A school guide becomes an icon

S.M. Palaniappa Chettiar, a student in Rangoon, was an avid reader, and even tried to organise a library in his school. His father Meiyappa Chettiar would often say, “Books will be your undoing.” He was proved wrong. Palaniappa Chettiar returned to India and set up a shop near Clive’s Hostel in Tiruchi, where he sold stationery, ink powder, and later books.

The entry into publishing happened because of a train journey! It is trite, but true that Fortune favours the venturesome. In the early 1940s, Chettiar, while on a train to Madras, struck up a conversation with his fellow passenger — Ayyamperumal Konar, who was a Tamil professor in St. Joseph’s college, Tiruchi. The Professor said that he was looking for someone to publish his Tamil guide book for school students. “I’ll do it,” said Palaniappa Chettiar, and thus was born Palaniappa Brothers, and the guide titled ‘Konar Urai’ became a runaway best seller.

That was a time when text books for schools were not prescribed by the Government. The books to be used in each district were decided by the Collectors. Upon the success of Konar Urai, Palaniappa Brothers started publishing text books too, and Chettiar toured the State, promoting his text books and visited schools to convince principals of the utility of Konar Urai.

Chettiar now could turn his attention to other books. How did Chettiar know which book would be a good business proposition? “We never looked at books from that angle. Anyway, the money kept coming and still does from Konar Urai. That is our bread and butter. And so we could publish other books, without worrying about sales,” says Palaniappa Chettiar’s son Chellappan who now runs the business.

A school guide becomes an icon

And over the years, Palaniappa has come out with books for readers looking for good non-fiction. Many years ago, this writer bought Va.Ra’s book on Bharatiar and all of Tamil scholar Ra.Pi. Sethupillai’s books at Palaniappa. Upon Azha Valliappa’s suggestion a series of books for children — Ariviyal Arignargal, Naattukku Uzhavithavargal and Samayam Valartha Sandror — were brought out. They were best sellers in Chettiar’s time and continue to be so. Bal Sahitya Puraskar award given by the Government of India for best children’s literature has come to books published by Palaniappa thrice.

A school guide becomes an icon

The business first functioned from Triplicane, and in the 1960s, it moved to Peter’s Road, Royapettah. When the building came up in Royapettah, Palaniappa Chettiar rightly gave it the name ‘Konar Maligai.’ Ayyamperumal Konar named his house ‘Palaniappan Illam,’ to show his gratitude to Chettiar who had made Konar Urai a household name in Tamil Nadu.

In 1969, Konar died, but the guide, continues to come out, written by other authors. Palaniappa Chettiar never wanted short shelf life books, and so he kept away from trends. Fiction too was never looked at favourably, with a few exceptions like Kothamangalam Subbu’s Thillana Mohanambal. “We continued to publish Thillana Mohanambal until Subbu’s works were nationalised,” says Chellappan. Chettiar’s relationship with authors went beyond business. Gregarious by nature, he became friends with them, and was almost like family to many of them.

A school guide becomes an icon

Wide interests

When Palaniappa Chettiar was 65, he lost his vision due to macular degeneration, a big blow for a book lover. But he continued to come to office. He met authors, took administrative decisions, dictated letters, and was there in his seat until August 31, 2005. He died the next day. Palaniappa Chettiar had studied only up to SSLC, but was a quick learner, and had a wide variety of interests. He entered the building industry. When he built Kannammai building on Mount Road (at that time the second tallest building in Mount Road), he incorporated many innovative ideas like a seven-foot-high projection all around, to keep rain water off the walls. He also entered manufacturing, establishing Asian Bearings in Hosur.

The company faced many setbacks. Uninterrupted power supply promised by the Government became just an hour of supply a day! “I began working in Asian Bearings, but when that didn’t do well, I came to Palaniappa,” says Chellappan, an engineer with a management degree. His interest in technology came in handy, when technology entered the field of publishing in a big way.

In 1986, when Palaniappa Chettiar wanted to do phototypesetting, Chellappan suggested that DTP would be more cost effective. And that’s when Chellappan came up against problems in the font. So he studied font technology and created a font that took care of the problems. And his experience with fonts, made it possible for him to make a presentation at the conference on ‘Tamil IT’ organised by the Tamil Nadu Government in 1999. One of the purposes of the conference was standardisation of encoding schemes.

Chellapan pointed to the difficulties in using the eight-bit standard of the Tamil Nadu Government, the 16-bit ISCII standard proposed by the Central Government and the TISCII scheme that some people had come up with. He argued that any standard must answer to the needs of the publishing industry. ISCII was unsuitable because it was a one-size-fits-all scheme. What worked for other languages wouldn’t necessarily work for Tamil. In Tamil, we add a hook like sign to ‘ka’ to make it ‘ki.’ ISCII saw the hook sign as a character. But in Tamil, while ‘ki’ is a character, the hook is not. Chellapan argued that there should be slots for all letters — uyir, mei and uyri-mei.

A school guide becomes an icon

“We then proposed a standard called TACE (Tamil all character encoding). It is an unambiguous 16-bit encoding scheme for Tamil. But consensus was elusive. When finally the Central Government and State Government made a representation to the UNICODE consortium, no more slots were available. But UNICODE has some private use areas, which can be used by groups of people with an understanding. So TACE was proposed for this, and the Tamil Nadu Government approved. The government said that wherever possible UNICODE could be used, and where the software didn’t allow that, TACE could be the alternative. At Palaniappa brothers, we use TACE. Authors may send in their work in Tamil UNICODE. But we convert that to TACE and publish,” says Chellappan, who was also President of the Kani Tamil Sangam.

The small shop in Tiruchi, where Palaniappa Chettiar sold stationery continues to do the same business. Palaniappa Chettiar’s 88-year-old brother who lives in Tiruchi, his sons and the sons of Palaniappa Chettiar are partners in the publishing house. “I am due to retire shortly,” says Chellappan. Is the next generation interested in continuing the business? “One of my sons is a software engineer. The other is likely to settle abroad. I don’t know to whom the mantle will pass. Only time will tell.”

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 10:12:07 PM |

Next Story