The writer finds out what Gandhian Dr. T. S. Soundaram meant to family and friends

There are many stories about how Dr.T.S.Soundaram, the second daughter of T. V. Sundaram Iyengar, (founder of one of India’s iconic business conglomerate) miffed her parents and family by marrying out of her community. She also devoted her life to Gandhigram. Madurai remembers her fondly as the athai full of heart.

Married at 12 in 1917 to her cousin Dr.Soundararajan and widowed in her teens, she went off to study medicine at the age of 32 at Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi, where she came under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and volunteered for the freedom movement.

When she was 35 years old, she married Dr. G. Ramachandran, a Gandhian from Kerala. The story goes that she wore a khadi sari handwoven by Kasturba Gandhi for her wedding.

She served the poorest of the poor as long as she lived.

Her radical acts of helping the downtrodden may have occasionally exasperated her family but she unfailingly got what she wanted. “That is because,” says Dr.Sowmini Ramesh, the Chief Medical Director of Sri Krishna Children’s Hospital, “She never ever asked or took anything for herself.” Sowmini came into the TVS household in 1966. She was Soundaram’s brother’s daughter-in-law. “Both of us were doctors and into social work, and we would mostly discuss social issues. Her concern for girls in particular was supreme,” recalls Sowmini, who was then working as a paediatrician at the Government Hospital. “There would be so many new born abandoned babies and I would always try to keep them alive. I would plead with Soundaram athai to take the babies to the Gandhigram orphanage.” She laughingly remembers how family members would actually run away seeing Soundaram because she would always ask for things for people at Gandhigram. Sowmini once saw Soundaram giving away her watch to a young girl who had no money to pay the medical college fee. “Every weekend she would send home-made murukkus to the girl, saying the poor child won’t get to eat such things.” Each time Sowmini got plums and berries from Kodaikanal for the house, Soundaram would ask her to get a basket full for her children in the orphanage. “’Small things add up to big results later’, she would say, and she always led by example,” recalls Sowmini.

Dr.G.Natchiar who was introduced to Dr.Soundaram when she was posted in public health at Gandhigram, remembers her as “Very kind but firm and clear in her thoughts and speech.” “It was always a pleasure to hear her speak, she knew the language of the people and could communicate with equal passion with a farmer or a minister,” recalls the Director Emeritus (HR) of Aravind Eye Care System, Madurai. “Tall and dignified, she would always be dressed neatly in khadi. She valued quality and punctuality and was passionate about empowering the rural women,” says Natchiar, who subsequently became her doctor. “Soundaram donated her eyes to us,” she adds.

K. Durga (daughter of Madurai’s well-known surgeon Dr.M.S.Krishnamurthy and mother of Bharath K.S, the chairman of Aparajitha Corporate Services) was delivered by Dr.T.S.Soundaram. It was a normal delivery at home on November 7, 1940. Soundaram gently placed the baby in the cradle and announced to everybody present, “This is Durga.” And then she left telling Dr.Krishnamurthy that she had an ‘important’ engagement. That turned out to be her wedding to Dr.G.Ramachandran!

“She brought me into this world and treated my father like her brother,” says Durga. It was her friendship with Soundaram’s two adopted daughters Sumithra and Kanaka that gave Durga the opportunity to know her better. “On many occasions I stayed in Gandhigram with my friends. She taught us to eat whatever was available and mostly it would be Ragi porridge. She was against wasting food. If we could not eat everything that was on our plate, it would be kept covered and we had to eat it in our next meal.” Soundaram was a woman of great sensitivity. “She would carry babies in her arms to the balwadi, play with them and convince the young mothers to form self-help groups,” recalls Durga.

Gandhi always said to his disciples, ‘in a gentle way, you can shake the world’. T. Soundaram did just that. She was a beautiful person with a generosity of heart and plenty of courage. Durga says the only time she saw Soundaram cry was when her daughter Sumithra passed away.

Voice of the voiceless: Mahatma Gandhi thought Dr.Soundaram would serve the country better by not getting involved in politics and made her the representative in South India of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust and entrusted her with setting up an institution in a rural area that would improve the life of the poor.

Soundaram threw herself wholeheartedly into the project focussing on healthcare, education, economic development and social welfare in the rural communities.

She was instrumental in setting up Gandhigram in 1947 where villagers were taught skills and provided support to revive village industries and the economy of the rural community. Today the Gandhigram Rural Institute near Dindigul has grown into a cluster of institutions for constructive programmes and still serving the deprived people.

Making inroads into rural health and family welfare, she started a two-bed clinic from a thatched hut in Chinnalapatti, which has expanded into 230-bed Kasturba Hospital

Dr.Soundaram was elected Congress MLA twice from then Madras State -- in 1952 from Athoor and in 1957 from Vedasandur. She became an MP in 1962 representing Dindigul Lok Sabha constituency.

Pt.Nehru appointed her as the Union Deputy Minister for Education in his cabinet and she was instrumental in making primary education free all over the country.

She also started the National Service Scheme (NSS) that still has a strong rural service element to it.

Dr.Soundaram was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1962 and Tamil Nadu government released a postage stamp in her honour in 2005.

The family remembers…:

Sriram Janak, wildlife photographer: It’s been 30 years but Sriram Janak still can’t get over his grandmother’s death. After losing his mother at the age of three, the shy and timid boy was brought up by Dr.T.S.Soundaram. Sriram’s mother Sumithra was adopted by Soundaram as a baby. “Paati would always talk about her to me because she wanted me to remember my mother.”

As his father Colonel.V.Janakarajan was in the Army, Sriram and his sister travelled frequently. But Soundaram would visit them despite her commitments and busy schedule and the children would spend their vacations with her in Madurai. Sriram moved to Madurai when his grandmother was not keeping good health. “She promised to live till I completed my graduation. I was by her side when she passed away three months before my last semester. She told me, ‘I am sorry, I am leaving you but you have to write your exams well and you should not cry’”.

Sriram remembers the fun-filled days he spent with his grandmother horse-riding in Kodaikanal, collecting sea-shells in Trivandrum and Kanyakumari and eating ice-creams at Modern restaurant in Goripalayam. They would play Solitaire and she even introduced him to Mills & Boons! With her I was neither afraid nor shy. She was my grandma and I could talk to her about anything,” says Sriram.

When he was away from his paati, she would call him up every week at his father’s office at the appointed time. And whenever she came to the Cantonment, she would throw a breakfast party making crispy dosas and filter coffee for his father’s colleagues and friends. “Though we had help at home, she would insist on doing the work.”

Sriram was struck by her simplicity though he knew she was busy and had a stream of important visitors. “She introduced me to Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers. I would take their autographs and run away”.

Shobhana Ramachandran, Managing Director, TVS Sri Chakra Ltd.: The grand niece of Dr.T.S.Soundaram, Shobhana Ramachandran remembers her “Athai” as a stately lady, bright, beautiful and bold and a visionary. Despite so much opposition from the family, to her credit she never showed a trace of her anger or disappointment, she says. She showed great resilience and displayed a rare structure in giving all encompassing care, resources and livelihood to the impoverished.

Shobhana remembers getting irritated sometimes when at the dining table Soundaram would start talking about the sufferings of others or invariably ask for things for Gandhigram. Often she would bring a battalion of people to their house for food. “It was a done thing, my mother was fond of her and also being a good cook always obliged.”

“With Soundaram athai around, the discussion would always be on Gandhigram. It was her sincerity of purpose that endeared her personally to many,” says Shobhana.

During the 1977 floods in Madurai, she recalls Soundaram taking away whatever provisions and clothes were there in their house for the people affected. “I came back from school and found my cupboard empty of all clothes. Soundaram athai had reached the spot to set up a camp much before the Government relief arrived. “That was her dynamism.”

Shobhana treasures a beautiful sweater in green and mustard knitted by Soundaram for her. “She used to sing well, play the veena and was fond of eating mangoes.”

She never complained about anything and strongly defended any woman who spoke of exploitation. She would make her brothers give employment to so many of her children from Gandhigram in TVS companies.

She would scout for suitable matches for the young girls and conduct their marriages. She selflessly served abandoned babies and needy women and loved everybody like her own child and always stood up for them because she wanted to provide them with a good life.

Col.V.Janakarajan, Correspondent, TVS group of schools: When Col.V.Janakarajan, was posted in Khirkee, Pune, in the early 60s, Dr.T.S.Soundaram was the Deputy Education Minister. But as her son-in-law, he maintained a low profile.

“She came visiting him and the children without telling anybody. Two days later Vice President Zakir Husain came on a visit and started enquiring about her as he knew she was in Khirkee. The entire unit was taken by surprise,” he recalls.

“She was not my mother-in-law but like my own mother. Her unassuming nature and simplicity were very striking. She would never let anybody feel how busy she was and always found time for the family,” he says.

S. G. Narayanamurthy and Kanaka: Kanaka remembers her mother, Dr.T.Soundaram, as a strict person. “But my elder sister Sumithra would always protect me.” Now living in Bangalore, Kanaka recalls how her mother was fond of reading Bharathiar’s poems to them and also narrated stories about Kamaraj.

“Whenever we visited Delhi with her, chole-bhature was our staple.” Her brother R.Ramachandran and his wife Indu took care of her and supported her a lot. Towards the end she was mostly bed-ridden. Sumithra’s son, Sriram would feed her most of the days. We also took her on a last car drive around the city.

Kanaka says her mother gave them the full freedom to choose whatever they wanted to do. Trained at Kalakshetra she became a dancer. After marriage, whenever she visited her mother and brought saris or any other articles for her, she would immediately take them all to Gandhigram.

Kanaka’s husband, S.G.Narayanamurthy’s parents were Soundaram’s local guardians when she went to study medicine in Delhi. “She would visit us often and one day came home with a three-year-old girl, who was abandoned outside an orphanage. My uncle adopted the child.” Dr.Soundaram worked with many women’s organisations in Delhi and Punjab for gaining experience before moving to the South. She was brave travelling alone and meeting people, she would undertake tiresome journeys without a frown.

“She was a very affectionate lady. Large-hearted and committed to her work. We all liked her openness. She understood the foibles of people. She was not very overt about her emotions but one could sense that they ran deep. Wherever she saw an opportunity she would ask for help for Gandhigram.”