Remembering M.A.T.

I FIRST met Dr. M.A. Thangaraj (MAT) when I joined the faculty of the Madras Christian College as a tutor in English. He was the head of the department of Physics and the warden of St.Thomas's Hall. We came across each other every day in the staff tiffin room and exchanged pleasantries.

Dr. Gift Siromoney, the secretary of the staff association, had asked me to do a series of cartoons to put up on the board in the staff tiffin room. So almost every other day a new cartoon was there on the board. MAT enjoyed these very much, and never failed to comment on them appreciatively. Once when he was about to go to the US on a brief assignment, I did a cartoon, which showed Uncle Sam carrying MAT off with William Miller (founder of MCC) in hot pursuit.

MAT gazed at this for awhile, and then turned and asked me, "Who got me in the end?" "Miller will get you back in the end" said Prof. Bennett Albert who was standing nearby. After that MAT and some other professors like Dr. Sanjeeva Raj would exaggeratedly hide their faces when I came into the staff tiffin room, pretending to be scared of being caricatured, though they actually enjoyed seeing themselves in a cartoon.

When I was promoted as a lecturer, I was entitled to a flat. The best flat available was in St. Thomas's Hall on the top floor, overlooking the entrance. So I moved there and was one of the three assistant wardens.

On special occasions like Independence Day or Republic Day some basketball and volleyball matches would be arranged between a students' team and a staff team in each hall. I had taken part in these matches when I was a student in Bishop Heber Hall and later as a tutor in Selaiyur Hall. These matches were more like comic exercises, with the students deliberately giving away a few points to the staff and winning in the end after a lot of clowning. But not in St.Thomas's. MAT played these matches seriously. There was no lighthearted comic approach to the game. Everyone played as if his hearth and home depended on winning.

When he played tennis in the evenings also he always played to win. To MAT a game was neither exercise nor pastime, but a war to be won at any cost.

Sometimes, an intruder trying to steal things from the hall would be caught. And then MAT and I would interrogate the suspect. We devised a method for this, which seemed infallible. MAT would play the tough guy, blustering and threatening, and I would be the soft-hearted kindly interrogator. He would shout, yell and threaten, and then storm off into another room. And I would advise the suspect to come clean before the terror returned. This technique never failed. Later, we used this method a few times in American College, where he had become Principal and I had joined the Department of English as a lecturer. I must say we both enjoyed playing these roles. After the culprit had left, we would laugh over our performances, recalling the highlights.

Once when speaking at an informal meeting in American College MAT recalled his days in Toronto where he had gone to work for his Ph.D. He had to make a speech there on some occasion, and it seems one young lady there kept bombarding him with questions. "I couldn't stop her," said MAT. "So I married her." Mrs. Mary Thangaraj was a committed social worker. They had two sons. The younger, Suresh, was mentally challenged. Probably this prompted them to start `Anbagam,' an institution for mentally challenged children.

One day Dr. and Mrs Thangaraj called me to their house and asked me whether I could make a documentary film on `Anbagam.' I agreed, and started work on the script. I had to interview them both several times for the material of the film. And it came out in these interviews that they knew their child would be mentally challenged even before he was born. Mrs. Thangaraj had had German measles while pregnant, and the doctors had made it clear that the child would be mentally retarded, and so had recommended an abortion. But Mrs Thangaraj vehemently rejected the idea.

"If Suresh had not been born, we would never have thought of establishing `Anbagam.' Because of him so many other children have benefited. That must have been God's plan in giving us Suresh," the couple said.

I was touched. And the making of the documentary film was no longer a mere job, but an inspired effort to pay tribute to this remarkable couple. The film won second prize in an international competition.

Dr. Thangaraj passed away in 2003 at the age of 85.

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