S. Thangavel, a Gandhian, who has built a temple for his idol

Everyone in Saravanampatti junction knows ‘Gandhi thatha’, S. Thangavel. He is the one who built a temple for his idol, Gandhi, 20 years ago near the Saravanampatti bus stand. The other deities in the temple are Thiruvalluvar and Kamaraj. Every day, Thangavel lights a lamp and a stack of agarbattis here. Anyone lucky to be nearby during the pujai is given a handful of toffees as prasadam!

Every year, on Gandhi Jayanthi, Republic Day and Independence Day, Thangavel distributes sweets, flags, chocolates, pamphlets and books to colleges and Government schools nearby. “No one gives me money for this. I do this for my happiness,” says the 66-year-old, who runs a store near the temple.

The outer walls of his house carry different religious symbols and an enormous painting of Thiruvalluvar. Gandhi and Buddha stare at you from photo frames as you enter his house. In his pooja room, portraits of Jesus Christ and Vinayagar sit side by side.

A second standard drop out, Thangavel was influenced by Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth and Thiruvalluvar’s couplets. He shows an old, dusty two-wheeler, decorated with cut-outs of Gandhi, which occupies a place of pride in the drawing room.

“I used to sweep and mop the Gandhi Mandapam in Ganapathy and light agarbattis and lamps. I was soon drawn to Gandhi and his teachings,” he says. But, it was a padayathra held in the city in 1969 to celebrate the 100th birthday of Gandhiji that proved life-changing. “We visited so many villages and spoke to people about Gandhian principles,” he says.

Soon after this, he packed his bags for Bombay. All he had in his pocket was Rs. 3,000 that he had borrowed. “I did not know the language nor the culture of Bombay. But I knew that Gandhi had spent a few years of his life here. I wanted to live here too.”

Soon, he set up a pavement shop that sold plastic goods. It was plastered from top to bottom with photographs of Gandhiji and leaders of the freedom movement.

In Bombay, Thangavel became a close aide of Morarji Desai; he campaigned for him during elections. Gradually, he began to take part in welfare activities. He fed people and helped the visually challenged cross the road and board buses and trains. After he became a member of the National Association for the Blind, he bought them Braille watches and white canes. When it rained heavily in Mumbai and the roads got flooded, Thangavel would get down to the gutters and clean the clogged sewers. Soon, people began to call him the ‘Free doctor’. “I try to make people’s lives better. A doctor also does the same. The difference is that I never charge for my service. I should not. It won’t be social work.”

He lives with his wife and son in Saravanampatti. He sold his wife’s ornaments and land for social work. “She might be upset with me. But, I am convinced about what I did. Money will come and go. Someday, we will get what is rightfully ours.”

Says Thangavel: “Many have called me a mad man for spending money on welfare activities and building the temple. But I ask them, ‘How much you spend on gods who did not appear when our country needed Independence?’ These men got us our independence and helped build our nation. What is wrong with building a temple for them?”