Breach of trust

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 26, 2012 19:10 hrs

Pachaiyappa’s College, the alma mater of the mathematician Ramanujan and several other famous personalities, now lies in a state of neglect and decay. T E Narasimhan on the downfall of the 170-year-old trust.

Sometime in 1905, Srinivasa Ramanujan, perhaps India’s greatest mathematician, enrolled at Pachaiyappa’s College in Chennai. For the next few years, the college, set up in 1842 and one of the country’s oldest, was Ramanujan’s home. Such was his faith in it that when he fell seriously ill in 1910, he asked his friend to hand over his notes to the mathematics professor at the college if his condition deteriorated.

About 15 years after Ramanujan’s death, C N Annadurai, the founder of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, and the first non-Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu, graduated from the same college. Several other students of Pachaiyappa’s College made a name for themselves — former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Kasu Brahmananda Reddy, former cricketers Robin Singh, C R Rangachari and Bharath Reddy, former Congress president C Vijayaraghavach-ariar and many other scholars, poets et al.

Today, Pachaiyappa’s College is far from its days of glory. Replete with history, the once magnificent buildings on the sprawling campus on Poonamallee High Road tell a tale of neglect and decay. Located inside the college is Dare House where Robert Clive, who laid the foundation of British rule in India, stayed. It is now a shelter for dogs and sheep. One portion has collapsed and the rest could come down any day.

Former chief election commissioner T N Seshan’s new office will be behind this house. Work is on in full swing to get it ready for Seshan who has been tasked with reviving the fortunes of the 170-year-old Pachaiyappa Trust — one of the oldest and wealthiest trusts in India which also runs Pachaiyappa’s College. In all, the trust runs 15 educational institutions and has assets worth an estimated Rs 6,500 crore.

Founded by Pachaiyappa Mudaliar (1754-1794), a merchant, philanthropist and dubash (expert in two languages), the Pachaiyappa Trust is today in a state of disarray. Following a desperate plea by teachers and employees of the trust’s educational institutes, the Madras High Court recently appointed 79-year-old Seshan as its interim administrator. His task will be to stem the rot and set things right. And it’s not going to be easy.

The court has given Seshan a free hand to fill up the 120 teaching vacancies without waiting for the trust board polls. So how does he plan get things moving? Seshan says he is studying the matter and can speak about it only after a month. The staff and students of Pachaiyappa’s College want him to go around the campus and visit every block to know how bad things are. The hostel, spread over three acres, is a great example of Indo-European architecture. But, of its three floors, one lies closed. The other two, where students stay, are collapsing. There is no proper infrastructure, not even toilets. Students are forced to relieve themselves in the cultural hall where leaders like Annadurai once studied.

The campus, which has over a 1,000 trees, has become home to anti-social elements. The stone bench where, teachers at the college say, Ramanujan once pored over his notes is now used as an open bar. Empty liquor bottles lie strewn around. The nearby wine shop isn’t helping matters. For the British, this college was famous for “rowdyism” because its students were active in the freedom struggle. The term applies today too, but in a different way. Some weeks ago, four students of Pachaiyappa’s College were arrested for stoning a bus.

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Pachaiyappa Mudaliar’s legacy is in a mess. S Bharathan, who retired as botany professor from Pachaiyappa’s College, has painstakingly pieced together Pachaiyappa’s life in his book, Nallaram Valarththa Vallal Pachaiyappar. At 18, Bharathan came to Chennai from his remote village in southern Tamil Nadu with the belief that it was only at the Pachaiyappa Trust that he could get proper education. After 41 years at the college, he set out, using his pension money, to find out about the man who wanted to take education to the grassroots back in the 18th century.

Born into a poor family three months after his father’s death, Pachaiyappa learnt Telugu, English, French and maths. At 16, he was a dubash in the East India Company. Trade was at its peak in this part of the country and the European merchants desperately needed dubashis to negotiate with local traders and moneylenders. Importers were making 20-30 per cent profit in the business. Pachaiyappa too became a trader-cum-entrepreneur. He also started donating money to temples and for welfare activities.

“The turning point in his life came in 1775 when he excelled as a tax collector for the British in Chengalpattu district,” says Bharathan. “Being a good negotiator, he was comfortable with both the British and the local farmers.” By 28, he was one of the wealthiest men in Tamil Nadu. He spent a major portion of his income to restore ancient temples, “the famous Ekambareswarar temple in Kancheepuram, Nataraja temple in Chidambaram and Parthasarathy Swamy temple in Chennai” says Bharathan. He also built several shelters for the poor. Many of these are in ruins now.

On March 22, 1794, at the age of 40, Pachaiyappa wrote a will bequeathing Rs 761,506 to be spent on temples, oduvars (those who spread knowledge) and knowledge-seekers. Pachaiyappa is believed to be one of the first Indians to write a will. In those days wills were rare and their legitimacy, importance and significance were not properly understood.

It was only in 1841, after many battles, that the court passed a decree that Pachaiyappa’s legacy should be used to establish educational institutions. The trust created based on the will was one of the largest in Asia in terms of real estate in the 18th century.

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V M M R Andavar, professor of Tamil at Pachaiyappa’s College and chairman of the Joint Action Committee formed by teachers of schools and colleges run by the trust, blames the mess on the mismanagement of the trust, its properties and colleges run by it in Chennai, Kancheepuram and Cuddalore. Attempts to reach members of the board failed.

Andavar says some prominent alumni of the college have not only donated money but also tried to bring back the institution to its days of glory, but failed. For three-and-a-half years, the trust has not met as a full council because of internal bickering. As a result, no development has taken place in the colleges. For the last eight months, only principals-in-charge have been running the show in two colleges, including Pachaiyappa’s College. Around 250 teaching and non-teaching positions remain vacant. Several directors and secretaries in government departments were appointed to look into the affairs of the trust. But for them, this has only been an additional portfolio.

It’s only apt that the man who helped clean up India’s election process should now be brought in to set things right. After all, 2012 is National Mathematical Year, declared in honour of Ramanujan, Pachaiyappa’s most famous student.

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