Wings of Fire Analysis
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is a prolific Indian scientist of International repute. He also become the 11th president of India. (2002-2007). He is a burning inspiration to the young chap for his motivational speech and fruitful quotations. Infect his entire life is read like a living inspiration to one who wants to succeed in life from a very low level. He is very well-known across India and is a recipient of India’s three biggest civilian awards -Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna. Wings of Fire is an autobiography of Abdul Kalam written jointly by Arun Tiwari and Abdul Kalam. If covers Kalam’s life before he became the president of India and in 2013 another autobiography titled “My Journey-transforming dreams into action” was released.
The book Wings of Fire covers his early life and his work in Indian space research and missile programmes. It is the story of a boy from a humble background who went on to become a keyplayer in Indian space research and Indian missile programmes. The book has been very popular in India and has been translated into multiple languages. It unfolds the story of Kalam from his childhood in seven sections – Preface, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Orientation, Creation, Propitiations contemplation and Epilogue.
The section ‘creation’ traverses seven chapters (from chapters 4 to chapter 10) and cover’s Kalam’s life and work for 17 years from the year 1963 until 1980. If begins with the recollection of his works at the Langley Research centre NASA, in Houston, Virginia (US) and at other facilities in the U.S.A. including the Wallop’s Flight Facility at Wallop’s island in East Coast of United States (Virginia). At a Nasa facility, he remembers to have seen a painting of Tippu Sultan, prominently displayed in the lobby which depicted Tippu Sultan’s rocket warfare against the British.
“The painting caught my eye because the soldiers on the side launching the rockets were not white, but dark-skinned, with 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 Tippu Sultan’s army fighting the British. The painting depicted a fact forgotton in Tippu’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.”
His association with Thumba and Satellite Launch Vehicle and related projects are vividly presented in the section creation.’ During this period, in the year 1976, Kalam lost his father who lived upto 102 years of age. Kalam took the bereavement with courage and remembered those words written on the death of William Butler Yeats by his friend Auden and his father:
“Earth, receive an honoured guest
William Yeats is laid to rest.
In the prison of his days, teach the free man
How to praise!”
This period also brought Kalam national recognition. A pleasant surprise came in the form of conferment of Padma Bhushan on Republic Day, 1981.
The section PROPITIATION’ covers the period 1981 to 1991 and contains five chapters (from chapter 10 to Chapter 14). This section covers the scientific journey towards becoming the Missile Man of India.” In this section, his excellent leadership qualities as taking up the responsibility of shaping the Guided Missile Development Programme, are clearly visible. In this phase of life, Kalam was responsible for the development of five missiles Prithvi, Trishul, Akash, Nag and the most awaited one ‘AGNI
Kalam examines his early life, effort, hardship, fortitude, luck and chance that eventually led him to lead Indian space Research, Nuclear and Missile programmes. He started his career after graduating from Aero Space Engineering at MIT, Chennai (India) at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and was assigned to build a hovercraft prototype. In this book, we learn how Kalam started his career in Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and was involved in the design of the hovercraft. Later he moved to ISRO (Indian space Research Organisation) which was the brain-child of Vikram Sarabhai.
In 1963 he want to NASA facility in Maryland (USA) as part of a training programme on sounding rocket launching technique. He pioneered the first space launch vehicle Programme. During the 1990s and early 2000, Kalam moved to the DRDO, to lead the Indian Nuclear Weapons Programme with particular successes in Thermo Nuclear Weapons Development culminating in the operation ‘SMILING BUDDHA’ and an ICBM Agni missile.
The book, Wings of Fire is very engaging initially, but tends to drag a bit towards the end with a lot of technical details and procedural information of his space research and missile projects. However it gives a vivid picture of our country during 1930 to 1950. Kalam was born in Rameswaram, a southern religious town in Tamil Naidu. The initial chapters provide an interesting glimpse of the religious harmony that existed before India’s partition.
“The famous Shiva temple which made Rameshwaram so sacred to pilgrims was about ten minutes walk from our house- our locality was predominantly Muslim but there were quite a few Hindu families too, living amicably with their friendly 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 my 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 accordnace with our social ranking as the new teacher saw it, I was asked to go and sit on the back bench. I felt very said 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 prison of social inequality and communal intolerance in the minds of innocent children. He bluntly asked the teacher to either apologise 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 the young teacher.”
Kalam in younger days wanted to be an officer in Air Force, however he could not clear the interview. He met Swami Sivananda after the failure and his words to Kalam were very 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.”
The profundity and range of Kalam’s ideas would mesmerize anyone. He had tremendous vitality. His conversation was always fresh and stimulating. He had an intuitive rapport with the humblest and simplest people, an indication of his own simplicity and innate spirituality. In the introduction chapter, that the story is an account, I hope, not just of my personal triumphs and tribulations, but of the successes and set-backs of the science establishment in modern India, struggling to establish itself in the technological forefront. It is the story of national aspiration and of cooperative endeavour. Each individual creature on this beautiful planet is created by God to fulfill a particular role. Whatever I have achieved in life is through His help and an expression of His will. 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.
Kalam was of opinion that man needs his difficulties, because they are necessary to enjoy success and that adversity always presents opportunities for introspection. He was a man of great intellectual integrity and scholarship. This book covers a lot of ‘behind the scene information and technical details about India’s satellite and missile programme (SLV-3, Prithvi, Agni, Trishul, Akash and Nag). This might interest technically inclined readers but is sure to put out readers who wanted to get to know Kalam to know his principles and ideas. Space and missile programmes 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 does not 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 at the end that he was wedded 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 favourite poems. Here is an example, which shows his brilliant skill of penmanship and dedication:
“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 came across some brilliant people who worked behind Indian Space Research such as Vikram Sarabhai and Dr. Brahm Prakash. The book also contains about twenty four photos-from the early days of Indian space programme- which are quite interesting.
One of 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 or corruption of bureaucracy or politicians. The secret of his success seems to be his ability to ignore negative things around him. The book also gives a clue to his popularity in India. Thus Kalam is a simple, secular, inspiring humanitarian, who mingles with young children as pleasantly as he moves among elderly intellectuals. He is justly acclaimed as the people’s president.