Disobeying his father’s order to learn banking, which was the family business, young Alagappan went to Madras Presidency College where he could work on his passion — societal welfare and world affairs.
Alagappan started the Triplicane Debating Club where the youngsters conducted debates on the terrace of the members’ houses. He requested to be the treasurer mainly because he wanted to pay for the extra expenses of the meetings as well as fund the subscriptions of those who could not afford it.
After graduation, he went to England to pursue his dream of joining the Indian Civil Service. Instead, he joined the Middle Temple in London and took up law. He was fondly called “Barrister at law” till his last days even though he did not practise. He was a management trainee at the Chartered Bank as well and had his pilot training in Croydon and obtained a pilot licence in 1933.
Returning successfully to India by ship and by train from Bombay, his uncle had asked the entire family and friends to gather at Central station to greet the successful returnee. But the boy disembarked at Basin Bridge — the previous station and sent word to his uncle to come alone. The surprised uncle could not recognise his nephew, his face having been deformed by a disease. Alagappan had contracted leprosy and though it had been cured, the mutilation remained (the ICS medical committee had rejected his candidature).
A distorted face made Alagappan self-conscious throughout his life. He, however, developed an ultra-positive attitude in the face of people squirming to be seen with him and to compensate for his looks he turned to business and philanthropy and would touch millions of lives in the process.
The next few decades were the difficult inter-war depression times and yet Alagappan started businesses all over Asia in rubber, tin, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. His outgoing attitude helped him get friends in high places and the Diwans of Cochin and Travancore badgered him to start mega textile plants in their states. The news of Alagappan landing in Bombay would send the stock market up in a tizzy.
Alagappan had a passion for extravagance. When he was denied a hotel room in Ritz Bombay because of his facial disfiguration, he bought the hotel.
At the end of the war, the British sold its surplus Dakota planes and Alagappan bought eight of them started the Jupiter airways (being the first airway to have a hub in Madras). Alagappan offered free use of his aircraft for airlifting refugees and moving resources to Kashmir under siege. One of the eight planes crashed during the operations and having been insured only for civilian duties the insurance company refused to pay up. He bore the loss stoically.
For his daughter’s marriage in Karaikudi, Alagappan in a 10-day extravaganza chartered planes and ran special trains for the guests which included maharajahs and must have spent Rs 1 crore on it. Perhaps a little guilty of the extravagance, he also decided to donate to some organisations that work on social causes to mark the occasion.
With his first donation to justice Venkatasubba Rao’s Madras Seva Sadan causing ripples, Alagappan realized that philanthropy could be as gratifying as profiteering.
After Independence, Madras University vice-chancellor Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar reminded philanthropists that many worthy school graduates had no place for further studies in the country. Moved by the appeal, Alagappan opened a college in Karaikudi within weeks. His planning was so detailed and perfect that within that time he even obtained skeletons of a whale and an elephant for the zoology department.
Another important contribution of Alagappan was the investment of Rs 5 lakh to the premier AC Tech College in Madras which was a technical branch of Madras University.
For the first time chemical, textile, leather technologies were being taught in Madras which encouraged those industries. The college is now a constituent of the Anna University and named Alagappa Chettiar College of Technology (AC TECH) and has his statue placed in the campus.
He was knighted in 1945, but he renounced the title in a couple of years when India gained independence. He became very close to the nationalist leaders and Nehru once calling him a socialistic capitalist. Gandhi spent a substantial amount of time with Alagappan on his last visit to Madras.
In a classic example of Gandhi’s fund collection tactics, he refused to thank Alagappan for the Rs 3 lakh the latter had given for the Thakker Baba Harijan Welfare School on Venkat Narayana Road, saying it was the duty of Alagappan to fund the entire project.
When Gandhi was assassinated, Alagappan flew to Delhi on his own plane to attend the funeral. Back in Madras he addressed a gathering in Purasawalkam and described the details of the funeral. He would eloquently say: “The fire was purified by consuming the Mahatma”
References: A Beautiful Mind by Ramanathan Vairavan —The author is a historian