V. Rajagopalan has taught 3.4 million people how to speak effectively. His English teaching academy has 140 centres, spread across 13 States, including 110 cities. Given this, Vaishali R. Venkat was not prepared to meet a simple, down-to-earth man

The receptionist had a job on her hands. A prospective student was insistent that he was good enough to skip the basic course in spoken English and enrol for the more challenging Level II. She tried telling him that he had failed to clear the eligibility test for the same, but the youngster was not convinced. With both parties sticking to their grounds, they seemed to have hit a dead end. It took the intervention of a modestly-dressed man to resolve the deadlock. In a soft voice, he made the applicant understand why he had to go through the basic course. This man is none other than V. Rajagopalan, the honcho of Veta, an English training academy that has trained over 3.4 million students. The institution has nearly 140 centres across 13 States, including 110 cities. It also has a centre in Sri Lanka. Today, the institution has around 400 employees, 90 of who are in Chennai. Apart from English, Veta teaches corporate employees with its clients including Wipro, TCS, Satyam, Ginger Hotel and SSN College. It has cine actors and politicians as its students.

Rajagopalan’s accessibility and easy manner have largely shaped the fortunes of the company. It all began in 1977, when Rajagopalan was doing his PUC at Loyola College (evening batch). Some of his batch-mates, who came from villages, fumbled with English. The worst part was that the lectures in Economics sailed over their heads.

In his spare time, Rajagopalan helped them understand the English jargons that encrusted Economics. He taught them at the Independence Day Park near Valluvar Kottam. “I was motivated to do something bigger when a classmate said that I would make a good teacher,” recalls Rajagopalan.

In 1979, he started Vivekananda Study Circle at his house in Kotturpuram with 40 students, each charged Rs. 20 a month. Those who could not afford the fee, were taught free.

At the Circle, Rajagopalan’s wife taught Hindi and Tamil, his brother Ganesharam science and maths, and his sister accountancy and commerce. Rajagopalan chipped in with English classes, whenever he found the time.

The Circle grew in popularity and students began to come in droves to the centre. It was not long before Rajagopalan took a thatched cottage, near Madley Subway in T. Nagar, on rent to solve the space crunch.

In 1981, the Circle was re-christened Vivekanada Tutorial Centre. Here, those who had failed to clear Class X and XII exams were coached. In another room at the centre, Rajagopalan taught English to housewives, semi-literate labourers and students from villages.

English is the basic problem for all students. If they set that right, they could shine in other subjects as well, thought Rajagopalan. Hence, in 1983, he wound up the tutorial centre and started ‘Vivekananda Kalvi Nilayam’. More students started pouring in and Rajagopalan’s classes won accolades and gained popularity.

Among the various initiatives he launched to teach English, teaching spoken English through postal education and to corporates were the most successful. “I used to get 1,000 letters a day from various parts of Tamil Nadu. The biggest challenge was explaining the absolutely rudimentary concepts of grammar in vernacular language,” says chairman of VETA.

The next challenge was instituting a spoken English course through postal education. When he broached this idea, he was accused of unbridled idealism. His detractors contended that teaching spoken English by correspondence is as impractical as a postal course in swimming. Adding an extra dimension to the programme, he showed it was possible. Besides the postal material, nearly 30 to 40 faculties from Chennai went to various villages in Tamil Nadu and handled classes and clarified the students’ doubts. Classrooms in schools were taken on rent for this purpose, and these expenses were borne by Veta and not the students. The postal course is promoted aggressively, as is evident from this slogan – ‘Oru post card podum, unnala mudiyum’.