The Art of Unity and a Meeting of Minds: India’s missile man and Taiwan’s celebrated poet

On his birthday, October 15, India and Taiwan look back on how Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, India’s 11th President worked his ways towards uniting minds and yearned for a peaceful world. Investing in art and culture was also central to his mission as President. Thirukkural’s popularity in Taiwan grew exponentially with its respect for Dr Kalam and his admiration for Abbot Yu Hsi’s works. “The missile man of India” zealously discussed the Tamil literature, recited poetry, and shared ancient wisdom with Thirukkural as the bedrock.

Formosa could fathom out Dr Kalam’s infinite desire to discuss the poet’s words and wisdom and relate it to the contemporary scenario. This chat proves that art binds people to place and to each other.

Elsa Joel: It’s an honour to catch up with you both, two people considered by Dr Kalam as his best companions. More than curious, I’m thrilled to finally get to know how it all happened finding a like-minded poet across the oceans, a long and sustained friendship, and how the meetings were efficiently facilitated.

Harry Sheridon: I remember every single email I sent back and forth soon after Dr Kalam read one of Dr Yu Hsi’s poems, published in the POET magazine, which was adorned by works of international poets.

Elsa Joel: Given the emotional and intellectual compatibility of Dr Kalam and Dr Yu Hsi, I guess the first meeting was nice and easy, something like catching up with an old friend?

Yu Hsi: Well, I would like to answer this. First Meeting with Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at the Presidential Palace in Delhi happened on 28th March 2007. Yes, exactly like meeting a good old friend, but the euphoria was there. Those words he said to me after shaking hands were, “You are Dr Yu Hsi from the Pacific Ocean to the East!”. That kind smile of his lingered for a long time on his face.

Dr Yu Hsi, left, and Dr APJ Kalam, right at the Presidential Palace in Delhi, 2007.

He had the uncanny knack of putting people at ease, and I found myself talking away to glory. I was indeed amazed when Dr Kalam said he loved listening to my music as much as reading my poems. Receiving such compliments from a great leader of over a billion was soul-stirring. He gracefully accepted two copies of my book An Inter-centurial Fire Phoenix, which he had already read since I mailed him four copies of the same via DHL a week before my visit.

Harry Sheridon: One of the few he treasured. As for him, books have always been the greatest reminders of love and respect: a reflection of the giver, especially in your case Dr Yu Hsi.

Yu Hsi: Oh yeah! Dr Justice Mohan and Secretary-General Dr Maurus Young, who accompanied me, were amazed at our camaraderie. For Dr Kalam was not actually seeing the first page of the book when he met me, you know. And the only thing he asked of me was to translate the Chinese text written below his picture on a silver page in the book.

Harry Sheridon: I got to know of this unforgettable detail. It read as “I dedicate this book to my dear and respected Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, President of India.” Am I right, Dr Yu Hsi?

Yu Hsi: A hundred percent!

Elsa Joel: Is that book on the stands in India? Or available in some format?

Yu Hsi: Oh! It’s a limited-edition. You can call it a special edition too, if you wish. I’ll be well pleased to share with you a copy. Admiration was mutual as I read aloud one particular part of my 67 pages book titled Fire, which was the score for Percussion Concerto: Swirling Flames of Splendor. Ideas behind the creation of that music was relished by the guests.

That 24K gold audio CD President Kalam received had 3 songs recorded for him. They were Fire for Percussion Concerto, Fire Erhu Suite, and Fire Symphonic Suite. Gifting him the 8.47m by 28.8cm Chinese Royal Calligraphy Scroll was my utmost honour for it contained the poem Magnanimity, Realization, Enlightenment – An Inter-centurial Fire Phoenix, written in Chinese calligraphy.

Elsa Joel: I’m wowed. Too long a scroll! This is a story worth telling the world.

Yu Hsi: Precisely what Dr Kalam asked me. Story of a lifetime has to be lengthy enough, right? If truth be told, even today I enjoy reciting this story woven of 112 lines.

Elsa Joel: Are we fortunate today!

Yu Hsi: Certainly! Here we go.

 A scroll of poetry to span the ages
A scroll of strength and beauty,
Its left opened with the dragons for the benevolent.
Its right revealed endless, flowing skies for the aesthetics.
Symbolizing the endless movement of his character and wisdom,
Symbolizing the start of a far-reaching, ever-lasting, surpassing trend,
A scroll of poetry, to be unrolled one section at a time, viewed from right to left.
Like scriptures and poetry of ancient times.
Scholars and experts add poetry,
Their thoughts and reflections, in the space at scroll’s end,
To be passed on, shared, and preserved forever.

Harry Sheridon: I believe this is one favourite part of yours in the entire scroll. Kudos to your memory. Its dimension intrigues me.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam with his Private Secretary Harry Sheldon.
The late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, 11th President of India with Private Secretary Harry Sheridon.

Yu Hsi: I understand. I enjoy explaining the dimension because I’ve got used to it. In a way, this leaf of poetry encompasses the enlightened world. An entire measure of it. The number 8 resonates with love for humanity and a desire for peace. Four signifies order and calmness, and 7 symbolizes humanity’s deep inner need to find depth, meaning, and spiritual connection.

Elsa Joel: The importance of number 7 in The Book is very detailed. From creating the universe to completion at the Crucifixion, the number 7 is linked to many things.

Yu Hsi: You get me. Yes, call it number symbolism. Like it or not, we have had a love-hate relationship with numbers from the earliest times. Back to the scroll, it is 28.8 centimetres wide and number 2 is all about harmony, partnership, and a balance of yin and yang. Even the measure of the blank space as 5.21 meters was decided upon after much thought and considering the fact that 5 is the number of heavens. Number 1 symbolizes unity.

Elsa Joel: Can we say that the works you presented to Dr Kalam were motivated by Wings of Fire?

Yu Hsi: It’s not just that one book. Dr Kalam as a person motivates me. The word ‘Fire’ finds a place in most of my works because it represents passions, compulsion, zeal, creativity, and miracles.

Harry Sheridon: I saw both of you as passionate poets dedicated to appreciating the beauty of creation through your poems. Almost all of them begin and end grounded in the real, natural world. Reading them turns simple moments into impactful and life lessons on the power of love and harmony with one another and with nature. Today, listening to you bring back all the memories of your first meeting. It was epic.

Yu Hsi: I missed you during my first trip. (laughs) Especially during the fag end of our meeting when I personally conferred the Crane Summit Supreme Honor Crown Medallion upon President Kalam to honour his devotion to poetry and world peace.

He took me on a personal tour around the Mughal Gardens. That vast expanse of 13 acres filled with colours and fragrance is a piece of heaven on earth. Fountains, pavilions, walkways and pools added an aesthetic appeal to the entire place – simply breath-taking!

As Dr Kalam walked me around the majestic flower garden, he told me he wrote a poem on the previous night and the bright moon motivated him further. My joy knew no bounds when he intoned his poem. My interpreter volunteered to help me understand the last stanza then and there.

Elsa Joel: I hear you. Mughal Gardens look heavenly because it was inspired by the gardens of Taj Mahal, and the gardens in Jammu and Kashmir. You would be amazed to know: In Delhi alone, a Mughal emperor named Firoz Shah Tughlaq laid out 1,200 gardens with the touch of Mughal traditions.

Harry Sheridon: I recall reading your letter to Dr Kalam. Your request touched him. Your idea to mobilize 1000 poets and 10,000 poems for world peace was cherished. A confluence of religious heads at the Foundation for Unity of Religions and Enlightened Citizens (FUREC) served a purpose.

Yu Hsi: Had he gone for a second term, India would have fared better is my guess. Signed copies of his books Guiding Souls, The Life Tree, and The Luminous Sparks are my prized possessions, and Chinese versions of the same became his prized possessions. Dr Kalam loved reciting poems. Often did I hear him recite

 “…Crossed many seas, to be with us
Welcome my friend from shining heavenly bodies,
Beautiful roses and divine music
My garden smiles”

Elsa Joel: Fiyah! What a friend you had in Dr Kalam! Great minds are destined to converge for a cause. How did you enjoy the 27th World Congress of Poets – sharing the stage with Dr Kalam?

Yu Hsi: A date to remember. September 1, 2007 (Pause). Like any other friends, we kept in touch through emails and phone calls.

On the day of the opening ceremony the audience was so excited to take a look at Dr Kalam. When he spotted me amongst the crowd, he hugged me and invited me to share the stage. That day, on behalf of the Crane Summit 21st Century International Forum, I bestowed on Dr Kalam the Crane Summit Arts and Culture Medallion, and the golden medallion imprinted with an elephant totem and a Congress Remembrance Silver Plaque from him is my source of motivation.

The translated version of The Life Tree and The Luminous Sparks impressed him. He was an unassuming gentleman. For example, when he was given a silk shawl, he draped it around my shoulders.

Harry Sheridon: That’s what I call a bromance. The Blue Bird’s Moonlight Sonata was Dr Kalam’s choicest music to soothe his senses, and his team fell in love with the same. Not a day passed by without him listening to this.

Yu Hsi: My privilege! I wrote it for him. The chant version was sung by vocalist Janice Yan. Yes, the Chinese Guqin, a seven-string Chinese zither produces soothing high-pitched sounds. I’m thankful to Taiwanese calligrapher Ying-Ru Li for the royal scroll.

On October 2, The International Day of Non-Violence, I presented Dr Kalam a gold-leaf book that comprised my bilingual poems in praise of Mahatma Gandhiji. Besides the fact that Dr Kalam was a true Gandhian, he adorned himself with virtues. So, he was a worthy recipient of the book.

Elsa Joel: Every time you mention gold I’m reminded of the Magus who brought gold for Jesus.

Harry Sheridon: Melchior!

Yu Hsi: King of Persia if I’m right.

Elsa Joel: Look at you both. I see no scarcity of general knowledge here. How frequently did poetry connect you to the “native place of your spirit,” India, and Dr Kalam?

Yu Hsi: (laughs) Few times. But it feels like I’ve known him forever: the comfort level you know! May 18, 2010, at Dr Kalam’s Official Residence. Chatting beneath the 100-year-old Indian almond tree that inspired Dr Kalam to pen The Great Tree in My Home made me feel at home.

He took me around, showed me a hidden beehive, a few parrots, and a peahen on her clutch of eggs. That day, he recited his encomium titled Oceans Meet. He had written it the previous night to welcome me. It’s about how the Indian and Pacific oceans merge in multiple places though they are thousands of miles apart. The very next day at the formal ceremony in Anna University, we recited Oceans Meet together.

Elsa Joel: I’m keen to know the souvenirs exchanged.

Yu Hsi: Oh yes. Given were a set of bamboo book racks, a Chinese court scroll of The Great Tree in My Home and Road, hardcover palm-sized book of poems The Metaphysical Traveler, and a fountain pen designed in the patterns of the galaxy. Received were the book Family Nation, an unrivalled honour to translate Thirukkural to Chinese, an exquisitely carved ivory plate, and a golden statue of Buddha weighing 42 pounds. I took home the golden Buddha, and it was the reason for the Crane Summit 21st Century International Forum to hold a symposium titled The discernment of human hearts to pray for peace, the two oceans, choice of enlightenment on 8th May 2011. It was meant to make Buddhism the pulse of the new era.

Harry Sheridon: In between giving and receiving, Dr Kalam confirmed his preparedness to be part of the 30th World Congress of Poets in Taiwan. He was so excited given the fact that both countries share a history with China, fondly mentioned Tagore’s Chinese name which was Zhu Zhendan.

Yu Hsi: (Gestures a clap) Brilliant! It all began in 1924 when the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore accepted an invitation to speak at Beijing University. Dr Kalam’s first visit to Taiwan to attend the 30th World Congress of Poets, hosted by the Crane Summit 21st Century International Forum was much talked about and is remembered because he is the most illustrious public figure to travel between Taiwan and India. In four days, besides the opening ceremony of the congress, he visited Hsinchu. Oh yes! you were there!

Harry Sheridon: Yeah. And pleased as punch around the clock. In the presidential suite, he shared Peace and Prosperity of the World with exuberance. You know, he finished editing early in the morning before setting off for Taiwan, and even on the airplane he continued improvising it.

Yu Hsi: Remember that painting in Chinese calligraphy I presented to him?

Harry Sheridon: Young Kalam Viewing the Sea. Call me an eidetiker (smiles). Also do I reminisce about President Ma Ying-jeou’s instant rapport with Dr Kalam at the Presidential Palace.

Yu Hsi: That’s because Ma had long been admiring the President Kalam for his outstanding contributions in the field of science. He appreciated me for building a cultural bridge between Taiwan and India. Dear Sheridon, I’m still able to do it with you by my side.

Harry Sheridon: My pleasure! You kept your promise too! You had the Chinese version of Thirukkural ready to be published.

Elsa Joel: Strengthening ties between two countries can happen in ways other than political diplomacy. This is a revelation.

Yu Hsi: Translating the Thirukkural opened my third eye. It’s a holy book. A luncheon at the International Forum in Taipei also included Chairman of the Council of Agriculture Chen Wu-Hsiung, Vice-Representative Chang Ming of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, as well as a renowned member of Taiwan’s literary circle Professor Jong Dingwen.

Then, Dr Kalam also conversed with the government officials regarding political affairs. He discussed agricultural development in both Taiwan and India with Chairman Chen.

Harry Sheridon: That exclusive tour around TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company), and meeting its founding father Morris Chang was another highlight.

Yu Hsi: He always had the interests of India in his mind. He mentioned that a collaboration between TSMC, known for its robust hardware system, and India with its strong IT sector would do good for both countries.

Harry Sheridon: Kind of nullify each other’s shortcomings and innovate more high-end technology. The National Palace Museum, Zicheng Farm in Sanhuli, Micro-nano research Center and Temple of Confucius had a lot to offer. Too much good food on our plates! The Buddha fruit did hint that the oceans were once united. That guide in Hanfu was very informative.

Elsa Joel: You mean Buddha’s hand fruit?

Harry Sheridon: No, it’s not the lemony hand I’m talking about. That looks ghoulish (nods). Buddha fruit is a hybrid between custard apple and pineapple. I’m a fan of Buddha fruit because it tastes divine. So was Dr Kalam. Even fruits take a certain shape in certain places. In a land known for Buddhism, Buddha head fruit didn’t stun me.

Elsa Joel: Do you mean to say Buddha fruit didn’t exist during the Pangaea times or…

Harry Sheridon: (Interrupts) I mean even continental drifts can’t hold back minds from uniting. Cross-pollinations that happen for good!

Elsa Joel: That’s a thought!

Yu Hsi: Tell me about it! (Laughs). I had to confirm, and reconfirm that this fruit was in the presidential suite to welcome Dr Kalam. He relished it, and no mistake.

Elsa Joel: What’s hanfu?

Yu Hsi: Our traditional wear. It brings a strong sense of national identity. It was at the temple that Dr Kalam and I took an oath to publish the book Peace as a gift to the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. Mayor Hao was amazed to know how our friendship blossomed.

Elsa Joel: If only the world had leaders who would speak and do everything for the sake of peace, this world would be a better place.

Yu Hsi: I was about to say this. After his speech at Hsuan Chuang University, one student questioned him about Pakistan-India relations and he said he believed that India and Pakistan will one day be like the European Union, perfectly in tune with what he said on creating a happy, peaceful, and prosperous world.

Harry Sheridon: Dr Kalam was full of hope for goodness all the time. He was very real, never held a grudge, never relied on false perceptions, nor chased shadows and illusions. Plus, he took a fancy to genuine smiles.

Elsa Joel: Hsuan Chuang visited India to gain knowledge, and Dr Kalam visited Taiwan to offer wisdom.

Yu Hsi: Are you reading my thoughts (Laughs)? This is precisely what the president of Hsuan Chuang University told his students.

Harry Sheridon: (Grins) Journalists do their homework before an assignment.

Yu Hsi: About Dr Kalam decoding genuine smiles, mine too, your engaging poem on my smile flipped me over.

Elsa Joel: I’m chuffed to bits. This compliment from you is the high point of this chat.

Yu Hsi: Righto! Let me take you back to the National Tsing Hua University! It was there Dr Kalam proposed the concept of “sharing global wisdom and social responsibility in 2030”. It went down well with the President, students, and Taiwan media.

Harry Sheridon: No wonder he earned the title ‘Global citizen’. Dr Kalam loved being with students which is why he returned to Anna University to cultivate beautiful minds, after his presidency ended.

Elsa Joel: Dignified minds are open to learning about other cultures. Respect for diversity is a sign of inclusiveness, which is necessary for global peace.

Yu Hsi: For this reason, I say Dr Kalam was every inch a mascot of Peace. The Crane Summit 21st Century International Forum officially launched the 100 poems for world peace, an event that was co-sponsored by Dr Kalam. It encouraged poets from five continents to contribute their works.

Elsa Joel: Sounds amazing! How receptive are the Taiwanese when it comes to knowing and understanding Thirukkural?

Yu Hsi: Like I mentioned, it’s a holy book. Who wouldn’t love a supreme life-hack! It persuades and influences all minds. I’m indebted to Dr Kalam for introducing Thirukkural to my people.

Harry Sheridon: ThiruKkural is a must-read and great minds are moulded by this world’s greatest work on ethics. It should be a part of the global school curriculum if we are to mould young minds for justice, love, peace, and prosperity. Dr Kalam advocated Thirukkural constantly, consistently, and quoted a Kural (couplet) at every chance.

Yu Hsi: Even today, years after his passing, the poetic community of Taiwan records their gratitude to Dr Kalam often. He made a difference to the way people think and live. I want the young people of Taiwan to wonder about Dr Kalam and know his life.

Over conversations, I saw his deliberate attempts to focus on issues about which, in fact, there can be no debate. Vandana monastery will have no Thiruvalluvar if not for Dr Kalam. The manner in which Thiruvalluvar and Thirukkural have decorated Taiwan is matchless. Mr. Sheridon was part of the unveiling spectacle, and Indians, especially Tamilians, should always know Taiwan owes them all the goodness and kindness in the world.

Harry Sheridon: Hallelujah! Integrating the goodness of other countries and incorporating them into their own requires a lot of grit, grace, and character. Taiwan will always be loved for promoting brotherhood, and respected for embracing diversity and pluralism. Thiruvalluvar is happy in Formosa and is all set to travel the world.

Elsa Joel: I’m with you Mr Sheridon. Yes, man should build bridges, not walls. Mutual admiration and respect help begin a journey of love, and I’m privileged to hear from you both, a first-hand account. Thank you for your time gentlemen. What a fortune to hear the real essences and values of how this comradeship evolved! Let’s hope and pray this bond grows stronger and longer.

Harry Sheridon: (Smiles) touch wood, touch wood.

Yu Hsi: I’m looking forward to organizing summits that unite people. Collaborating with like-minded people like you equips me with all that I need. Usually, poems on shared concerns and interests break down barriers. If we stop seeing diversity as a threat, any form of art can take us beyond the parameters of mere tolerance. We are here today, and gone tomorrow. So, let’s sow peace, and reap love.

Yu Hsi, Dr APJ Kalam, and Harry Sheridon in Taiwan.
Yu Hsi, left. Dr APJ Kalam, center. And Harry Sheridon, far right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *