For the residents of Ondipudur, the day was of great importance. Three great leaders were to visit them. People young and old arrived in droves from the surrounding areas. After all, it's not everyday that one gets to see Gandhiji, Nehru and Kamaraj at the same time. They felt blessed indeed. Ninety-four year old Bu.Bu. Ramu vividly recalls the day that changed his life. He was 13 years-old then, and tagged along with his aunt to be part of the excitement.
“The year was 1935. The leaders were travelling to Sulur and stopped at Ondipudur to take part in a welcoming programme organised by the Congress people of the area,” he says. “Gandhiji spoke for about 20 minutes. T.S. Avinashilingam Chettiar, the then President of the District Congress Committee served as our interpreter.”
Bu.Bu. Ramu suddenly falls in to a moment of silence. “It (meeting Gandhiji) was like seeing God in person,” he says, his eyes moist. “The meeting marked my tryst with the Congress. I signed up for a membership and straightaway took part in party activities.”
Untouchability was at its peak when the young Bu.Bu. Ramu entered Congress. “People lived segregated lives. Harijans lived far away from the so called upper-caste people. Their children were not even allowed to bathe in the common well. They never got to see the sun rise or set, for they left early to work in the fields and came home late. People didn't realise that without them, there would be no vivasayam (agriculture).”
Bu.Bu. Ramu along with the Village Congress Committee set out to root out untouchability in the surrounding villages.
“We would bathe the Harijan kids, carry out door to door campaigns, and do our best for their upliftment.” Caste was so deep-rooted in people's minds that those who mingled freely with Harijans were refused entry in to other streets.
It was in 1937 that Bu.Bu. Ramu joined forces with N.G. Ramasamy (NGR), a mill master in Saroja Mill who would one day wreak havoc in the lives of Englishmen. Much to the dislike of mill owners, NGR formed a trade union that later fought against the British rule.
Bu.Bu. Ramu recalls his younger days spent in the company of NGR.
“My job was to announce the trade union meetings using a megaphone to our members. I cycled the length and breadth of the villages surrounding Coimbatore to do so.”
NGR and the union members met in a secret place in the outskirts of Ondipudur – the samiyar medai, the tomb of sage ‘samiyar thatha'. “The place housed palm-leaf manuscripts of the future as foreseen by samiyar thatha. That was where we met to scheme against the British,” says Bu.Bu. Ramu.
In the dead of the night on August 12, 1942, NGR organised a secret meeting of 25 of his most trusted members. Plans were made to disrupt flights at Sulur Aerodrome and set fire to liquor shops in the city.
“NGR spent the night there. The next morning, he was arrested while praying at the Sowdeswari Amman temple. He was imprisoned in Vellore, where he was brutally beaten. He never did see a free India,” says Bu.Bu. Ramu.
On August 13, 1942, the trade union members acted as planned. “A goods train carrying weapons from Aruvankadu was passing through Singanallur on the way to Madras. We set it afire. We also burned down telephone posts.”
After the Sulur aerodrome was torched, a thimir vari , a tax (levied on them for their temerity), of Rs. 7 per head was imposed on the people in the surrounding areas, he adds.
Recalling a green Ondipudur, Bu.Bu. Ramu says, “I was five when I moved to Ondipudur. The place was surrounded by vivasaya boomi (agricultural fields). Paddy, coconut and sugarcane were cultivated in large quantities. Those days, the area was famous for it's large weaving community. There were about 2,000 weavers in the area. My mother ran a road-side idli shop for six years. After her passing away, I worked in my aunt's hotel near Cambodia Mill. It was called Hotel Gandhi Niruvanam. Most of our customers were mill-workers who maintained accounts and failed to pay up. We eventually had to close down the business,” says Bu.Bu. Ramu.
Bu.Bu. Ramu says that Ondipudur's infrastructure improved only after independence. The walls of his house are lined with rows of framed photographs of great leaders who changed the fate of the nation. Pointing to framed photographs of Sukhadev, Bhagat Singh and Raja Guru, he says, “Those days, you could be arrested for hanging these in your house.” (As told to AKILA KANNADASAN)