects, both of which proved to be successful.
Kalam received the Padma Bhushan after SLV-3 was successfully launched.
In 1982, Kalam rejoined the defense lab at DRDO as Director. There he worked on country’s new innovative scientific projects like Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). He was also assigned the responsibility for the Integrated Guided Missile Programme of India and its constituent missiles like Akaash, Naga, Trishul and especially Agni, the Indian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile series.
On the successful launch of India’s missile program, Kalam received the Padma Vibhushan. The successful launch of these missiles made him ‘Missile man of India’. He even produced healthcare products using the same missile technology.
Kalam favored allowing mistakes as a learning process. He learned that leaders exist at every level and insisted on a participative model of management.
Kalam served as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister and Secretary of the Defence Research and Development Organisation from July 1992 to December 1999. During his tenure, he worked towards making India a nuclear power. He played an intensive political and technological role in the nuclear test conducted at Pokhran.
In 1997, Kalam received India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, for his contribution to the scientific research and modernisation of defence technology in India. Kalam received 7 honorary doctorates from 40 universities across the globe.
Kalam also shares his thought and his visions for a proud India. He concludes with his dream for the year 2020 as the World welcomed the new millennium.
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.
“We are all born with a divine fire in us. Our efforts should be to give wings to this fire and fill the world with the glow of its goodness.”
“Be active! Take on responsibility! Work for the things you believe in. If you do not, you are surrendering your fate to others.”
“To succeed in life and achieve results, you must understand and master three mighty forces— desire, belief, and expectation.”
“If you want to leave your footprints On the sands of time Do not drag your feet.”
“Adversity always presents opportunities for introspection.”
“A big shot is a little shot who keeps on shooting, so keep trying.”