Residents of Upputhurai Palayam near Dharapuram are in a state of disbelief. They are unable to come to terms with the revelations that their dark, bespectacled neighbour with a toothy laugh could trump many a Forbes billionaire. The T M Ramalingam they knew was a commission agent who had suffered heavy losses three years ago in his coconut and peanut business. Not a globe-trotting business magnate, certainly not one to be associated with US bonds and foreign banks.
Raids by Income-Tax Department on the New Year's eve unearthed $5-billion US bonds from Ramalingam's house, driving the media into a frenzy.
The 46-year-old seems to be aware his celebrity status would be short-lived. Showing little nerves, if at all he had any, he has been talking freely and frequently to the local media, often revealing just enough to keep him in the limelight. Today, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, along with his wife and a lawyer, he attended an income-tax inquiry.
Like many a riches story, this one, too, begins from the rags. Ramalingam hails from a Chettiar family in Thondamuthur near Pollachi. The community to which the finance minister also belongs is known in Tamil Nadu for its sharp business acumen and thrift.
The family moved to Dharapuram in 1994, along with his wife and two kids (a girl and a boy who are in school). People used to see him travel by bus and occasionally have tea at roadside shops. The neighbours knew he was into some trading business related to agricultural products. But that he was capable of such a big thing, everybody doubts.
Over the past five days, Ramalingam has had officials splitting their hair over the origin of exotic instruments and their funding sources. Theories are being floated around about him being a benami for powerful politicians and how the power shifts had brought him to the fore. Some reports said the US did not issue bonds in such high denominations and suggested Ramalingam's prized portfolio was likely fake.
But, the taxmen have been shuttling between Chennai and Coimbatore to find out whether or not the bonds are real and have approached various departments in the finance ministry and the US Embassy in New Delhi to check the genuineness of the bonds.
While the investigating officials themselves have a doubt, they are not leaving anything to chance. If the bonds are real, it will be the biggest-ever haul.
Ramalingam maintains the bonds are alive and "in my name". When asked about restrictions on holding foreign currency assets, he said: "I don't know all those laws that you are saying."
Ramalingam avoids speaking in English and claims he doesn't know the language, but is comfortable handling laptops and other latest gadgets very well, according to locals in Dharapuram. They added Ramalingam had had several visitors from outside and within India in last three years. The meetings lasted for hours in local hotels. He travelled outside India 12 times, mainly to Dubai, Singapore and Myanmar.
According to his own accounts, Ramalingam started off as an intermediate trader of agricultural products and was making good money. He then rented out a portion of his house to a petrol bunk and found the fuel was good business and decided to set up a refinery project near Thondi in Ramanathapuram district in South Tamil Nadu.
The project report for the refinery, which he had tentatively named Bharaneedharan Refinery, estimated to cost around $28 billion, landed him in trouble. "The report was prepared with help from some of my friends and I will raise money through debt and some foreign investors".
I-T officials will only be too glad to take Ramalingam's wishes to those friends and foreign investors'.