It’s relatively unusual for a historian to be able to meet their research subject, so you can imagine my excitement in 2014 when Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (1931-2015) visited the University of Edinburgh where I was studying to receive an honorary doctorate and provide the inaugural lecture of the Edinburgh India Institute. Not only was Dr Kalam a key source for my research as being educated in South India during the 1930s, but the lecture hall was packed, it seemed that everyone else was interested in him too! Dr Kalam was an aerospace engineer who went on to lead Indian’s space programme as well as being intimately connected with the development of India’s ballistic missiles and was central to organisation and advocacy of India’s nuclear tests in 1998. As well as being a distinguished scientist, he went on to become the President of India from 2002-2007, a compromise candidate accepted by the major parties. Uniquely popular with the Indian public, during his tenure he became known as the ‘People’s President’ attempting as a Muslim to reach out across communal divisions, and focusing his efforts primarily on the young as future of the nation. After his time in office he continued to write and speak until his sudden death in July 2015, often on the theme of Indian self-reliance, the establishment of India as a global superpower and the role of the young in dreaming big and working hard to fulfil their personal and national dreams.
While we all hope to motivate our students to dream big and work hard, Kalam’s professional life was of tangential interest to me. However, what was interesting was the extent to which he claimed the authority to inspire students not only on the basis of his formidable teaching capacity but on the basis of his personal experience of childhood. This was unusual as many south Indians who have written autobiographies, particularly from the earlier part of the twentieth century, deliberately choose to draw a veil over their private lives as unexceptional or too personal, not for the public gaze. But even when childhood is included, autobiographical writing is an inherently complex source material. Continue reading