College of Engineering student, who as a boy was rescued from child labour and emerged top scorer in school, ends life ahead of publication of his poetry collection

He was a child of poverty who was adopted by bright future. But just when he was a step away from realising his dream of becoming an engineer and a poet, the 23-year-old chose to go into the arms of death.

Until a few years ago, life for S. Manivannan was moving around the villages of Salem, Dharmapuri and nearby districts — looking for brick kilns that would hire him and his mother and two siblings. Then one day, the collector of Dharmapuri came to inspect the brick kiln the family happened to be working in. At first the mother hid the children in a corner out of fear, but as soon as the Collector began to leave, she ran behind him for help. She knew Manivannan was a bright child and wanted the collector to get him into a school.

He topped in school, but the young hands also kept carrying bricks, till Manivanan was finally rescued from bonded labour at the age of 12 — at the intervention of Dharmapuri collector Apoorva — and was put into a residential school. In 2009, having scored 97 per cent in Class XII — Manivannan stood 13th in the State and topped the community rank list for engineering counselling — he got admission into the prestigious College of Engineering, Guindy. He chose to study electronics and communications, one of the most sought after streams.

On Monday night, Manivannan told his friends that his maiden collection on poetry would be published next month and promised them all a copy each. The first few pages of his book are filled with messages thanking those collectors of Dharmapuri and Salem who had rescued him from labour and paid for his education.

A few hours after noon on Tuesday, when fellow students saw his room in Hostel Block 9 locked, they presumed he might be unwell. When he did not come out of his room till evening, they panicked and slid a mobile phone from the gap under the door and took a picture of his room. “What we clicked on the phone was horrifying,” said one of his hostel mates. They saw the image of Manivannan hanging from the ceiling fan. He had used his lungi as the noose.

Some of his hostel mates believe he had taken the extreme step because he was in love and had been rejected. They also suspect he had recorded his suicide on his mobile phone. Even police suspect that he could have recorded his suicide by balancing his mobile phone on a bottle of oil. Manivannan's phone, however, couldn't be accessed as it is password protected. Inspection of the memory card didn't reveal anything. Kotturpuram police have registered a case of unnatural death and are investigating.

Anna University Vice-Chancellor Mannar Jawahar recalled spending time with the boy, listening to his poetry: “He was very good. I used to tell him to work a little more hard to support his family and he used to promise me every time that he would do so.”

Manivannan's mother Kanchana, who still leads a life of poverty in a hut by the highway in Devarapalayam village in Dharmapuri, came to Royapettah General Hospital on Wednesday afternoon to claim the body.

“His words gave me strength to bear the hardships. I cannot believe that he is no more. I do not want to believe he is dead,” she cried, as doctors conducted post-mortem. “He would tell me that after he finished his studies, he would build two identical houses, one for his brother and one for the rest of us,” she wailed, clutching the collection of her son's poems, ‘Thaaipaal Vaasam.'

The five semesters that he spent in the college may have got him many arrears, but he remained extremely passionate to Tamil poetry, which he was interested in right from Class VIII. His friends remember him as a cheerful youngster who rarely disclosed details about his personal life. They are not the only ones to do. Apoorva, who served as Dharmapuri collector in 2001-2002, remembers him as the “bright, brave boy who battled all struggles of bonded labour, but did extremely well when put in a residential school.” His affection for her was such that he added her name to the pen name, Apoorva Senthamizhan, he used for his book.

“He could have always come to us for help. Why did he lose heart after coming this far,” wondered Ms. Apoorva, now project director of Tsunami Project Implementation Unit.

Her batchmate P. Amudha, who served as Dharmapuri collector in 2007-2009, remembers how the boy had come to her to show his counselling letter. Along with the letter, he placed another piece of paper on her desk. It read: ‘Manivannan IAS.' “He asked me to sign on the paper and said he would come to see me after 10 years, as an IAS officer,” said Ms. Amudha, who is now the managing director of Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women Limited.

There were other things Manivannan was interested in. With a group of friends, he had initiated Siruthuli, an ongoing venture which collects small sums on the campus to support students from poor backgrounds.

“Even the scholarship amount that he received here, he would send it to poor students in his hometown. He was slightly older than all of us, so he would not discuss his personal life but was extremely helpful to juniors,” says Vinothan, a friend.

Manivannan — according to the vice-chancellor — had accumulated 26 arrears, and some believe this could also be a reason why he took the extreme, especially because the first arrear exam got over on Monday, a day before he committed suicide.

“When he joined the college, he would feel inferior all the time, but once college mates started appreciating his poetry, he felt encouraged. He was not always bothered about his arrears, but he would get really serious when we would talk about him getting a job to support his family,” says a hostel mate, recalling how Manivannan's collection of poetry was the most widely talked-about piece in their recent cultural fest.

His mother said Manivannan was to visit her this Friday. She said, “He was worried about not having enough money for the bus fare. I told him I my wages we due and that he need not worry about the money. He was our only hope to tide over poverty. Why did he have to go alone?”

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