‘Memories with Abdul Kalam’ will be published on October 15 to inspire future generations
On 30 July 2015, the funeral of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was carried out with full military honours in his home town, Rameswaram, in Tamil Nadu. The Indian Prime Minister and hundreds of other dignitaries were in attendance to pay their last respects, along with thousands of people from all walks of life.
Among them was 28-year-old Karthee Vidya, who stood quietly just 10 feet away from the ex-President’s mortal remains for over an hour. He had come all the way from Chennai to see Kalam for the fourth time – sadly, the last time.
Karthee’s and his team of volunteers teach underprivileged students basic English and basic computer skills
But he was not going to let it end there. Of the hundreds and thousands of tributes paid to Kalam - space scientist, missile expert and everlasting national inspiration - perhaps the most unusual is the one thought of by Karthee: a book on Kalam with crowdsourced stories from the people of India whom he loved.
After all, Karthee’s relationship with Kalam went back a long way. Unknown to the ex-President, Karthee had inherited Kalam’s legacy in spirit and in life.
Karthee grew up in Arni, a small town in the Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu. He studied in a small village school, and did so well that his parents decided to move him to a better school in Chennai in class eleven.
It was a study in inequalities: in the village, Karthee’s friend could not afford even a notebook; in the new school, he found himself sitting next to the son of a diamond merchant. Karthee, son of a high-school headmistress and a small-town photographer, was teetering on the divide… his family just about managed a simple life.
“I completed my Plus-2 in 2002, the same year when Dr. Kalam became the President,” Karthee says. “Though I was aware of his scientific work, it was then that I started reading his books and articles. I loved his vision for our country.”
Kalam’s call to the youth - ‘Dream big; a small aim is a crime’ - caught Karthee’s imagination. “I had a dream,” he says, “that every person could volunteer at least once a month for the less fortunate.”
In order to outline his dream Karthee resolved to help the underprivileged in small, innovative ways, which would not cost large sums of money but only require his time and skills.
He had started doing community service - volunteering at local NGOs and teaching at orphanages while working on his bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering from the Government College of Engineering, Salem. However, he stepped it up after he became a Java programmer at an IT company in Chennai.
He and three other friends pooled in part of their first salaries to collect Rs. 4000 for distributing uniforms and notebooks to poor children in a government school at Sirumoor in Tiruvannamalai district.
In 2006, Karthee took a giant leap of faith. He started his own NGO, Team Everest, with two simple goals: to promote volunteering in the country and to provide quality education to children who could not afford it.
“By 2012, Team Everest carried out nearly 600 projects, involving an expenditure of about Rs.13 lakh and total of 23,000 volunteer hours,” recall Karthee. The outlines were filling up and the dream was taking shape.
Karthee works with a team of volunteers who are committed to volunteering at least once a month
Currently, Team Everest has 9,500 signed-up volunteers, and their multiple projects encompass Chennai, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata and Pune.
Their range of projects displays both width and depth. Just for example, under Student Scholarships for bright and under-resourced young people, they have sponsored 400 school and 200 college students so far.
Smile 100 underwrites the educational expenses of 100 parentless and single-parented kids in Arni.
Team Everest also runs 10 free study centres in 10 villages of Tiruvannamalai district, where around 300 students study.
In C4C (Contest for a Cause), Team Everest offers a national art-technology fest as a platform for people to exhibit their skills through competitions to promote volunteerism; all the prize money goes to a social cause, and so far 14 lakh rupees have been donated through this initiative.
‘Help a Kid Read’ (HKR) is a 10-week programme in which volunteers teach underprivileged students basic English every Saturday, and similarly in the Digital Literacy programme, they share basic computer skills.
The list doesn’t end there… “What started as one man’s journey got wings,” says Karthee.
And the flight was blessed by none other than Kalam.
The first time Karthee saw Kalam was at the Nachimuthu Polytechnic College, Pollachi, where he and his friend Prabu travelled all the way from Chennai. Karthee well remembers Kalam’s inspiring words: ‘If young people all have a big aim, we Indians can do wonders.’
Less than two months later, Karthee got the chance to interact with Kalam – face to face! - on 24 July 2008. The appointment was at 11pm. Yes! “I was taken aback by this near-midnight appointment,” says Karthee.
Among 12 volunteers representing the India Vision 2020 group, Karthee was finally in Kalam’s room at Raj Bhavan, Chennai, around 12.15am. “It was the next day now,” recounts Karthee, “and the very first question Dr. Kalam asked us was: ‘Have you had your dinner? Sorry, it got a little late.’ Oh my God! Such a great personality was asking us whether we had dinner or not?’ I told myself this is why he was such a great personality.”
The first person to talk with Kalam was Aravind, an innovator and inventor, and as he showed his new project, Kalam discussed technical details and related medical equipment. “I started wondering whether this was a scientist or a doctor!” says Karthee.
“Next, a girl gave him a self-composed poem, which Dr. Kalam immediately read and commented on. He could have done it later… but no, that’s not what he was about. What a man!”
Kalam was impressed with Karthee's service, which motivated several youngsters to volunteer
When it was Karthee’s turn, he gave Kalam a small pamphlet about Team Everest and their work, and in return he received Kalam’s appreciation, especially for the idea of value-based education and libraries in rural areas.
“When we left, there were 40 more people – ranging from 5 to 80 years - waiting to meet him. It was already 1.00am!” says Karthee. “When would he go to bed?”
Karthee was blessed with another Kalam moment on 7 October 2015, again at the Raj Bhavan in Chennai.
The former President emphasized individual social responsibility. “He reiterated that young people should have an aim,” says Karthee, “and to achieve it they need to acquire knowledge and work hard.”
Three times lucky, Karthee wants to pay a tribute to Kalam and embrace others similarly affected by the loss of Kalam.
His latest project, the book on Kalam, is a personal one. The book will be drawn from the fond memories, stories and experiences of everyday people who connected with Kalam.
Karthee says, “On the way back from his funeral, auto drivers, students, parents…all were talking about him. Everyone was sharing their experiences with him, or the lessons they learnt from him, or how he inspired their life.”
‘Memories with Abdul Kalam’, a first-of-its-kind crowdsourced book initiative, will have the top 100 of submitted stories picked by a team, and is scheduled to be published on Dr. Kalam’s birthday on 15 October 2015.
“It will be a source of inspiration for the children and adults alike, on hardships, failure, poverty, nation building, science and self-confidence,” says Karthee.
He should know. He was inspired to dream the big dream - and is making it come true.
If you want to participate in Karthee’s project, email your Kalam story at email@example.com before 15 September 2015. For more details, check www.bit.ly/memorieswithabdulkalam.