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Mahatma's dear brother

V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, a close associate of the Mahatma was a teacher, legislator, ambassador and statesman. He was also among the five top orators of his time, handling the English language with dexterity

PHOTOS: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

DOWN MEMORY LANE V.S. Srinivasa Sastri (left) at the time of the Round Table Conference in London, 1930-31; Malabar Shorthand Writers Association Calicut held a public meeting at the Gokhale Hall. A portrait of K. Srinivasan, editor of The Hindu was unveiled by Srinivasa Sastri

Who isn't embarrassed when their grandparents pay them a surprise visit in school? Kausalya Ramaseshan was no exception. But even to this day she regrets having hid behind a pillar at school when her thatha came to see her.

A close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, V.S. Srinivasa Sastri was teacher, legislator, ambassador and statesman, famous for being one of the few Indians who did the English language proud. Of all the representatives of the Government of India, Sastri was considered the most eloquent, articulate and brilliant. In fact, he was considered one of the top five orators of the world.

"Now my only wish is that if there were a time machine that could take me back to the 1940s, I would just run out of the classroom and hug my grandfather, take him by the hand to my classroom and announce his arrival to them," smiles Kausalya Ramaseshan today.

Sastri was the disciple of Gokhale, along with Gandhiji. In fact Sastri and Gandhiji shared such a close bond they took pride in addressing each other as "Dear brother" in all their correspondence, says Kausalya with great pride.

Sastri was even born 10 days before Gandhiji, in the village of Valangaiman, near Kumbakonam. Starting his life as a teacher he became the headmaster of the Hindu High School, Triplicane. He gave the teaching community an organisation — the Madras Teachers Guild — to fight for its rights. He also founded the Triplicane Urban Co-operative Society, long before the Government thought of starting co-operative societies in the State. He was a prominent and influential member of the Government of India delegation to the first Round Table Conference between the governments of India and South Africa.


But what really struck people about his life was the fact that he gave up the profession he greatly loved to join the Servants of India Society started by Gokhale. He was appointed a member of that Society in 1907, and on Gokhale's death in 1915, became its President. He was actively involved and interested in the political arena in India and deeply concerned about the rights of Indians in the British Empire. "He was part of a generation that gave up all their earnings to the country as part of the Servants of India Society. The family was not well-to-do. He could have taken any job and made money. But he chose to remain poor. It's so sad that your generation hasn't even heard of him," says Kausalya, feeling rather distressed that a man who represented the country in so many forums and in so many countries hardly brings recall today.

As a member of the Indian National Congress, he was active in the campaign for Indian Home Rule, but withdrew from Congress when the Montagu Chelmsford reforms were published. With other moderates opposed to the tactics and strategy of Gandhi and the Congress, he helped to found the Indian Liberal Federation, of which he became President in 1922. In 1921, he went to England as a member of the moderate Deputation; was the Indian representative to the Imperial Conference; represented India at the League of Nations Assembly and at the Conference on the Limitations of Armaments in Washington. In the same year, he was the first Indian, apart from members of the Indian committee, to be made a Privy Counsellor and was given the freedom of London. In 1922, the Government of India sent him to Australia, New Zealand and Canada to look into the issues of Indians lawfully domiciled in those countries. "My grandfather was always travelling. I used to meet him during school vacation. He used to like coming to Bangalore to rest because he liked the weather here."

He used his language and eloquence to present India's case for self-government in the councils of Europe. The British Government conferred on him the highest honour with membership of his Majesty's Privy Council carrying with it the title "Right Honourable" for his services to the cause of world peace, disarmament, and democracy. So he is famous as the Right Honourable Srinivasa Sastri. The English, in fact were so captivated by his speeches and his musical voice that they also bestowed on him another moniker — "Silver-tongued Orator". Many of his lectures were published in The Hindu between 1908 and 1944. His speeches and writings have been published in a two-volume series also.

Remembers Kausalya: "I have a letter that he wrote to me in 1943. In one of them he wrote, `I trust you have a dictionary by your side and look into it now and then. Let it become a "bad habit" as some people might say. Truly, it is an excellent habit. When I tell you I consult the dictionary at least three times a day even now, you will realise how necessary it is'. He always had many editions of Webster's dictionaries on his table." Today she tells her 11-year-old grandson to look up the dictionary and write in good English. But she hasn't preserved all the letters he wrote her. "When you are young you don't think grandfathers are great. So I tore them and threw them away. It's only when we grow old that we realise how great they were."

B.K.

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