(A Tribute to K.M.Natarajan, to be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine, for which he was the editor. Translated from the Tamil essay written for the Tamil edition, சர்வோதயம் மலர்கிறது.)
In the year 2012, when I heard that the ‘Gandhi Katha’ lectures by Narayan Desai were to be held in Madurai, I went there immediately from Chennai. Narayan Desai was the son of Mahadev Desai, Mahatma Gandhi’s beloved secretary. He had recorded his experiences of growing up under the eyes of Gandhi. Hence, I was intent on attending that event. I met K.M.Natarajan for the first time there. He was the person who had organized the five day story telling series. I sought permission from him for conducting an interview with Narayan Desai. But I had not then known anything about Natarajan, who was fondly called by his acquaintances as KMN Annachi. I did not know at that time about how a beautiful long relationship was about to commence. The interview first appeared on the Gandhi-Today website. Later, my friends, Suneel Krishnan and Rattai Raghu, had met Natarajan with a copy of the interview; he immediately published it in print form in English and Tamil. It was then that my association with him began formally. In a way, this experience gave me an understanding of the kind of person he was. I realized he would never let go of a chance to integrate Gandhian enthusiasts into the Sarvodaya movement. I also knew he would actively pursue every opportunity to do Gandhian work. Narayan Desai’s talks were originally planned by the organisers of the Kudankulam anti-nuclear protests. But when the situation there deteriorated and the plan had to be shelved, Natarajan seized the opportunity and moved the programme to Madurai Gandhi Museum at short notice. In many ways, the contacts that I made during this event and the resultant experiences overturned my life and changed its direction. During this productive overhaul, Natarajan remained a constant supporter and mentor for me. He further invited me to take part in the Sarvodaya Day celebrations held in memory of Jegannathan. I met the family of Krishnammal Jegannathan there and her extended family of Gandhian workers from across the world. This gave further inspiration to pursue our new way of life. In his long social life, spanning over seven decades, there must be countless such incidents which each of us could recollect.
K.M.Natarajan was a great social activist and also an erudite scholar. We failed to introduce him well enough to the world outside the Gandhian fraternity and celebrate him sufficiently. But he was at the forefront of transporting Gandhi and Gandhian thoughts to the many generations who came after the death of Gandhi.
It was a rare achievement to preside over many Sarvodaya organisations and be the editor of three different magazines. He was doing these roles unrelentingly till his death at the age of 88. It showed his fervent attachment to Gandhian thoughts, his firm belief that his work was not over even after leading a long fruitful life, and his confidence that he continued to have something more to offer to the welfare of the world.
He had an undiminished interest in bringing new people into the Sarvodaya fold. Once anybody came under his touch, he would grasp them firmly with his loving hands. He remaining in touch with everyone he knew. I realized it during the meetings held to pay tributes to him. Almost everyone spoke of a recent phone call with him and the special affection he had for them. He made everyone feel they had an essential role to play.
I too think I had a special and unique relationship with him. Over the last few years, not a week went by with an hour-long telephonic discussion with him. He was twice my age and had many times my experience. Yet he moved with me as an equal and a friend. In recent times, there is no one else who has spoken more with me than him. My wife even felt slightly envious about this. During the last year of lockdown, he was very particular about helping me keep my spirits high. He asked if I have Kabasurakudineer (a Siddha medicine for Covid), and when I said no, he sent it along with other preventive medicines from Madurai to my vilage.
Natarajan took me along for various events. He made me record my experiences. He introduced me to various people who came to those events. He used to rue that I was not in Madurai and could not do more work with him. If I tell him about any book I read, he would immediately urge me to write an essay on it and publish it.
He told my wife that she translated better than me and encouraged her to write. He made her do live translation of others’ speeches. He had great love for our daughter too. Whenever she sang a song he knew, he would immediately tell her about his connections to the song.
Two years ago, I had introduced writer Paavannan to him. Later Natarajan was instrumental in getting Paavannan to write a series of essays on various unsung Gandhians. He arranged relevant books and contacts. Whenever he spoke to me, he would thank me for introducing Paavannan to him. Similarly, he kept saying we should continue to get essays from other mutual friends like Chithra Balasubramanian or Balasubramanium Muthusamy.
If I got distracted by other activities and delayed the completion of an essay which I had committed to write, he would gently and patiently remind me of it without ever sounding irked. He had a talent for identifying good books. When I told him about the book, Revolutionary Gandhi by Pannalal Dasgupta, he immediately ordered it from Kolkatta and sent it to me. I had deferred writing an introduction to the book for a long time. He ceaselessly urged me to write about the book. The book was written about Gandhi from a Marxist perspective and hence he thought it to be important. Later, when Dr.Jeeva read my essay and expressed his interest in reading the book, he got another copy for him. He published my long essay in Tamil on Tolstoy, splitting it across many issues. When he realized that The Kingdom of God is Within You, which was the basis was that essay, had not yet been translated into Tamil, he requested Dr.Jeeva to take it up. Dr.Jeeva apparently asked his sister, who knew Russian, to translate the book. When KMN came to know of Dr.Jeeva’s death, he felt shattered. He asked me to compile all the tributes written on Dr.Jeeva. He published some of them and paid a great tribute to him through his magazines. Today KMN Annachi is also no more with us.
While he was appreciative of my style of writing in English, he was a bit critical of my Tamil style. He found it to be too flowery and scholarly. He impressed on me that I should write in a simple language and ensure it is understood by all readers. Yet he continued to publish my essays without too many changes.
He used to say he didn’t have much time to indulge in literature since he was too involved in social activities. Though he felt attracted by Tamil writers like Jayakanthan, he said he was repelled by his views on drinking. He was of the opinion that literary writers should be righteous as well. Though he did not read literature to his satisfaction, he was well versed in both Tamil and English. He was adept at expressing his opinions, whether verbally or in writing, in a simple, clear and interesting manner.
He had something unique to say about everyone. He had personal experiences with Kumarappa, Vinoba, JP, Keithan, Jegannathan, Kamaraj, Kakkan and others. He had the opportunity to interact with scholars like Ivan Illich, E.F.Schumacher, Mark Lindley, Ramachandra Guha and others at various points of time. He had friendly relations with those who held opposing views too. N.Dharmarajan and S.N.Nagarajan, both with Communist affiliations, were his close friends.
Though Natarajan was a leading figure in the Sarvodaya movement, he never promoted himself. During private conversations and public speeches, he always shared countless experiences. But during such sharing, only the personality and achievements of others were highlighted and never his own contributions. When the Sarvodaya-Jegannathan Award was presented to him this year, he accepted it with shyness, since he was usually the deciding authority for choosing the awardees. However, he considered it to be a honour to be accepting the award in the name of his mentor, Jegannathan. I had written in detail about the speech he delivered on that day. He immediately called me up and asked, “Why do you to write so much about what I spoke?” He was clearly moved.
Natarajan was a great repository of the history of the past 70 years. He was a witness to its unfolding and he played an active part in it. We did not record his experiences and memories fully and it will remain one of our failings. Whenever I asked him for a time when I can do a long interview with him, he always asked, what was hurry, and directed me to do some other work. My wish to be with him for a few days and record all that he had to say has remained unfulfilled.
Recently, in a meeting with friends from foreign countries, Krishnammal Jegannathan spoke in memory of KNM Annachi. She was in tears throughout that meeting. More than any words, those tears bore witness to their long association and his indispensability to their activities. Though my acquaintance with him is much shorter, I feel the same emptiness that she seems to feel. The vacuum he has left behind in the Sarvodaya Movement is not easy to fill.
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A tribute to unsung Sarvodaya activist K.M.Natarajan