By Aparna Jacob
S. Ramakrishnan, Director General of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, recipient of this year‘s Gandhi Peace Prize, spoke to Life Positive a week before his demise
His heart was drumming in his ears as he squinted at the bright afternoon sun. The world seemed unfamiliar in the daylight.
He was a child of the night, like the bats and the moths, used to prowling the deserted streets after dark, stopping outside gates to collect the food dropped into his cracked earthen bowl, left there the previous night. He was a nayadi, an unseeable.
It was forbidden for them to emerge before sunset. When dusk fell, they could stand outside courtyards and wait for food. His eyes scanned the empty roads but kept to the undergrowth on the sides.
The rumbling in his stomach sounded loud and he couldn‘t decide if he felt faint from hunger or fear.
‘‘Aye, Nayadi!‘‘ screeched a high-caste voice. He had been spotted. A seven-year-old Brahmin boy watched as the frail dark man was dragged to the temple and stoned by high caste people in the name of God. The boy‘s mind was still swarming with Mahatma Gandhi‘s calls for social reform.
Only recently were the ‘temple-entry‘ satyagrahas organised by ‘Kerala Gandhi‘ K. Kelappan at the famed Vaikom and Guruvayur temples. It was 1929 and purging social evils and breaking barriers of the mind topped the national agenda.
‘‘Remember you are an Indian first, last and always,‘‘ Bapu had said.
Inspired, the youngster eliminated the ‘T‘ that stood for Trichur from his name. He was now S. Ramakrishnan, an avowed Gandhian.
‘‘Gandhi believed that blood is red irrespective of religion or caste. Our Vedas say the world is one family. So why limit yourself to one small patch?‘‘ Ramakrishnan was fond of saying.
Ramakrishnan had come to Bombay in 1938 and worked as secretary at Larsen and Toubro. Those were the days when Gandhi had called for individual satyagraha and the young man was immediately sucked into the vortex of the freedom struggle.
He got actively involved in the Mahatma‘s constructive programmes, directed at harnessing the constructive energy of the people. He also initiated a Khadi club and a Charkha club.
‘‘We would operate from Matunga where I lived with my uncle,‘‘ he reminisced.
‘‘After buying khadi on credit from Vitthaldas Jerajani‘s outlet in Kalbadevi, we‘d go from flat to flat selling it, carrying it in my niece‘s perambulator.‘‘ Enthusiasts would convene at the Charkha club each weekend and spin khadi for 72 hours.
‘‘On Gandhiji‘s 72nd birthday we spun 72 yards of khadi and gifted it to him,‘‘ recalled Ramakrishnan who, continued to awaken the youth of India to the Gandhian message peace and harmony.
He was detained during the Quit India Movement of 1942, and was incarcerated in the Yerwada central jail, Pune, for 11 months. Yerwada was where Gandhi began his weekly Harijan.
‘‘He called it Yerwada mandir, to remove people‘s fear of going to jail,‘‘ laughed Ramakrishnan.
When Gandhi was released, Ramakrishnan offered him his services to handle the copious correspondence.
‘‘Bapu thoughtfully pointed out that I had filial responsibilities, supporting a widowed mother and three brothers. He said it was only practical that I should keep my job with L&T.‘‘
Ramakrishnan was also secretary to Sardar Patel, who he reveals ‘‘had a mother‘s heart‘‘.
Post-Independence, he continued full-time, staying with Patel in his official home minister‘s residence in Delhi. After 1947, he was offered a job with the Government, but he declined and returned to Bombay.
With the permission of Sardar Patel, he joined K.M. Munshi at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. But his association with the Bhavan dates further back. ‘‘It was founded on November 7, 1938,‘‘ recollects Ramakrishanan.
‘‘Then it was a little room in Khalsa College, Matunga. The Bhavan was started because Gandhiji felt that swaraj (self-rule) without sanskriti (culture) is like a garland of roses in the hands of a monkey. Spreading knowledge of Sanskrit was our principal focus then. We gradually progressed to addressing, as Jawarharlal Nehru put it, ‘all aspects of a man‘s life from the cradle to the grave and beyond‘ and continue to do so.‘‘
Under Ramakrishnan‘s able stewardship of half a century, the Bhavan bloomed into a worldwide cultural organisation. He was the founder-editor of Bhavan‘s Journal and the general editor of Bhavan‘s Book University, which has over 1,600 titles to its credit.
The Sarva Dharma Maitri Pratishthan or the Inter-Faith Harmony Foundation was the brainchild of his passion for national integration and communal harmony.
‘‘Ramakrishnan had been a constant presence since the inception of the Bhavan. Munshiji conceived and Ramakrishnan implemented,‘‘ observes H.N. Dastur, Deputy Executive Secretary and Director of the Bhavan.
‘‘He worked long hours. He was remarkably humble and his impeccable manners and politeness warmed your heart.‘‘
‘‘I‘m only the Bhavan‘s servant,‘‘ Ramakrishnan often claimed endorsing the Bhavan‘s motto of ‘Aa no bhadraah kratavo yantu vishwatah‘—‘‘Let noble thoughts come to us from every side‘‘.
For his outstanding work, Ramakrishnan received the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Bhushan in 2001. Most Bhavan members credit the Gandhi Peace Prize conferred on the Bhavan to Ramakrishnan‘s tremendous vision and tender guidance, qualities that will now be sorely missed.
But what will endure like lingering fragrance is fond thoughts of this gentle Gandhian, inimitable, simple and greatly treasured by Bhavan members.
Contact: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai,
Ph: (022) 23631261/23634462/ 63/64,
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