Inspirational stories from the life of the country's most respected thinker and statesman.
My Sister Zohra
[Extract 2 of 2]
Ours was a large family and I was one of ten siblings. Besides my own brothers and sisters, cousins and children of distant relatives were always present in the house and we grew up never knowing the meaning of boredom. There was always a tree to climb, a game to play or an excursion to plan. We were a happy bunch of children-squabbling and then making up, sometimes being naughty and always ready to help each other out.
My sister, Zohra, was one of the older children. She grew up as many girls in her circumstances did. She went to school and studied, but she was also expected to help as much as possible around the house. In fact, she was perhaps my mother’s closest companion. The bond of mother and daughter changed into that of friendship as they toiled for the family, cooking and cleaning, looking after the young ones, tending to their scraped knees and dripping noses. Like my mother, she, too, had a soft spot for me. It was perhaps because I was a bit of a dreamer even then. I was not as boisterous as my companions, and often preferred to curl up with a paper or a book, rather than plan a prank with the other boys. Zohra looked out for me as much as she could so that the soft innocence of her little brother was not destroyed.
When I was quite young, a cousin called Ahmed Jalalluddin entered our lives. He came like a breath of fresh air to the tiny community. He had studied up to middle grade, could read and write English, and more than that, his vision of life was open and large, ready to look beyond the shores of Rameswaram. He stayed close by and became a part of the daily life of the family very quickly.
Jalalluddin took a great liking to me. He indulged my curiosities and did his best to find answers to the questions I asked. I was always full of questions about the things I saw around me-why do birds fly, how is rain created, how do train engines work and many more such things. Jalalluddin recognized the fact that I would soon outgrow the school in Rameswaram. He discussed with my father the need to send me to Ramanathapuram, where there was a bigger, better school.
My life took its course, and after completing my schooling at Ramanathapuram, I decided to move to Madras (now Chennai) to study engineering at the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT). In the intervening years, Zohra had married Jalalluddin. The two of them were the biggest supporters of my dreams and ambitions. Zohra was determined that I give wings to my aspirations and Jalalluddin remained my mentor. Yet, our financial situation remained the same. Our household was still dependent on the earnings from the businesses started by my father. How could they afford to pay the sum of `600 that was the admission fee at MIT? While today this may seem like a very small amount, at the time, for us, it was equivalent to nearly a lakh rupees.
That was when I saw the true grit in my sister. Nothing would stop her little brother, she told her husband. My parents had saved and got some pieces of gold jewellery made for her. Traditionally, in Indian households, the women may wear the jewellery on certain occasions, but many also use them as a safeguard-a kind of insurance policy for rainy days when there are unexpected cash requirements. Without a moment’s further thought, and not worrying that the jewellery may one day be needed for her own family, for she was now a married woman, Zohra announced that she would use the pieces as guarantee with a moneylender and borrow the sum required for my admission.
I was deeply touched by her gesture. It was one of the most selfless things anyone had ever done for me. At the time of need Zohra had the solution to the problem, and she gave what she could with a full heart. She knew that her brother would work hard. She kept faith in my abilities-that I would qualify as an engineer. Her gold bangles and chain were mortgaged, the money came and I was admitted to MIT. I vowed at the time to release her jewellery from mortgage as soon as I started earning. I eventually did do so by studying hard and earning a scholarship.
Like my mother, Zohra lived out her life in Rameswaram. She was as efficient, cheerful and upright as her and the two of them together symbolize for me the resilience and resourcefulness of the ordinary Indian woman. This woman is a person who cannot be cowed down too long by her circumstances. Often, she goes through life without recognizing her own dreams and ambitions. Many times she thinks of the ambitions of her husband, or the welfare and progress of her children. She will think of her father, brothers, sisters first and place herself behind everyone else. Where are her own dreams, I wonder? Destiny, tradition, situations will test her again and again. She will have to worry and compromise, save and innovate. Yet, she will find a way to guide her family and her dear ones out of any crisis, and
she will do so with such love that it will inundate your heart.
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Excerpted with permission from
My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Rupa Publications India, September 2013.
Copyright © A.P.J. Abdul Kalam