Wings of Fire is the autobiography of former Indian president and eminent scientist Late APJ Kalam. The book is co-written by Arun Tiwari.
A man of humble beginnings and simple life, he carried an unusual mix of spiritual convictions with man spirit of scientific enquiry. Born in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu (1931), young Muslim boy catapulted his fortunes to be called the ‘Missile Man’ of India.
Dr Kalam’s took the reins at Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and inspired generations through some of the most innovative, and breathtaking scientific feats of independent India.
His expertise in rocket science and space technology has propelled India to become a shining example for young nations wanting to stamp their knowledge and skills not just over the globe but the vastness of our Universe. The book starts with a homage to his parents and in particular to his mother Kalam named ‘My mother’.
The book opens into four distinct parts named as-
- 1931 to 63- Orientation
- 1963 to 80- Creation
- 1981 to 91- Propitiation
- Beyond 1991- Contemplation
The first part is all about the life of young Kalam. There is a mix of his interactions with his family, friends and teachers. The lessons he learned in through his tutelage and upbringing in Rameshwaram are beautifully dotted with black and white photographs of the period.
It also covers his early education leading up to his graduation in aeronautical engineering degree from the Madras Institute of Technology. He hailed from a working-class Tamil Muslim family and the book is an interesting peek into the harmonious commingling of Hindus and Muslims of India celebrating the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and composite wealth India.
As a boy, he sold newspapers to help his brother and to overcome his own financial challenges while attaining his education. Through the text, the need and support of family and friends are eulogized and it certainly proved to be the cornerstone of his life’s successes.
The next part concentrated on his progress as a man of Science and innovation. It revolves around his work with defence and space projects.
Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) became his first employers after completing his education as he was given a project on hovercrafts.
After nearly four years with DRDO, he joined the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) where he was mentored by some of the brightest Indian minds of Science like Professor Vikram Sarabhai, Dr Werner Van Braun, and Professor Satish Dhawan etc.
He would go on to be part of several important satellite launches during his stint with DRDO with the crowning jewel being the Project director of SLV-III, India’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (1980).
Here, Kalam has incorporated minutest of scientific acronyms, details etc. and tried to establish a window into his world of Science and innovation. Another noticeable thing is his interactions with the common folks in such an organization and outside.
In 1982, Kalam changes his place of work to rejoin the defence labs at the DRDO as its Director. Kalam goes on to give a firsthand account of some of the most incredible scientific innovations of the country like Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the Integrated Guided Missile Programme of India and its constituent missiles like Akaash, Naga, Trishul and especially Agni, the Indian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile series.
He even produced healthcare products using the same missile technology. He earned his moniker of ‘Missile-man of India’ for his achievement in this phase of his life. His insistence on a participative model of management was based on bringing the best out of every person. It made him a scientist with a soul.
The section also pays tribute to the greatest scientific minds in the Indian Space journey and has a celebratory and nostalgic feel to it. Also, we again get to see his real-life work through many black and white snapshots
The last part starts with him becoming the Scientific Advisor to India’s Defense Minister in 1992. In this phase of life, he contributed heavily to the nation becoming a nuclear power and reaching its nuclear destiny with the successful nuclear tests at Pokhran, Rajasthan in 1998.
As ex-officio chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C), he went to chart out a vision of India 2020 as the World welcomed the new millennium.
Never a man for the [plaudits, Kalam would go on to be bestowed with the country’s top three civilian awards: Bharat Ratna (1997), Padma Vibhushan (1990) and Padma Bhushan (1981 ). Overall, he boasted an astounding haul of honorary degrees from 30+ universities from across the planet.
The section also notes ideas, his contemplations and advice for the future of India culminating into Kalam’s -Vision 2020. A flag post of India attaining of self-sufficiency in innovation & technology vision. A perfect epilogue to an inspirational life journey.
The conclusion of Wings of Fire
A common man’s journey to the orbit of success and commendation, the autobiography is widely considered one of the most inspiring of its time.
It is an extraordinary story of a seemingly ordinary man with extraordinary drive and talents. It narrates the scientific voyage of a pioneer and far-sighted leader whose actions louder than his speeches and whose conduct disarmed his harshest of critics if there were any.
In a country and a time ravaged by communal fire (Babri Masjid Demotion of 1992 by Terrorists) and in bureaucratic system paralyzed with greed and corruption, Abdul Kalam gave up his personal life for a life in service to his country and his countrymen so much so that he died on the stage giving a lecture.
It is the message of the book wings of fire and it is something that young readers of his autobiography must ponder over.