As former Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam suddenly collapsed during his lecture at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong, on Monday evening, the attending students and professors in the audience went numb. Everything became a blur. Anxious and stunned, their heart rates spiked, as Dr. Kalam's declined rapidly. Never had the IIM stage looked so dark. As he was being rushed to the nearby Bethany Hospital, students looked at each other with disbelief. "Is this really happening? How can a man full of life suddenly become so helpless?"
At the Bethany hospital--one of Shillong's finest--the scene was one of frantic activity. Doctors and attendants immediately tended to the "VVIP patient", and doctors from the nearby Army unit were also called in. According to doctors at the scene, "Dr. Kalam had no pulse when he was admitted to the hospital." His chances were bleak. The situation grim. Still, hoping against hope, medical specialists on duty put a semi-lifeless Dr. Kalam on life-support, as they tried all efforts to revive him.
By this time, local media had swarmed the hospital, and news reports on the former President's critical condition spread quickly. At around 7.30 pm, certain "sources" outside the hospital indicated in hushed whispers that Dr. Kalam had passed away. The Quint quoted Dr John Sailo, CEO of the Bethany hospital as saying, "He was brought into hospital without a pulse or BP. There was no sign of life." Several social media users in Shillong posted these sad developments instantly, citing local media reports.
However, the national media picked up the news later than usual, and tickers reading "Dr Kalam collapses in Shillong", "Dr Kalam critical" continued to appear on television sets across India till well after 8.30 pm. It was only around 8.45 pm when the news was finally confirmed by officials, after the Governor of Meghalaya V Shanmughanathan and Chief Secretary P.B.O Warjri visited the hospital. "Former President A P J Abdul Kalam no more", reported The Press Trust of India at 8.49 pm. His death was attributed to a massive cardiac arrest.
As news spread across media, time stood still. Immediate shock and disbelief quickly turned into a sense of vacuum, and a strange emotional chill settled in. People stopped in their tracks and logged in to catch the updates. For a long time to come, most Indians will be able to recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they came to know of Dr. Kalam's death. That says a lot about the popularity and respect the man commanded across the nation.
Slowly, tributes poured in from all quarters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mourned the demise of India's 'Missile-Man'. "India mourns the loss of a great scientist, a wonderful President & above all an inspiring individual. My mind is filled with so many memories, so many interactions with him. Always marvelled at his intellect, learnt so much from him," he tweeted. "Dr. Kalam was a man of impeccable character, indomitable spirit, profound knowledge and firm conviction. His death is an irreparable loss to this nation. He has left a big void hard to fill," wrote home minister Rajnath Singh. Facebook and Twitter timelines were inundated with soul-stirring condolence messages. A photo showing his arrival at the Guwahati airport in the morning elicited moving responses. Messages like "He looked perfectly fine here"; "Life is so unpredictable", "Long Live Dr. Kalam, the epitome of life" came up on trending hashtags #DrAPJAbdulKalam and #DrAPJKalaam.
Most of these observations were true. Dr. Kalam was as animated and energetic as ever, and brimming with optimism in the 83rd year of his life. Some of his last Tweets give us a glimpse of this: just a few hours before his death, the former President wrote, "Going to Shillong...to take course on Livable Planet earth at iim. With @srijanpalsingh and Sharma. @apjabdul kalam". Tags such as brilliant scientist, visionary leader, author and academic notwithstanding, he wanted to continue to "learn". Clearly, his humility remained intact. In another tweet, he conveyed his excitement on NASA's new discovery. "Earth-like planet discovered using NASA's Kepler telescope," he shared yesterday. Perhaps death was his vehicle to reach that "Earth-like" planet and explore the unexplored skies.
Life and death are great enigmas, because they are flip sides of the same coin. Life is about the future: looking forward to a better tomorrow is in fact the essence of life. Death is the exact opposite: it is about the past, it's about memories. A child-like Dr Kalam with infectious energy may have been looking forward to a better India by 2020, but now only his memory remains. His life will be defined by what he said, what he did, and the grace he brought to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is strange indeed, that a futuristic man like Dr. Kalam be remembered by his past achievements, when in reality, he would have truly wanted India, and especially its youth, to pursue new fields, explore new ideas and liberate themselves with science and reason.
In fact, he also gave us a message in death. He breathed his last doing what he loved the most: interacting with students, speaking to the youth. And perhaps India can take solace knowing this, that he was happy and at peace when his time came. A beacon of knowledge, who was a guiding light for the youth and a shining example of India's secular ethos, 'Bharat Ratna' Dr Kalam will remain an inspiration and never be forgotten.
In 'Wings of Fire', he wrote, "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." Today, as we mourn his passing, let's internalise these words and bring him to life again through our actions.
Rest in Peace, Dr. Kalam. You will always be remembered as the "People's President". Thank you for being a part of our lives.
(Samarth Pathak is a Program Officer at the Ananta Aspen Centre, a New Delhi-based institution working on international relations, domestic policy and values-based leadership. A former journalist, his experience encompasses news reporting, advocacy and policy research on issues pertaining to politics, foreign policy and human rights. Follow him on Facebook. Views expressed are personal.)