Prof PS Mani Sundaram (PSM), the first Principal of REC Trichy, passed away late last week at the age of 87 and I, like several RECTians/NITTians, experience a significant loss. My voice might appear extremely frail amidst the sorrow of a whole junta of his students who have had the good luck of interacting with him personally. Like in the case with most passing, PSM’s as well pushed me into a trip through the memory lane.
PSM was a phenomenon in NITT even several decades after he retired from the institution, so it was quite an event looked forward to when he was announced to be its chief guest. His presence was a typical Veni Vidi Vici thing. When I learnt The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ‘He holds him with his glittering eye— ‘, never did I realise that I would experience it one day. I distinctly remember my response when someone asked me after that event ‘how is he (PSM)?’. I said ‘Have you seen that shine in Sivaji Ganesan’s eyes? He’s a man who carries that glint without any lights or camera.’ That sparkle was something I always loved about this man every time I got a chance to meet him, the last being at the Golden Jubilee Celebration inauguration a few months back.
I said he passed away at the age of 87 but whenever he was in NITT, he missed no opportunity to prove through his quick thinking and sharp memory that he was never older than the 18 and 20 year olds around him. I wonder if there was anyone ever who has interacted with him and hasn’t been a victim of his high order wit and jest, which turned him into a perfect showman whenever the occasion demanded of him. And what’s the best thing – he could distinctly place you even if you have met him only once in the eight long decades! I am envious today when I hear veteran RECTians remembering how he would recall and narrate personal incidents about their college days even until the recent past.
But all these are not what PSM is for me, they are only superficial observations. A deeper impact was created when I met him, heard him and spoke to him the very first time. He instilled in me a strong belief in the importance of having a vision, and the boldness and perseverance that go into achieving it. I shall highlight a few incidents about him that are very close to me.
- In a war-stricken India when PSM felt as a young Indian that his service was needed in fighting the Chinese, he wrote to the Prime Minister of India Pt. Nehru about his willingness to serve in the Indian Army’s infantry wing! (That letter did receive a reply from the Defence Ministry with an offer in the Engineering division, but due to some other turn of events back home PSM did not go to the border). What inspired me here was his willingness to actually go and surrender himself to national service despite being a qualified engineer who could easily recline into being an armchair critic. Also, his boldness in writing to the Prime Minister of the country! Come on, how many of us would do that despite having much more advanced means of communication today? That needs guts and extreme passion.
- He was given the task of starting a state-of-art engineering institution in the outskirts of Trichy in the early 1960s (which is what he left the Defence opportunity for). PSM was in his mid 30s then. Many of us will turn 35 in another few years or so, and I know many who are already there. Forget starting an institution as supreme as REC T, many find it difficult to manage our work-life balance! The amount of responsibility that was on him and the brilliance with which he executed it and sustained for the next two decades is immensely inspiring, and challenging!
- His genuine interest in his students’ overall development. I have been there in the same NITT several years after PSM left. Here was a man who loved his students and did everything in his rights to make them responsible citizens of this country. He knew them, each and every one, by name and also sometimes their parents! If I were to believe what all I have heard about his administration, he even went to the extent of allowing one cigarette in the mess menu every night (to limit and control the smoking habits in his students!) The transparency he had for the students was very deep and that was naturally reciprocated by his students. Today, the culture is not even imaginable. Teachers who teach us for three years cannot recall our names in the very next year! Deans and Directors were inaccessible VIPs who showed up to give boring monologues on the infrastructure developments in the institute every now and then. Sometimes when I hear alumni talk fondly of PSM, I wonder how life would have been if he had never retired from NITT!
There are several other incidents with him that are both entertaining and inspiring, but to write them all would not be possible.
When I met him last for the Golden Jubilee Celebration inaugurations, PSM looked very weak but the shine in his eyes was more prominent than ever. When he took the stage and started speaking into the mic, there was a surge of reassurance. This man was still at his best, humorously taking everyone in the audience into his fold! We all looked forward to seeing him as the patriarch of our vast family celebrating 50 years in 2014 and also, on a personal level to start a venture and see through its fifty years of glory is no small feat. But that was not to be.
When we get together next year, this vacuum created by the passing of PSM will be intensely felt. But he has lived a rich life and leaves behind a supreme legacy through his students and others (like me) whom he has inspired to be a go-getter and chase one’s vision. I am not in Chennai today when there is a condolence meeting taking place for his departed soul but I know that like many of his fans across the world, I shall too forever remember this great man who shaped the institution that shaped me.
RIP Prof Mani Sundaram, it pains to think that we won’t get to hear you one more time…
(To read some more tributes for Prof Mani Sundaram, please visit the newly created Facebook fan page – https://www.facebook.com/ProfPSM
Some old photographs of PSM – Photo Link)