Excerpts from the book ‘Ignited Minds‘ Written By A.P.J. Abdul Kalamji


During my visit to Cuttack I participated in the birthday celebrations of the late Justice Harihar Mahapatra. I went there at the invitation of Justice Ranganath Mishra. For me, it was a revelation, how the independence movement, the first vision for the nation, had created the larger-than-life figure of Justice Harihar Mahapatra. He lived to the age of ninety-two and established Cuttack Eye Hospital, Utkal University and above all organized multi-pronged efforts to remove poverty. My biography in Oriya was released. At the end of my speech the youngsters crowding around put forth many questions. 


The first question was, ‘Sir, tell us which are your favourite books, that you loved and which have shaped your mind?’ 


I said, ‘Four books in my life have been very close to my heart. I cherish reading them. The first is Man the Unknown by Dr Alexis Carrel, a doctorturned-philosopher and a Nobel laureate. This book highlights how the mind and body both have to be treated in an ailment as the two are integrated. You cannot treat one and ignore the other. In particular, children who dream of becoming doctors should read the book. They will learn that the human body is not a mechanical system; it is a very intelligent organism with a most intricate and sensitive feedback system. The second book, one I venerate, is Tiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, which provides an excellent code of life. The third is Light from Many Lamps by Lillian Eichler Watson which has touched me deeply. It illuminates how we live and has been an invaluable guide to me for fifty years. And the Holy Quran is, of course, a constant companion.’ 


While I was addressing another gathering of schoolchildren in Anand, Gujarat, one smart boy asked a very intelligent question: ‘Who is our enemy?’ I liked the question and put it to the other students, encouraging them to come forward with their views. Then came the answer, ‘Poverty.’ What a wise reaction from this young child whom I have mentioned in the dedication. 


The last question, which I am including here, came from the powerful mind of another child. ‘Tell me, sir, are Pakistani weapons stronger than Indian ones?’ I asked the child why this doubt arose in his mind. Reports he read in the media led him to think so, he said. 


‘This is a unique characteristic of our country–to belittle our capabilities. It may even be genetic!’ I said. ‘India can design, develop and produce any type of missile and any type of nuclear weapon. This is a capability only four countries in the world have. You remove all the doubts from your mind,’ I told the child, who gave me a very satisfied look. 


I have selected only eleven questions here from among the hundreds of questions I have been asked during the course of meeting 40,000 high school students so far. The questions reflect the children’s innocence, but most of all they show how strongly they feel the desire to live in a strong and prosperous nation. I also realized from these sessions how important it is for them to have role models, whether in science, industry, sports, entertainment or some other field. The question is: Can we give our children a role model? And how? 


At the dawn of the new millennium came the news that the human genome had been decoded. All the 30,000 genes that human beings carry today, we are told, are identical to those of our Stone Age ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. One of the traits that has come down to us from them, along with others that are needed for survival, is the desire for achievement. 


It is said that nature gave us this instinct because the need to achieve, like the need to reproduce, the need to eat, the need to drink and the need to breathe, is simply too important to be left to chance. History shows the hunger for achievement is a highly evolved one and undoubtedly the strongest one. We tend to forget it but it underlines much of our experience. Most important, without it, how would we learn and grow, aspire to greater perfection? I have seen Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s vision succeeding over three decades through sustained and coordinated achievement. At work in that and any other endeavour was this same desire to exceed the limits. As we try and excel, role models play a guiding role. The power of Vikram Sarabhai was such that others took up his vision and completed it long after he was no more. For you it could be someone else whom you admire–a sportsperson, a teacher, a successful entrepreneur. 


I recently had the chance to meet a legendary personality, a role model herself. Lata Mangeshkar was presiding over a function in remembrance of her father, Master Deenanath Mangeshkar. Lata Mangeshkar is a recipient of the Bharat Ratna and I felt honoured that she had asked me to inaugurate the 450-bed Deenanath Hospital and Research Centre in Pune. I visited the hospital just before the inauguration. I found that it would be treating nearly 30 per cent of the patients free. I was touched by the fact that despite her wealth and fame, she had not lost sight of the fact that one needs to do all one can to help relieve the suffering of others. 


Her songs played over the radio have brought pleasure to countless hearts over the decades. During the India—China conflict in 1962, her song ‘Ae mere vatan ke logo’ moved an entire nation. Few people can claim to have influenced the lives of millions in such a delightful way. 


Role models can help us focus on what is correct for us as individuals, as groups and, of course, as a nation. They can also lead us to great success. We seem to have got carried away with the success of a few in the field of information technology. But that is indeed nothing compared to what we can and should achieve. Ancient India was a knowledge society and a leader in many intellectual pursuits, particularly in the fields of mathematics, medicine and astronomy. A renaissance is imperative for us to once again become a knowledge superpower rather than simply providing cheap labour in areas of high technology. 



A nation’s wealth is the young generation of the country. When they grow up, who can be the role models? Mother, father and elementary schoolteachers play a very important part as role models. When the child grows up, the role models will be national leaders of quality and integrity in every field including politics, the sciences, technology and industry.