What Can I Give? : Srijan Pal Singh on APJ Abdul Kalam’s legacy and Anand Kumar on mentoring the Super 30

Blog post - 2 800x200Day four of the Penguin India Spring Fever and it seems to be only getting better. Yesterday we had an amazing panel discuss the complicated nature of our relationship with Pakistan, and today we have Srijan Pal Singh talking about the legacy and teachings of APJ Abdul Kalam.

The session also includes the educationist Anand Kumar, who founded the Super 30 programme, which has helped several economically backward students achieve their dream of qualifying for the Indian Institute of Technology.

When the man, dubbed by Peoples Magazine as the “People’s Hero” took the stage, there was a wave of euphoria in the audience. Anand Kumar began the session talking about his father, who despite poverty managed to educate him.


“When I was a kid, I had seen how my father tried to provide us education. He was deeply hurt by the fact that he was not able to attain education. My father knew the power of education. That is why he gave up our land but didn’t restrict our education.”

The mathematician continued by saying that his father used to inspire him to study hard and “do something big”. Kumar added that he learnt to love teaching at a young age.

“When I was in class four, I used to teach class 3 students. When I was in the 10th standard, I used to teach the 9th standard students. Nothing made me happy than when kids only a year younger to me called me sir!”

As Anand Kumar took his seat, it was Srijan Pal Singh’s turn to talk to the audience about his time with APJ Abdul Kalam. It is a testament to the popularity of the late former president that so many people from different generations and various walks of life turned up to hear Singh talk about the “People’s President”. Singh, who was an aide to the late former president, is in the unique position to give us a first-hand account about APJ Abdul Kalam.

The author began by talking about the first time he met Dr. Kalam Singh met the former president in 2008 at IIMA where he was a student and Dr. Kalam had come to teach a course. Because he was also the Students Body President Singh was told by his director to welcome the president at the airport and take him to the Government Guest House (an hour away from the campus) where the director would also come to meet him.

When he realized that Singh was there to take him to the Government Guest House, Dr. Kalam said that the convey would be going straight to IIMA. There he met with the director and told him that here he was just a faculty and the director shouldn’t be coming to greet him.


“I learnt my first lesson of life at that moment. The lesson I learnt was humility. People might be masters of their domain but the difference between the very, very good and the truly great lies in this small gap called humility. And Dr. Kalam had this humility.”

The IIMA graduate then talked about the time he first visited Dr. Kalam in Delhi. Having graduated from IIMA, won a gold medal, had “a very big ego at the time” and was looking for an internship for two months before joining an American company. The late former president asked Singh to calculate his percentage, which he did, then Dr. Kalam told him that because he had a medal, he also had recognition. Which he agreed. Then he asked Singh, was it fair to assume that because he had a degree and a medal, he was intelligent. He agreed to this as well.

“He then asked me, ‘so, you are blessed with intelligence, you’ve got the gift of education and you also have the recognition of a gold medal.’ And this changed my life, ‘do you not feel that it’s your responsibility to change the world and the way the country operates?’ And that to me was a turning point.”

Singh added that his internship lasted from two months to seven years.

“If he (Dr. Kalam) wants to be remembered as a teacher, I want to be remembered as a student of Dr. Kalam.”


The engineer also credited the title of his book – What Can I Give? To Dr. Kalam. In 2009, the duo was working on a speech celebrating a swami ji who had turned 102. Because Dr. Kalam’s parents also lived for a long time (his dad was 98 when he passed away while his mother reached 100) he asked him what the key for people living so long was.

“He said ‘There’s only one key, he asks himself – What can I give? The swami fed and educated so many people. His conviction and spirit comes from the – What can I give?’”

Singh added that Dr. Kalam used to say that the only reason for all the problems we face, from corruption to environmental degradation was because of the opposite of “what can I give” – “what can I take?” Dr. Kalam wanted young people to give up this spirit and live by a philosophy of giving.

The panel next talked about important issues that plague our education system.

Srijan Pal Singh, on why nobody wants to become a teacher, said that there were two big issues that we have to tackle. The first problem was that teachers in government schoolteachers are used “as fodder”. They are asked to do things that are not what teachers are supposed to do. We do not give dignity to the profession.

Secondly, he continued, the syllabus and their timetables are decided without consulting the teachers. They are not included in the decision-making process.

Anand Kumar said that this was not just an “Indian problem” this problem exists throughout the world. He continued by saying that no parents want their kids to grow up to become a teacher and that’s the bitter truth. Kumar then added that because people search for glamour, money and comfort they do not choose to teach.

Kumar suggested that the government should begin an incentive program for teachers.

“Teachers who perform well, get good feedback, who teach properly should be graded and their salaries should be increased. And teachers who do not teach properly should have their salaries deducted.”

That had the audience cheering!

He continued by saying that kids are graded while teachers, whether they teach well or not get a salary at the end of the month. This, he said, was not fair to the teachers who teach with passion.

With that, the floor was open to the audience to get their questions in.

When asked about our government education system, Kumar said that the whole world would applaud the children of India if the government truly stands behind its children’s education. There is, he added, so much potential.

The panel was then asked how do we change the mentality of the kids towards studying.

Anand Kumar said that if you look at kids when school gets over, they run away like a prisoner who’s just been released.


“So, there is something wrong there. Till we stop encouraging kids to mug up or pressurize them into studying something they do not want to learn, they will continue hating to study. We need to teach them to love what they’re learning.”

Srijan Pal Singh added that education is less appealing to children because we don’t ask them what they want to be.

“If we force children to study what they don’t want – without asking them what they do – how is that diff from jail?”

With that, the session came to an end. The audience left with a great insight into our education system as well as a few difficult questions.

We are already looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions which we expect will be as engaging and educative as today’s.


The Penguin India Blog

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