by APJ ABDUL KALAM
Reviewed by Dr. R.K.Singh
The Life Tree is the latest addition to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s megabytes of fame. His twenty-six poems, originally composed in English, and/or translated from the Tamil original by Mani Darshi, fuse a formidable discourse, which is personal and public at the same time.
As the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose excellence as a poet is already established, notes in the Foreword, President Abdul Kalam “has contributed invaluably to our country’s progress in space research and defence technologies….He is also a sensitive and thoughtful poet. This confluence of scientific brilliance and poetic talent is truly unique.” In The Life Tree, the scientist’s vision intersects the poet’s, as Abdul Kalam deciphers his own humble past and relates it to the nation’s great future. While the cause of the nation dominates his consciousness, he presents a humanist view of his personal, technological and social domains as ‘mirror of the soul’ to underscore resurgence of a potent Indian identity in the world.
The poet’s aesthetic focus relates to nation building, through a celebration of Indian science and technology, secular culture, human values, and love for nature. He asserts his conviction that the act of creating, be it poetry, science or engineering, is a basic human capacity which needs to be nurtured. Integrative and interdisciplinary as his genius is, he maintains the dynamics of changes at various levels and links his consciousness to higher emotions, making his poetry an instance of the basic urge in human beings to create aesthetic significance, merging arts, nature, and sciences.
APJ Abdul Kalam indicts unthinking, mindless adherence to fundamentalist, religious, casteist, and narrow social systems that disrupt harmonious relationship. His poems of love, faith and optimism in The Life Tree bespeak his innate humanity, selflessness and dedication for transforming Indian society. He seeks to ignite every soul with dream and passion that “will keep the lamp of knowledge burning/To achieve the vision – Developed India.” Abdul Kalam, the visionary scientist poet, is convinced:
“If we work and sweat for the great vision with ignited mind,
The transformation leading to the birth
Of a vibrant, developed India will happen.”
And, this is his prayer too.
He exploits the medium of poetry, articulating subjective experience and meaning, to ensure promotion of excellence with focus on three main areas—education, research and performance—for emergence of a new Developed India. “We want to work for our nation/With our sweat enrich the great land of ours,” asserts the poet. He assimilates new ideas from the contemporary sciences whilst embracing traditional, spiritual and artistic aspects of human experience. He celebrates innovations and indigenous knowledge just as he empathizes with the deprived and poor.
The poet, sad to see waves of communalism and violence, sings the “song of creation” in one of his visionary moods, and feels the “divine splendour reflecting …the heavenly answer:
“You, the human race is the best of my creation,
You will live and live.
You give and give till you are united,
In human happiness and pain;
My bliss will be born in you.
Love is continuum,
That is the mission of humanity,
You will see everyday in Life Tree.
You learn and learn
My best of creations.”
The poet President of India passionately voices the divine knowledge for humankind, the best of Nature’s creations, when he envisions the country as a leader in the emerging Knowledge Society. He sees the Life Tree growing with the mantra: “learn and learn.” (Elsewhere he prays to Almighty “to light the lamp of knowledge” and “grant us a new life.”) He feels “mutual love flowing” all around with intimate belongingness of “billions of billions of lives” in various forms displayed in nature. “You give and give till you are united/In human happiness and pain,” realizes Abdul Kalam in his compassionate thinking and reflection on “nature’s wonder.”
“You are born, live a life of giving
And bond with ties of affection.
Your mission is the Life Tree.”
The metaphor of Life Tree, which provides the book its name, is rich in meaning and message. The poet turns a sage philosopher and devotee, reasoning out the future of India and “the mission of human life” at the same time.
As a poet he seems to be engaged in changing tastes and beliefs from within: His style of poetry seems to stress the need for implicit persuasion to reorient individual, personal, institutional, or public norms, social actions, and roles, making best use of knowledge today. He effectively proves poetry is not only language but it is also articulation of a people’s greatness, achievements, hopes and aspirations, and of common sense. He sets out a new poetics and himself stands out as a leader poet. His aesthetics conforms to his personal experiences, intuitions, and interior self. With implicit presence of the scientist in him throughout, he turns remarkably creative and diverse.
As a lyrical poet with patriotic fervour at the core of his personal reflections, he evinces a firm faith in God and believes in the efficacy of prayers. He seeks God’s blessings for everyone “to be with great teachers/0f high thinking” so that none have to suffer the pangs of communalism and social inequity. In the poem ‘Harmony’, for example, he recalls how a teacher had separated him from his close friend Ramanathan when they were students in standard fifth. As the teacher had failed to “comprehend a Brahmin boy and a Muslim boy sitting together” in the class, he asked the latter to move to the back bench: “My tears dripped; Ramanathan wept/…The socalled educated separate our souls,/Sowing seeds of discord and poison.” The sensitive soul of the poet knew from the beginning that the Almighty has created all equal, and free.
He wants us to remember: “All men are equal and created alike/And the creator endowed them with inalienable rights/To life, to freedom, and to continued happiness.” It is important that people used their inner faculties and brain to defeat the “Satanic temptations” within and kept from communal violence that “break the cage of peace and faith.” As he stresses: “Know ye all: Khuda and Ram/Both are one, blossoming in love.”
The poet’s compassionate heart feels the anguish of everyone, especially the poor and needy. As he recounts, he was greatly moved when Mother Teresa was hospitalized in 1991. He prayed for her recovery because “Her heart is home for those who have none.”
APJ Abdul Kalam also feels God-presence in the harmony of humans and nature: “Keep loving nature and care for its beings,/Then you can see divinity all over” ; “Beauty of consciousness trapped in peace/Blooms of flowers show Almighty in deed./…A touch of them makes all humans go tender” ; and “Nature and humans were created together,/Together they can govern this world./Then only peace and bliss will be here.”
He stands for “a valiant new order”, “freedom from fear”, communal harmony, character building, transparent honesty, self-discipline, optimism, “faith in goodness and sea-deep kindness”, “love and peace of humanity”, unity of minds, harmony of humans, nature and science, and the Life tree a la Agni, which is symbolic of India’s power, pride and prosperity. Expressing Indianness at its fullest, the poet President goes well beyond the administrative initiative of the state and declares in ‘Rock Walls’:
“I have no house, only open spaces
Filled with truth, kindness, desire and dreams:
Desire to see my country developed and great,
Dreams to see happiness and peace abound.”
The clue to the mystery of success, as he says in ‘Message’, is:
“Love for your work and faith in your dreams,
There is no force on earth that can shatter your dreams.”
It is possible by cultivating and strengthening faith in oneself, in ones inner resources, or the creative potentials within.
Some of the best poems in the volume that may stir a reader’s soul include ‘My Mother’, ‘The Life Tree’, ‘Memory’, ‘Tumult’, ‘Ancestor’s Desire’, and ‘Rock Walls’. I find in them the genuine soul-feelings of the poet.
A few poems, namely, ‘The Life tree’, ‘Harmony’, ‘Pursuit of Happiness’, ‘Gratitude’, ‘Whispers of Jasmine’, ‘I am the Child of Bihar’, and ‘My National Prayer’, earlier appeared in The Luminous Spark (Bangalore: Punya Publishing, 2004), which is significant for contribution of half-a-dozen visual artists who illustrated these poems with their brush and colours. The verbal and visual symphony enhances the appeal of some of the poems in The Life Tree too. The poet’s anecdotal notes preceding almost every poem facilitates an understanding of the fine relationship between verbal and visual forms of creative expression. While APJ Abdul Kalam creates verbal imagery, Manav Gupta renders the poet’s spirit into visual imagery with fifteen water colour paintings. Painting and poetry flow into each other, testifying to the poet’s belief that both painting and writing are forms of language.
Abdul Kalam, blessed with the ‘dual muse’, provides a rich feast of the verbal and visual arts, merging aesthetic sensibility, curiosity, analysis, and interpretation. He innately appreciates the painter’s sensitivity to the visual properties of his written form and thus, enhances and reinforces his poetic effect.
To conclude, The Life Tree is a poetic pioneer of the years ahead with Kalam’s personal metaphors that seek to balance linguistic and cultural gaps in conveying aspirations of the new generation. With verbal and visual experimentation, the poems in the volume provide a heightened creative experience. They not only reveal the sage scientist poet’s life, mind and spirit, but also prove that he has a strong bond between him and his media and tools which, in effect, bespeak his inner discipline and individual mastery. His new book expands the national literary constellation, enriching the aesthetic dimension of Indian poetry in English today.
THE LIFE TREE : POEMS by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. New Delhi: Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd., 2005, Pages 92, Price Rs. 250/-. ISBN 067004997-2
Dr R.K.Singh is a professor of English & Head, Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian School of Mines,