What I Learnt From My Father

Santhanam and family with his parents

I cannot claim that I was very close to my father. Being one of eight children and the fifth one at that, with no exceptional qualities, I was not expected to be, either. My elder brother, anna , who is the eldest of the siblings and Hema, the youngest, were probably the closest to him. Anna was close because he had to shoulder a lot of responsibility when we were growing up and also because both appa and anna worked in the same department and had a lot of official news to share. Hema was also close because she spent more time with him in the last 15-20 years of his life than any of us. My parents’ greatest achievement was that they raised a large family, instilled in us the right values and ensured that we were reasonably well settled. Being parents ourselves, we are able to appreciate it much more now than when they were alive. We all loved them and respected them for their qualities of head and heart and the tremendous sacrifices they made in bringing us up.

“ I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom” said the Italian writer and novelist, Umberto Eco. He should have known because he belonged to a family of 13. The focus of this article is on what I admired in my father and what I learnt from him, consciously or subconsciously, by observing him, talking to him and reading what he had written in a note book that he showed me a few times.

First and foremost was his commitment to work. One of my earliest memories of my father is his setting off in the morning, usually around 8 or 8.30, on his tours in Thanjavur district. He walked at a brisk pace and Sundaram, the peon who followed him with the ‘camp bag’ had to literally run to keep pace with him. It was the same story in Pollachi, where the meek Arumugam, who was terrified of appa must have lost a couple of kgs running behind him all the time. He would return late in the evening and prepare his notes of inspection to be sent to the Superintendent’s office in Coimbatore. Since appa’s handwriting was terrible, the job of writing a legible, clear copy was entrusted to my sisters, Chooda akka and Rukku akka, who both had very good handwriting. Appa was very hardworking and it’s no surprise that he was liked by all his bosses, wherever he served. It was hard work that helped him clear the competitive exam for the post of Inspector of Post Offices, which was a tough exam considering the lack of facilities in Cheyyar and the fact that there was no one to guide him or help him, either within the family or outside. On his first promotion as Inspector he was sent to Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. The hot and spicy food gave him ulcer in his stomach which troubled him for several years. On his promotion as Superintendent of Post Offices, he was sent to the northeast region where he served in places like Gauhati, Silchar and Tezpur. We heard of these places for the first time when appa was posted there and tried to locate them on the map. Despite his indifferent health, he roughed it out in those places for the sake of the family. It must have been very tough for a soft, gentle person like him to live alone in a totally alien environment. Even after returning to Madras, he worked hard, as was his wont, so much so that amma used to say that work for him was his first priority. I must have imbibed this trait because Kausalya also used to tell me that work was my first love and family came a distant second. appa had written down the translation of a German proverb in his notebook which read “work as though no prayer would help and pray as though no work would help.” Somehow it left a deep impression in me and this is what I have tried to follow all these years.

The second quality I admired in appa was his integrity and I’d rate it as the most important thing that I learned from him. If efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right thing, integrity is doing the right thing all the time, even when nobody is watching, irrespective of the consequences. appa never aspired for material possessions. He never wanted a rupee more than what he rightfully earned. Some of the persons he most admired in public life like Rajaji, C.Subramaiam and Cho Ramaswamy were all men of high intelligence and impeccable integrity. When I joined the IAS, he advised me to be careful against persons ‘who would bring all types of influence’. Though he didn’t spell them out in detail, I understood what he meant. He also advised me to always act according to my conscience. This advice stood me in good stead because I strongly believe that I managed to survive, and to some extent succeed, for 35 long years in the IAS because of the reputation that I had built up, thanks to the values instilled in me by my parents.

Closely allied to integrity is the third lesson that I learnt- simple living. I don’t know whether it was necessity which made him lead a simple life or his nature. appa was a frugal person and did not have many wants. He was always conscious of the need to cut down expenditure and the need to save. If a fan or light was on in a room when nobody was there, he’d immediately switch it off. Not surprising for someone who came up the ladder of life the hard way and had a large family to support. He was critical of the system which required the bride’s side to spend disproportionately more on weddings than the bridegroom’s side but could do very little about it. He had to borrow heavily for the weddings in the family and the constant pressure to repay the loans made him very conscious of balancing the family budget. He always travelled by bus and hardly ever took a taxi or auto. He would walk long distances at a fairly brisk pace. Many a time he had come to our place in LIC Colony ( where we stayed for a couple of years) and Shastri Nagar all the way from Tiruvanmiyur walking. Sometimes he’d agree to be dropped back but on a few occasions he insisted that he would walk back. He was around 70 at that time. I don’t think I lead a simple life as appa did; times have changed and we are able to afford many luxuries now compared to the earlier days . But appa’s insistence on avoiding wasteful expenditure and being simple, always struck a chord in me.

One more quality that I admired in appa was his policy of ahimsa . ‘Even if you can’t help others, you should not harm anybody” he would say. He was very tolerant and kind to his subordinates and it’s no wonder that he was a popular boss. I remember a large number of people came to the railway station when we left Thanjavur for Pollachi on appa’s transfer in 1956 and Pollachi for Kancheepuram four years later. People came to see him at the stations en route also. Such was the affection and regard they had for him. He tried to help his staff who approached him, especially with requests for transfer, to the maximum extent possible. He was happy that I joined the IAS and was in a position to help people, relatives, friends and even strangers who had problems with Government authorities. Anna is also like appa in many respects, soft, gentle and kind-hearted. Both appa and amma would be happy that their children are trying to help needy people in a small way through the Jayalakshmi Ranganathan Trust. I believe we’re able to show our love and gratitude to them through this small gesture and I hope our children will carry it forward in future.

Hard-working and honest, humble and helpful, there was yet another ‘h’ which characterised appa’s personality and that was his sense of humour. He would often come up with witty one-liners. He would read only political news and jokes in Tamil magazines and often laugh out aloud when he came across a good joke and would share it with others. He liked Cho’s brand of humour very much and was an avid reader of Thuglak, the Tamil fortnightly of which Cho was the Editor. Many of his grandchildren may not be aware of this aspect of his personality because he became less talkative and more aloof in his later years.

I came across a post on Facebook recently by my friend’s daughter on the occasion of Father’s Day: “A father is neither an anchor to hold us back nor a sail to take us there, but a guiding light whose love shows the way”. How true!

Never given to extravagance, in style or words, or overreaction in times of joy or sorrow, he had a unique way of making a statement. When I was undergoing training as a probationer in the Indian Revenue Service in Nagpur, the IAS results were published and my name was also in it. I received a telegram from appa which had just two words “Loving Greetings.” As we celebrate his centenary, the only two words that I want to tell him, with all love and reverence, are “THANK YOU.”

1st July 2017

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