Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Tribute to Dr.V.Sunderrajan

Remarkable Journey of a Remarkable Person

Dr. Sundararajan – ‘Pichai’ to all of us is no more! When I got the news from Narasimhan, his brother-in-law, two days ago, I couldn’t believe it! Because he was with me just a couple of weeks ago, transiting through Chennai after business trip to Sudan

I first met Pichai when I visited Ayyampettai at the age of 14. He was three years younger to me and looked a typical village boy. Wearing a dhoti and a half slack with a small tuft on his head!

He was quite playful and I enjoyed the couple of hours I spent in his company. The years passed by. Against several odds he went on to complete his M.Sc Statistics from the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta and got a job with the Planning Commission in Delhi. While there, he met Mr. Rangarajan, the former governor of RBI and Andhra Pradesh. With Mr.Rangarajan’s mentorship and encouragement, Pichai applied to Harvard. He got admitted to Harvard with a fellowship, for a doctorate degree in Econometrics (a relatively new field then).

The next time I met him was in Bombay, from where he was flying to USA for further studies. His father, Venkata (periappa to us), had asked us to extend whatever help he wanted. I took him to my tailor in Bombay and got a mandatory suit stitched and got him some foreign exchange (which was a very rare commodity those days) for his out of pocket expenses until he reached his campus. I still have the photograph of Pichai with me and my father taken at the Santacruz airport where we had gone to see him off.

He successfully completed his Ph.D. and got a job with New York University as an Asst. Professor. I think it was during his stint at the University that he got married to Kalyani and set up a home in New York. Within a couple of years, encouraged by Kalyani, he responded to an advt. from International Monetary Fund (IMF) inviting applications for the post of Management Trainees. He was one of six people selected out of thousands of applications received from the world over. A remarkable feat for the young boy from Ayyampettai to reach the hallowed portals of not only Harvard (which is a dream for many bright youngsters in the world) but also the IMF, a world financial body which was not only advising but also controlling the fortunes of many countries of the world.

The rest, as they say is history.

He worked very hard. He traveled extensively almost 20 days a month as a part of a Mission or later as a leader of the Mission advising governments and Apex Banks of various countries regarding money management. He was hobnobbing with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Finance Ministers and Governors of the Apex Banks. It looked as if he was forever traveling or busy preparing reports based on his visits. He seemed to enjoy whatever he was doing and impressed his bosses so much that he was steadily progressing in the IMF eventually to reach the position of Deputy Director (one of only six posts) in charge of some countries. While he was in the IMF, the Government of India approached him with the offer of Deputy Governorship of RBI which he refused as he did not want to uproot his well settled family in the USA.

He took voluntary retirement from the IMF at the age of 58. Instead of using the opportunity to take a break from the hectic life he was leading, he decided to continue to challenge himself and float a consultancy firm along with a few friends to leverage his reputation, experience and knowledge as a specialist in Islamic Banking. A Tamil Brahmin, and a vegetarian to boot, hobnobbing with Sheiks and Sultans of the Arab World looked incongruous. But the fact is that they valued his expertise and were constantly seeking his consultation. The result was that his life became even more hectic. He was really pushing the limits of his physical endurance without taking adequate care of his failing health – resulting in his untimely death in Sudan, where he had gone to attend a series of meetings with Sudanese government officials. As I am writing this piece (14th April), his body is yet to arrive at Washington for the final rites and cremation. To think that his body is lying in the cool box in a strange country unattended, waiting for the system to transport him on his last journey, is quite disturbing.

While he was very busy building his career at the IMF, his wife Kalyani, a girl from Triplicane in Chennai, stood like a rock by his side looking after their home and bringing up his two wonderful kids Prashant and Kripa. The Pichais recently got the greatest promotion that any parent can aspire for - grandparenthood. Through Prashanth they were blessed with two grandchildren (twins- a boy and a girl). During his recent trip to Chennai Pichai was sorry that he was not spending enough time with his grandchildren and promised to rectify the situation when he gets back home! Alas! It was not to be!

I have always admired Kalyani’s tenacity and determination in ensuring that her children, born and brought up in USA, never forgot the Indian values. The couple`s frequent visits to India with their children was a part of the strategy to help the children keep connected to their family roots. Besides, like many NRI parents Kalyani was very busy, (in addition to a teaching job she had in a public school) escorting the children to all types of classes teaching Indian values. While Prashant became proficient in violin, Kripa learned to master Carnatic music. One must listen to Kripa performing a kutcheri in carnatic music – a girl who can’t speak Tamil without American accent, singing the beautiful compositions of the Masters with perfect pronunciations. Without Kalyani’s total support and commitment, Kripa could not have done what she did. Pichai was lucky to have a wife who managed the household beautifully during his long absences on official work.

I first visited Pichai in his modest home in Washington in 1980 on my way back from Stockholm where I had gone to attend a Woco Conference as a Round Tabler. Prashant was a very naughty 4 year old boy and Kripa was a little baby. The second visit was in 1988 along with Prabha. By then they had moved to their beautiful house in Bethesda, a very upscale area in suburban Washington where the City`s famous residents lived. He was kind enough to send a ticket for Prabha using the mileage points he had accumulated through his several international trips. Since then I must have visited the Pichais six or seven times, always enjoying the wonderful hospitality of the couple.

What was remarkable about Pichai was that he never lost touch with his roots in India. He bought a spacious house in Tambaram, where his parents spent their last days in total comfort. He helped his two younger brothers to go to the US for further studies. His help was always available not only to his family members but also the family of Kalyani. The amount of physical running around he would do in trying to help people whenever he was in Chennai, was mind boggling! The amount of money and time he spent on his ailing younger brother Rangu in recent months is a case in point. Yet he would never complain. He made it all look like a routine, just another part of his responsibility to his family. He was like a banyan tree providing shelter to all those who came under his canopy. And all these he did without any fuss, with total involvement and commitment.

It is also amazing that even after more than 35 years in the USA he had no trace of the typical American accent that the youngsters of today flaunt within a couple of months of staying there. He had a unique style of speaking while talking one on one which he had the ability to transform into a very effective speaking style behind the microphone. I had the privilege of listening to him on a couple of occasions. His talk on Islamic Banking at our Rotary meeting in Chennai, two years ago, was a resounding success, so much so, that a columnist present wrote a special feature article on the subject in Hindu Business Line using the material provided by Pichai.

For all the great things he achieved in his professional life, he was humility personified. He was so humble that one wondered whether he was deliberately underplaying his importance. He was the first member of the `Remalla` family to become financially successful at a young age, however, he never was ostentatious.

While globe trotting around the world he was closely following happenings at home. He was quite crazy about watching Tamil serials on Sun TV. Whenever he visited our home in Chennai, he would quiz Prabha about what happened to so and so character in ‘Kolangal’ or ‘Anandham’. He had a childish enthusiasm for a lot of things in life. He was fond of adventure sports. He would take his family on outings which involved river water rafting, or bungee jumping etc. He was very fond of good food and was not averse to the cup that cheers! He was a great conversationalist actively participating in discussions on any subject, impressing people with his general knowledge on a wide variety of subjects.

In all the years that I knew him, he never bad mouthed or complained about anyone. He was a perfect gentleman. I had great admiration for Pichai as a wonderful human being.

Pichai’s sudden death is bound to create a huge vacuum in the lives of his near and dear ones who had taken his presence and his benevolence for granted. I am certainly going to miss him as a good friend more than as a cousin. May his soul rest in peace!

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