It is given to very few people to live up to a hundred. P. Sabanayagam, retired IAS officer, distinguished civil servant and former Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu, is one such. Until a couple of years back he was a familiar sight in the area near his residence, where, with an attendant, a couple of dogs and short baton-like stick, he walked each morning. To those who greeted him he was affability personified. Very few would guess that he had extended the same courtesies once to the high and mighty of the land.
It has been a life of very interesting twists and turns. Born on June 7, 1922, his date of birth at school admission was given as August 15, that being the date of enrolment. Ewart School, Purasawalkam, where he was admitted, allowed boys to study there only till Class IV but his father felt that the boy was of a slight constitution and so requested that the institution allow him to study there for one more year. His father kept renewing the request each year and so he completed his Class X in the same school, being the only boy to ever graduate from Ewart’s! He completed his BA at the Madras Christian College.
The boy who studied throughout in a girl’s school aspired for an Army career. He applied for a Temporary Officer’s Commission in 1943 and was rejected as his chest measurement fell short by an inch. A three-month workout regimen corrected that, and he was selected. Second Lieutenant P. Sabanayagam soon moved up to Lieutenant and Captain and was earmarked for Regular Commission in the Army but his father insisted on his applying for the civil services and so he quit.
It was the eve of Indian Independence and the old steel frame of the Raj — the Imperial (later Indian) Civil Service — was being succeeded by the Indian Administrative Service. Mr. Sabanayagam’s first assignment was indicative of the times — handling the influx of refugees in Delhi. He was later assigned to Madras State but here too there was no gradual induction into administration. The famed WC Morris ‘Gounder’ ICS, (an Englishman who got that caste epithet given his familiarity with the Coimbatore region) merely gave him the rule books and asked him to get on with it. Mr. Sabanayagam learnt quickly. He and other officers of his time had not only to learn the ropes themselves but also be guides to Ministers, who too were new to their jobs. He was noticed and in 1952 became Private Secretary to the then Chief Minister – Rajaji.
A stellar career in the IAS followed, culminating in his being Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu from 1971 to 1976 after which he served at the Centre. From Rajaji to MGR, he had worked with all of the State’s redoubtable CMs. Among all his assignments, Mr. Sabanayagam perhaps cherished most being Industries Secretary, Madras, during the time R. Venkataraman and K. Kamaraj were making the State a destination for manufacturing. His other great contribution was the popularisation of Indian handlooms in the U.S., for which he literary walked from store to store in that country, lugging samples. It was while on that assignment that he noticed Madras Checks, which had put the city on the world map in the 17th century, was in danger of being copied and branded by American firms. A quiet word with leading lawyer Arthur Greenbaum led to a case being filed in the U.S., for which no legal fees were charged. Madras Checks came to be protected under the Patent Law in the 1960s.
Perhaps given his Army background, Mr. Sabanayagam was known for being tough when it came to pressures from interested quarters. For instance, he insisted that the accused in the Muster Roll scandal of the Corporation of Madras be brought to book, with momentous consequences for the city. And when he was passed up for the post of Cabinet Secretary, Government of India, he refused sops and preferred to retire.
But he did not hang up his boots; he turned industrialist. It is that energy perhaps that still keeps him going.
(The writer is an author and historian)