(My column in Mint Lounge, September 09 2017)
When M.K. Gandhi arrived in Madras (now Chennai) in 1915, among those seeking a private audience with him was a man called V.O. Chidambaram Pillai. Gandhi, already a hero after his South Africa days, had several demands on his time and suggested, therefore, a quick meeting. His correspondent was not pleased. “I am afraid,” he replied, “that my conversation…will take more than the allotted ‘a few minutes’.” Apologizing sourly for “having intruded upon your precious time”, Pillai withdrew his request. Gandhi was puzzled. He now insisted on seeing the man, making equally sarcastic amends by requesting his time at 6am. “I cannot reach your place before 6.30am,” Pillai said, but finally, they did meet: the champion of Tuticorin and the Mahatma-in-waiting.
What ensued was a somewhat frustrating exchange between the two leaders—one whose political career was on the ascendant and another who not only found his best years behind him, but was also broke. Gandhi offered to help Pillai with money, and the latter readily accepted. But the amount was a long time coming. “Don’t you know at least approximately the total amount given…by your friend?” asked Pillai. “If you know it, can you not send me that amount or a major portion of it…so that it may be useful to me in my present difficult circumstances?” “Not yet,” snapped the Mahatma abruptly. In the end it took a year, but Gandhi did succeed in arranging Rs347 for Pillai, who was not only pleased by this satisfactory end to their exchange but also somewhat lighter of debt.
Pillai, who seemed to almost harass Gandhi with letters in 1915, was unrecognizable from the man who once handled lakhs of rupees and was a celebrated shipping magnate. Born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, he had followed his lawyer father’s instructions and become a pleader in 1894. But if Pillai Sr was pleased, his joys were short-lived—father and son soon found themselves on opposite sides of a case, and the latter demolished in court not only his esteemed parent’s arguments but also his father’s pride. It was decided that Pillai should move, so, in 1900, he parked himself in Tuticorin. Influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, he embraced swadeshiactivities, but it was in 1906 that the cause which would define his life came to him, putting him on a path that would bring pain as much as it would achievement, accumulating honour but also inviting an unhappy fate.
At the time, Tuticorin was an established centre for shipping, with thousands using its harbour. But the entire industry was in the hands of British companies who were in bed with the colonial government. So when in October 1906 Pillai opened the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, there was first a great deal of condescension, followed by an equal measure of anger. Pillai’s ambitions were high—though services were restricted to Tuticorin and Colombo, Swadeshi aimed to “popularize the art of Navigation” among “Nations of the East”, to employ “Asiatics”, to open dockyards, and do whatever it could to revitalize India’s maritime traditions.
Many prominent Indians invested in Pillai’s venture, while local merchants were persuaded to ply goods on his hired steamer, the Shah Allum. “This,” reported a newspaper, “has naturally aroused the jealousy of the British Indian Steam Navigation Company…. The competition…is very keen…. The authorities have not always been impartial. The impression that the white Civilian is likely to favour the white trader is gaining ground.” The owner of Shah Allum was prevailed upon to withdraw his vessel, for instance.
Undeterred, Pillai not only acquired ships from abroad but also sailed into Tuticorin flying flags emblazoned with Vande Mataram. The British authorities threw all they could his way, but Pillai’s energy saw him through—that is, till two years later, his politics produced an excuse to destroy his commercial enterprise as well.
In 1908, a magistrate ordered Pillai, who was planning a procession to celebrate the release from prison of Bipin Chandra Pal, to leave the city. He refused and was arrested. On 13 March, things got out of hand—mobs set fire to public buildings, made bonfires of state records, and for days Tuticorin witnessed riots, with four people losing their lives. Pillai was given 20 years in prison—the judge held him “morally responsible” for the deaths.
Eventually, the Madras high court reduced the sentence to four years. But while Pillai languished under a particularly sadistic jailor, his company collapsed, his family was bankrupted, and all his friends disappeared. By the time he emerged in 1912, he was not only poor but also forgotten. Moving to Madras, he set up a shop there, earning also by tutoring college students. Though a judge called Wallace restored his legal licence (to thank whom Pillai named his son Wallacewaran), the man’s career was essentially over.
In 1949, Pillai was brushed up and restored to public memory. Governor general C. Rajagopalachari came to Tuticorin after independence and flagged off a shipping service to Colombo—the first vessel was named the SS VO Chidambaram. Statues of the forgotten hero were installed and flowers and garlands were heaped to honour his legacy. It was a decade too late though—in 1936, Pillai had died in penury, surviving his last days by selling his law books and ruminating on all that he had once been. As he had remarked many years before, all someone in his position could do was trust in god, “who is any day a surer master of destiny” than a once famous lawyer and businessman drowning in an ocean of disappointment and sorrow.