Those were the days: Dr TSS Rajan — Excommunicated for crossing the seas, he grew into minister’s shoes

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes
Those were the days: Dr TSS Rajan — Excommunicated for crossing the seas, he grew into minister’s shoes
Dr TSS Rajan; Venkatesh Ramakrishnan (inside image)


Ironically, the freedom movement was much more uninhibited to function in London than in India. In 1909, among the many intensely patriotic who gathered and were mentored by Savarkar and VVS Iyer, was a young medical student who had studied in the Royapuram Medical School — TSS Rajan.
Deciding to hold a get-together of Indian students to spread the word, they proposed a subscription dinner consisting of a dinner and a post-meal talk. 125 people signed up but most of the Indian politicians who were in London at that time refused to preside. The organisers settled on an unknown Indian barrister from South Africa. But he had an odd condition — the meal must be pure vegetarian.
The inspired volunteers went one step further and decided to cook Indian dishes by themselves. A few hours before the meeting, Rajan welcomed a thin wiry volunteer who was more than willing to do the odd jobs. He cleaned vegetables, washed vessels and plates, set the tables.
VVS Iyer would turn up an hour before the meeting and was stunned seeing the volunteer and he chastised Rajan and the rest for having made the chief guest Mohandas Gandhi work in the kitchen. Dr Rajan had met the man who would inspire him for the rest of his life.
Rajan came from a poor family living in two dark rooms of the Ahobila mutt in Srirangam. A persistent struggle to get cured of a persistent stomachache in childhood inspired him to study medicine. His orthodox family, however, was against him studying something concerned with touching the dead and dying.
A scholarship of the Burma government, in which he would serve as a doctor there on completion of the course in lieu of all fees and books, enabled the poor boy to complete his LMP.
The East India Company first created the Medical Department for training assistants and native doctors, which later became the Royapuram Medical School though the locals disparagingly called it the Kanji Thotti hospital because it stood on the site of Monegar Choultry, which distributed gruel to the poor. Thirty years later, an alumnus, who by then was Hon’ble TSS Rajan, Minister for Public Health of Madras, would inaugurate it after upgrading it as the Stanley Medical College.
In 1938, after a stint in Burma, Rajan would go to London to qualify himself further in medical practice but came under the influence of hotblooded Indian students seeking to get India free. He was particularly impressed by VVS Iyer (who was also the mentor of the famous Vanchinathan, the assassin of the British Collector, Ashe). He also studied exceedingly well, being the first Indian to top the Middlesex Medical School.
Rajan would face racism in the United Kingdom as well as make many loving friends there. Well qualified when he sailed back, he was surprised to see his wife and family living in a house on the outskirts of the town.
He had been excommunicated by his caste for crossing the seas. But soon his fantastic practice propelled him to be one of the top citizens of his city, Trichy.
Those who were at the forefront of ex-communication would seek his help in resolving the problems of the Srirangam temple and the community.
Gandhi stayed with Rajan every time he came to Trichy, once inaugurated an x-ray unit in Rajan’s clinic and Rajan even operated on Gandhi’s son.
But a man who had met Gandhi could hardly restrain himself to be independent of his influence. In 1920, Dr Rajan suspended his lucrative practice to devote all his time to Congress work and was a standard translator for the Mahatma during his Madras visits. Also, meeting Gandhi in the kitchen for the first time inspired him to take up jail kitchen duty whenever he was arrested.
When writer Kalki left school in response to Mahatma’s call, he would hide in Rajan’s house. Kalki’s aunt would make a scene at the gate accusing him and Gandhi of being child-snatchers. (Kalki would later write the foreword for the doctor’s autobiography.)
It was remarkable that the Vedaranyam Salt March started from Rajan’s bungalow in Trichy, which also served as the headquarters of the Congress. He would also head the Harijan emancipation movement in Madras, once again coming into loggerheads with his orthodox community.
After decades of winning elections or not participating in them and keeping out of power, the Congress under Rajaji would form a government in Madras. Rajaji would send his son to request Rajan to be the health minister. Rajan was earning several times more as a doctor than the Rs 500 salary of a minister, but he would agree to serve till 1939 when the
Congress party relinquished office. Ten years later, Rajan would become a minister again, but this time under Prakasam and in independent India.
A perceptive writer, he wrote Veettu Vaidyar in Tamizh, a manual on medicine for the layman.
— The writer is a historian and an author

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