When Chandroth Vasudevan Radhakrishnan was told that he had just five more years to live, little did the 24-year-old radical and rolling stone ever imagine that it would begin a new life for him and hundreds of others as well. And also eventually open a new chapter in the nascent outsourcing scene of Kerala that would put rustic Malayankizh on the global publishing map. His clients include publishing giants such as Nature, Elsevier (leading publisher of scientific and medical journals such as The Lancet and Cell) and institutions such as the Institute of Physics and Cambridge University Press.
More than two decades later, the 56-year-old frail-looking CEO of the River Valley Technologies laughs when he looks back at his knee-jerk reaction that made him quit his government job when he was diagnosed with perennial muscular dystrophy.
“I decided to spend the rest of my days with my parents. But they felt I was joking and kept nagging me to take up a job. So I moved in with friends in Thiruvananthapuram – the city I love. After a year, I was still alive and there were four years to go. Since I did not want to burden my friends, I decided to take up a job. A chain of events related to my illness led to the founding of my company,” recalls Radhakrishnan, laughing loudly.
And why not! Sitting amidst his employees in a sprawling hall of the eco-friendly four-acre campus, he is able to look back with pride on the achievements of his firm. Ranked as one of the best in the world of scientific publishing, RVT proves that ethics, ideals and commerce can exist harmoniously. But for a few applications such as Photoshop and Illustrator, most of their work is done by science graduates with the help of free or open software.
Even the name of the company has a story behind it that Radhakrishan narrates with glee: “I was born on the bank of a river; rivers have always nurtured civilization. Most importantly, I hated the thought of a name with system or info in it… I wanted to prove that you can run a successful company without the trappings of a corporate world. Look at our office,” he says.
True, there are no air-conditioned halls or tie-clad executives. The beautifully landscaped eco-friendly campus with solar energy and rain water harvesting facilities must be unique in the IT world. “So much of energy is wasted on air-conditioning and artificial lighting, all of which can be avoided if we plan and build carefully,” avers Radhakrishnan with evangelical zest. He emphasises that he owes it all to Donald Knut, the founder of TeX, the language that helped Radhakrishan master the language of business too.
“Prior to learning TeX, I had taken up a job as a clerk in the University of Kerala,” says Radhakrishnan. A second opinion had confirmed the initial diagnosis. Shrugging aside the fear, anger, pain and frustration, he decided to befriend the computer to stave off loneliness when he would eventually be “an alert mind trapped in a dumb body.” “That was when Professor KSF Nambooripad of the Department of Maths of the University of Kerala suggested that I learn TeX, a complex language that is necessary to typeset and print mathematical and scientific matter,” narrates Radhakrishnan.
Beginning with question papers of the University of Kerala and research papers of the students, Radhakrishnan went on to publish Entomon, an entomology journal of the Department of Zoology, which he still continues to publish.
“I became very popular with the students. Initially, I did not take money for my work but then I had to repay a housing loan and so I began to accept money,” remembers Radhakrishna. But then the idealist in him became uncomfortable with his moonlighting and so he again quit his job and set up his firm – River Valley Technologies.
“Thanks to the State government’s Software Technology Park, we had good infrastructure and tax breaks too. But we had to achieve an export target of one million dollars. Without any contacts or networking, I had no clue how to go about it,” remembers Radhakrishnan.
By then his work on free software (TeX is one) had put him in touch with Sebastian Rahtz, an employee of Elsevier and a member of the TeX Users’ Group (TUG) in the United Kingdom. He motivated Radhakrishna to begin a similar group in India and soon the first meeting was held in the city on December 15, 1996.
“As luck would have it, his e-mail to TeX User Groups in the world announcing the formation of our group reached Kaveh Bazargan, a publisher and TUG member in the U.K. who was planning to visit India on a working holiday. We met and entered into a partnership that merged into one company in 1997.” A symbiotic relationship that has seen RVT move from strength to strength.
Profit is not his motive; it is the wellbeing of his employees and the perfection of their work that motivate him. His idealism and altruism influence each aspect of the company and its blueprint for the future. Truly a person who firmly believes that he is the captain of his destiny.
What is TeX?
TeX is a typesetting system written by Donald E. Knuth. According to him: it is “intended for the creation of beautiful books — and especially for books that contain a lot of mathematics”. (If TeX were only good for mathematical books, much of its use nowadays would not happen: it’s actually a pretty good general typesetting system.)
Knuth is Emeritus Professor of the Art of Computer Programming at Stanford University in California, US. Knuth developed the first version of TeX in 1978 to deal with revisions to his series “the Art of Computer Programming”. The idea proved popular and Knuth produced a second version (in 1982) which is the basis of what we use today.