A Tribute to Dr. V Sunderarajan -AYYAMPATTAI to IMF by R.V Rajan

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Remarkable Journey of a Remarkable PersonChennai, 14th April, 2010By R V Rajan

Dr. Sunderarajan – ‘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 an official visit to some Arabian country.   

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 Indian Institute of Statistics in Calcutta and got a job with the Planning Commission in Delhi.  While there, he got friendly with Mr. Rangarajan,  his mentor and the former governor of RBI and Andhra Pradesh, who helped him get a fellowship to do his doctorate in Econometrics (a relatively new subject then) in Harvard University.

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 Phd. and got a job with the New York State 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, goaded by Kalyani, he responded to an advt. from International Monetary Fund (IMF) inviting applications for the post of Management Trainees.  He was one of the six people selected out of thousands of applications received from 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 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.  Travelled 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 Mnisters and Governors of the Apex Banks.  It looked as if he was for ever traveling or busy preparing reports based on his visits.  He seemed to enjoy whatever he was doing and impressing his bosses so much so that he was steadily progressing in IMF eventually to reach the position of Deputy Director (one of the six posts) in charge of some countries.  While he was in IMF, 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 USA.  

He took voluntary retirement from 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 join a consultancy firm started by a few friends gaining a reputation as a specialist in Islamic Banking. A TAMBRAHM and a vegetarian to boot hobnobbing with Sheiks and Sultans of the Arab World looked incongruous. But the fact is that the Arabs loved him and were constantly seeking his advice.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 reach 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 in 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 Prashant the couple was 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) escorting the children to all types of classes teaching Indian values. While Prashant became proficient in Violin, Kripa tried 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 3 or 4 years 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 upmarket 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 USA 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 , 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 USA he had no trace of the typical American accent that the youngsters of today flaunt within a couple of months of stay in USA.  He had a stuttering style of speaking while talking one on one but he transformed into a very effective speaker behind the mike. I had the privilege of listening to him on 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 a millionaire at a young age. However, he never flaunted his wealth, leading a comfortable but not an ostentatious life. 

While globe trotting around the world he was closely following the happenings at home.  He was quite crazy about watching Tamil serials on Sun TV.  Whenever he visited our home in Chennai,  he will quiz Prabha about what happened to so and so character in ‘Kolangal’ or ‘Anandham’.  He had 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!

2 Responses to “A Tribute to Dr. V Sunderarajan -AYYAMPATTAI to IMF by R.V Rajan”

  1. Murali Says:

    I first met Pitchai mama in Washington @ Raju’s home. I knew that he was a very well accomplished and kind of an icon in the family. However I was completely surprised by his humbleness and he was very jovial. We were watching and discussing about the presidential debate between President Bush and John Kerry. He was very interesting and entertaining. I wondered how unassuming he was.

    Thanks to Vardha mama for this post. I learnt a lot about Pitchai mama and his achievements.

  2. raman Says:

    Dr Sundararajan for us Pitchai is no longer amids us ,the dutiful son of Shri venkatrama iyengar ,the person who carried out his wishes to the letter till the last,is no longer with us
    Pitchai inherited the Remella family virtues totally, the humility ,the child like enthu. he will show even in the trivial achivements of others ,the respect for elders,in spite of wide disparity in status,intelligence,erudition,etc. his ability to move freely with out causing umbrage to the othe person is some thing to be emulated by the yonger generation

    raman

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