Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.

-Jesse Jackson (b 1941), American Civil Rights Activist

In this twenty first century, inclusiveness, diversity and belonging in the workplace have become essential parts of a ubiquitous, ever-present ideology for organizations. As one author had said, ‘being politically correct is about looking good to others. Being inclusive is about being good.’  I learnt inclusivity in my younger years through many deeds of B.R. Sunderaj Iyengar, husband of Sarojammal (1922-98), my mother’s immediate elder sister.

Belakavadi Ramanujam Sunderaj Iyengar (1908-1981) was the youngest of the four children (two daughters and two sons) of B.S.Ramanujam Iyengar and Seshamma who were residents of Belakavadi, a village situated on the left bank of river Cauvery, about forty miles from Mysore. Ramanujam Iyengar’s maternal aunt Kalyanammal was married to Narasimha Tatachar who had inherited lot of lands in Madavadi, a nearby village to Belakavadi (< three Kilometres). Kalyanammal was widowed at a young age and did not have children. Hence, she adopted her younger sister Soundaramma’s son Ramanujam. Due to village politics Kalyanammal got into several litigations that went on for a few years and as an outcome lost most of family assets. In her old age (sometime during 1930s) she was left with debt of Rs.24,000 and a few acres of uncultivable dry lands. By this time Ramanujam had also passed away. While being on the deathbed, Kalyanammal requested Ramanujam’s two sons – Seshadri and Sunderaj to uphold family’s dignity by clearing the debts and recovering the lost assets.

Belakavadi periappa (as I used to call him) had to undergo lot of hardship right through his teens until he got into his late thirties. Having completed Intermediate (twelfth standard of today), he worked as a teacher as well as took care of the lands. During the Second World War time he managed to sell paddy to the neighbouring region, then coming under Madras Presidency at a higher price than the local market and in those three years of war, he not only cleared all the debts, but started improving yield from the land that they owned. He donated portion of the land to the farmers who worked for him to build their homes and even established a Co-operative Society for all the farmers of that region to get seeds and later fertilizers at an affordable cost.

Though periappa got married in 1934, the couple did not have a child for a very long time. As per astrologer’s advice, he performed Naga Prathishta[1] in Sathyagalam[2], a nearby village which is well known for its Varadarajar Swamy temple of which he was a trustee. Subsequently the couple had six children – four daughters and two sons. Even today, periappa’s elder son Shelvanarayanan (b.1953) is managing the temple at Sathyakalam as one of the trustees.

Immediately after the birth of the first child – a daughter in 1952, periappa started developing a plan to construct a house in Belakavadi and initiated the project in 1953 by which time the second child – a son, was born. As the house got completed in 1955, my aunt delivered the third child, a daughter again!

Even in the 1960s, Belakavadi had only a Primary school and hence, periappa sent his eldest daughter for Higher Primary and High school education to Tumkur where his sister-in-law (elder sister of Sarojammal) was living and his son to Bangalore where his two sisters were living. Every year he used to personally carry rice, groundnuts and mangos depending on the season not only to Tumkur, but to Bangalore also where two of his sisters and another sister-in-law (my mother) were living.

Having understood that other families living in Belakavadi cannot afford to send their children outside for Higher Primary / High school education like him, periappa ensured that the government Primary school was progressively developed up to high school. Subsequently rest of his four children had their high school education in Belakavadi itself like other families. Apart from his own children, some of his sisters’ children, his brother Seshadri’s nephews and nieces from his wife side also studied in Belakavadi residing in their uncles’ home!

During one of his visits to my house in January 1971 periappa proposed his cousin’s son who was then working in Bangalore for marriage to my elder sister, who was employed in a bank. Though my sister was of marriageable age, my father was financially unprepared at that time and did not know how to take the proposal forward. Periappa convinced my parents that he’d take the responsibility and arranged for the betrothal ceremony sometime during February. Just a day before the function, he handed over Rs.2,000 (it may be something like Rs.2,00,000 in today’s context) to my father and told him to return it at his convenience.

The marriage that was fixed for June 1971 had to be advanced to April itself, as mother of the bridegroom had heart attack and her younger sister wanted the marriage to be performed at the earliest. It was difficult to find a suitable marriage hall in a short time. Hence, it was decided to perform the marriage in our house itself. Again periappa came to the rescue of my father by providing the essential silver items and rice! I was told that he had supported marriage of a maternal cousin of mine in 1967, which was also performed in our house. Thus, whenever there was a need, periappa provided great support not only to his siblings’ families, but also families of his wife’s siblings and many more.

Periappa had told his sons that though they were well qualified to get decent jobs, they should focus on farming and take care of the families which were dependent only on land, and they ultimately did that. While elder son focussed on farming and managing the temple, the younger son established a medical shop in Belakavadi apart from helping his brother.

In one of our recent conversations, my cousin Shelvaranyanan was mentioning about an incidence that happened during 2019; a few villagers from a nearby village requested him to share a photograph of his parents for the purpose of displaying in the school that they had recently constructed, as periappa had long before donated three acres of land for building a school. No one in the family had known about this. It took very long time for the villagers to raise enough funds to complete the project. My cousins (sons of periappa) were ofcourse invited for the inaugural function of the school, which they proudly attended.

It may be difficult for me to find another person like B.R. Sunderaj Iyengar within my circle of relatives who had touched so many lives, not just by giving moral support and time to make them feel inclusive, but also shared his resources without expecting anything in return.

[1] Process of establishing carved Naga (cobra) stone around banyan tree.

[2] Sathyagalam  is popular for the stay of the Sri Vaishnavite Guru Vedanta Desikan from the 14th century. The spiritual Guru came to Sathyagalam village to save special manuscripts such as the Sruti-prakasha, which is a commentary on the Sri Bhashya of Ramanuja from the Muslim invaders to Srirangam in the year 1327.


Janaury 14th, 2024 | Ravi 70