Shri K Subramanian - A Tribute by Prof V Suryanarayan
When, on the afternoon of Monday, August 28, 2023, Smt. Satyabhama telephoned about the tragic demise of Shri Subramanian I was shocked. The earlier evening I had met him and talked to him. He was lying down; he had become virtually skin and bone. But his mind was alert. We talked about what he should write when he would be in a position to use the computer. But destiny willed otherwise. He was snatched away by the cruel hands of fate.
As I was reflecting on the irreparable loss caused by my good friend’s death, the famous lines of John Donne came to my mind: “Death, be not proud, though some called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so…one short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more, Death, thou shall die”.
Subramanian was known by different names. In official circles, he was Subramanian, to those who were close to him he was either Mani or Subbu.
Subbu hailed from a middle-class family in Coimbatore. His father, Kandaswamy was a teacher in Union High School. He was a great teacher and inspired several students, who rose very high in life. One among them lives in Adyar, Shri Doraiswamy, IAS (retd.) who belonged to the Andhra Pradesh cadre.
Kandaswamy’s family was very large, 10 children, one less than a cricket team. It used to be said in those days that only recreation was procreation. Subbu used to say occasionally that once he was settled in life, the major portion of his income used to be spent on the upkeep of the family
Subbu had his early education in Coimbatore. After passing the Intermediate examination he moved over to Chennai where he joined the Vivekananda College for Economics Hons. Reminiscing he used to fondly remember that he used to walk from Vivekananda College to Madras University in Chepauk and save one anna. He used to read a lot, he also started writing in English as well as in Tamil. His first article appeared in the Ananda VIkatan for which he was paid an honorarium of five annas. His first book in Tamil- Verum Veedum - was published by Lakshmi Krishnamurthy, who had started a publishing firm. Subbu used to move in literary circles. His good friends were Janaki Raman and Indira Parthasarathy In and later Dr. CS Lakshmi (Ambai). In Madras, after retirement, Subbu was very active in the Madras Book Club and Tamil Literary Associations.
I came to know Subbu in 1964 when I was a Research Scholar at the Indian School of International Studies located in Sapru House. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses was also located in Sapru House. K Subramanyam was Satyabhama’s colleague in IAS and Subbu was his good friend. Subramanyam offered a good job to Subbu in IDSA, but he did not avail of it. He also wanted to Join ISIS as a part-time scholar and work on his Ph.D. He took the entrance examination, appeared for the interview, and was selected for West Asian Studies. But he did not join the School because he developed a poor opinion about some teachers who were very pompous and self-righteous.
Down memory lane, my association with Subbu in various places and on several occasions rushed through my mind. He was more happy chatting with some of us on the Sapru House lawns. He used to assist all of us in getting foreign exchange so that we could go for our fieldwork abroad. His passion was walking, even during midday, and he used to walk from North Bloc to Sapru House.
Subbu had a long stint in the Department of Economic Affairs and was thorough with all aspects of Indian economic diplomacy. He was the confidante of every Secretary in the Ministry, be it BM Kaul, IG Patel, Man Mohan Singh, or R M Malhotra. Subbu had only one passion, helping the country move forward. An interesting incident is worth narration.
The famous film star Raj Kapoor was sanctioned foreign exchange so that he could shoot abroad for his film Sangam in which Vyjayanthimala was the heroine. Raj Kapoor was sanctioned foreign exchange on the assurance that within one year he would earn three times the foreign exchange that was sanctioned to him. There was some delay in the production of the film. Raj Kapoor came to New Delhi, checked into Oberoi, and telephoned Subramanian: “Subramanian, I am Raj Kapoor. Why don’t you join me in the evening for drinks?” Subramanyan responded: “I do not drink with all and sundry. If you want to see me for official work fix up an appointment and come to the office”. Raj Kapoor met Subbu and explained the position. Subbu stood firm and did not grant any extension. Raj Kapoor went to Finance Minister Morarji Desai and complained against Subbu. Morarji told Raj Kapoor: “ If Subramanian has said no, it must be with valid reason”. Raj Kapoor then went to the notorious foreign exchange smuggler Haji Mastan who gave him the necessary foreign exchange. Those of you who have seen the film must have seen the acknowledgment: “Financed by Haji Mastan”.
Our association suffered some setbacks when after getting PhD I joined Marathwada University, Aurangabad, and then moved over to North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. I joined Madras University in 1977 and our friendship resumed. Within a couple of days after moving over to Chennai, post-retirement, Subbu came to my cabin at Madras University. He was overjoyed when I requested him to teach International Economics to M Phil students. He used to prepare very well for the classes and in simple English used to explain to the students the intricacies of international Economics. He was entitled to an honorarium of RS 3000/- per month; he did not want to take it; but I requested him to take it, buy books and gift them to the Departmental Library.
Subbu used to regularly participate in Departmental seminars. Chennai was home to several distinguished people from various walks of life. Our seminars used to be participated by Ambassador Thomas Abraham, Ambassador KPS Menom, former Law Secretary Venkatasubramanyam, MK Narayanan, B. Raman, Jose Tharayil, Radha Vinod Raju, Colonel Hariharan, and N Ram. The deliberations of the Seminars made their impact on the policies of the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Government of India. When MK Narayanan became the National Security Advisor, I was nominated to the National Security Advisory Board, I was the first academician from South India to be a member of the NSAB.
I retired from the University of Madras in 1999. After retirement, I was invited by several Universities to be a member of the faculty. I was the first Professor for Maritime Studies in the University of Calicut, a Chair Instituted by the Naval Headquarters. I was the first Nelson Mandela Professor for Third World Studies at the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam; I was the first SAARC Professor for International Relations at the Peradeniya University, Sri Lanka. In all these Universities I involved Subbu in the teaching and research programmes and the students and research scholars immensely benefitted from their association with him.
It is very difficult to think of Subbu without Satyabhama. Like Subbu, Satyabhama also came from a middle-class family. For many years she supported the family to make both ends meet. Subbu and Bhama knew each other from their college days and In Delhi they became more close. Subbu wooed Bhama for many months before she agreed to marry him. The marriage was a simple affair, a registered marriage.
Subbu and Bhama were very close to several distinguished civil servants who shared the same ideas and ideals. Through Subbu, I came to know SR Sankaran, IAS of the Andhra Pradesh cadre, who was and continues to be a legend in Andhra Pradesh for dedicated public service for the betterment of the under-privileged. Sankaran declined the Padma VIbushan offered by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Subbu again introduced me to Shri P S Krishnan who was Secretary to the Mandal Commission. Krishnan had done yeoman service for the upliftment of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. I invited them to a few seminars that I organized while I was Professor at Madras University.
Subbu has left a deep void in my life. The famous lines of Robert G. Ingersoll, those lines which came to me with added poignancy on the morrow of my father’s death, are worth quoting: “The record of a generous life runs like a vine around the memory of our dead and every sweet, unselfish act is now a perfumed flower. Neither written word nor speech can express our love. There was no gentler, stronger, manlier man”.