S. Ranganathan, one among the greatest of India’s civil servants who served during the last century, presided over a mighty empire of bureaucrats, looked after them all and managed them in his own inimitable and distinctive way.
Authority of office sat so lightly on him that it was difficult to believe that a person could be so unassuming. We see today petty officials, dressed in brief authority, strutting about with airs, vaunting superficialities and kowtowing to the political class in power, totally unresponsive to the problems around them, except those of their own personal concern. Ranganathan was all humility. His simplicity was almost an astral aura around him. His sincerity shot through you knife-like.
Whenever departments differed or senior officers developed tantrums and crossed swords, he was the mediator with a difference, who could disarm clashing egos in no time. The officers who presented their cases before him almost vied with one another to accommodate the other point of view and settled the issues — as if the differences did not exist in the first place. Even the most aggressive of persons stood silent and subdued and even shamed in his chamber. It used to be said that sometimes when the senior and junior Minister in the Ministry did not see eye to eye, he provided the healing touch. Such was the transforming magic of Ranganathan.
True, for some of them it was a temporary purification, as they invariably lapsed soon into their old ways of mischief and strife. Ranganathan knew that class very well, but continued to punish them only with more of his unfailing kindness and condoning generosity.
Ranganathan must have, in the course of his long career, come across many people of different shades in different walks and fields. To every one of them, he was a mentor or a model or a guide or a good friend. So many benefited from the riches of his instinctual reponses to distress, whether personal or official or otherwise. His sympathies were always extended without discrimination, knowing no bounds, barriers or levels. When the mighty Life Insurance Corporation once got a bit difficult over finalising the maturity payment to a poor Class IV employee in the Ministry, he wrote to the Chairman of the LIC. Instant was the response from the Chairman, who flew to Delhi with the cheque.
It was in the 1960s that his wife passed away suddenly. The day the news was received, people in Udyog Bhavan and in other offices in New Delhi rushed to his residence in Sunehri Bagh Road. I was one of the many in that crowd. T.S. Krishna, a close family friend, had already taken charge of the situation and was issuing instructions for necessary arrangements. T.T. Krishnamachari was there to console him. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan arrived making anxious enquiries. Kumaravadi Ananthachari was present to take care of the last rites.
Ranganathan, a broken man, was nevertheless a picture of calm and repose, containing the severe turbulence within himself. Whatever was agitating him within was beyond decipherment. Unable to stand for long, he squatted on the verandah — he was verily a poem of grief composed in an unknown dialect.
His personal tragedies were many and very few people knew how he rationalised so as to get over them. Yet he made every effort to help avert similar misfortunes for others. He was closely attached to the TVS family. There is no doubt that to a very large extent his personality had influenced their outlook and policies. It was tragic that he lived to see and mourn the passing away of the three brothers – T.S. Krishna in 1975, T.S. Srinivasan in 1979 and T.S. Rajan in 1984.
There has often been a point made that he helped not only the deserving but also the undeserving. Perhaps it was true, as far as others could see and understand. To him such differences obviously did not matter. He never chose to moralise from a private cocoon and let the sufferers face their destinies. Very few people could reach up to that level of human excellence he embodied, as it were.
There must be quite a few living today, who knew him more intimately and could recount many instances about ‘SR.’ We may not come to know all of them. To help others came naturally and compulsively to him.
He passed away on October 18, 1990 at the age of 82. Yet the fragrance is as fresh as ever. November 12, 2009 marked his 101st birth anniversary.
( Neduntheru S. Kannan is a former Joint Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Finance.)