It was the month of October, 1944. The Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Shastri spoke at the Mylapore branch of the Y. M. I. A of Madras after unveiling the portrait of his dear old friend, V. Krishnaswami Aiyar. The portrait that he drew in words of his departed friend was any day a more convincing picture than the one in black and white which he was asked to expose to public gaze. I was then convalescing after an illness, and therefore could not sit up with others in the audience, but only listen to him from the rear seat of my car through a loud-speaker installed outside the compound. I wrote out a note, the next morning, of my deep appreciation of the speech of the previous evening, and asked my servant to deliver it at Sastriar’s place. Unfortunately the servant was confused, and instead of taking the letter with him, conveyed a message that I would like to meet him. No sooner the information was given him than Sastriar got into a rickshaw and proceeded to my house. But before he reached my place, I had in the meanwhile detected the mistake, on seeing my letter lying undelivered on my desk. I hastened to send a faster messenger to rectify the error. In the interval, Sastriar had been moving on the road when he was met by my second messenger with my letter. He read the contents while seated in the rickshaw and felt, as was learnt later, greatly relieved of his anxiety. Anyhow he came to me straight, and the first words he mentioned on sighting me were: “Imagine my trepidation on receiving the message that you required me to meet you. I could not enjoy my morning coffee, since I felt that there should have been some mistake of detail in my narration in yesterday’s speech of mine, which you had evidently noticed and forthwith tried to correct me. It is only after a perusal of the note, that I could breathe with ease in the relief from the erstwhile obsession.”


Few others would have shown the same concern over such a trifle of an error, even should it have occurred. But Sastriar was of different cast of mind altogether. He was never guilty of inadequate preparation for a speech nor allowing himself of any such commissions or omissions. His was a complete mastery of both detail and delivery. He was punctilious even to a fault, when addressing others, with regard to the correct way of spelling their names. If Sir P. S. Sivaswami Aiyer spelt his suffix; Aiyer with an e instead of an a which is usual with others, Sastriar appeared more fastidious about it than Sivaswami Aiyer himself. If Sir Mirza Ismail bore a family prefix, Sastriar was careful to add always to his name the words ‘Nizam-ul-Mulk.’ He was never forgetful of such formalities.


These perhaps may be deemed of little significance in a man’s achievements. But it must be owned that people who are inclined to neglect formalities may slowly forget the essentials as well, which are needed to keep up relations of cordiality. It is not easy to be a gentleman without some of these gentle aids to correct behaviour. Sastriar had many such graces along with other substantial traits of greatness. Normally people would lack that amount of sobriety of outlook to view themselves placed in others’ situations, before trying to minimise the value of these “little charities that soothe, heal and bless.” Sastriar never failed to look at the other man’s point of view.


There was another occasion which remains fixed in one’s memory; unforgettable because of the unfathomable sense of magnanimity which was discovered in Sastriar’s nature. It may be known only to some of his close associates that he had an aversion to the ifs in biographies of great men. He held the view that any speculation about a person, dead and gone, would only be conducive to the creation of misconceptions regarding his character and achievement. In a speech by him, delivered at Bombay while unveiling the statue of Sir D. E. Wacha, he referred to the baneful habit persisting among biographers to indulge (sometimes) in assessments of personalities by relating them to the times the writers themselves lived in. No doubt it was a point of view only of his own, as a host of modern biographers such as Nicholson, Lytton Strachy and Spender were of the view that a biography also bring out the ‘profounder truth’ in personalities, since great men like great books acquired new meanings with the passing of time and it would be impossible to correctly assess them without relating them to their own times. So, one of his young admirers, when he had to review that speech in print on Mr. Wacha, hinted at the unsupportability of his arguments in favour of abandonment of the ‘ifs’. The reviewer had drawn readers to some of the views expressed by the modern biographers such as those mentioned above. It was revealing of Sastriar’s higher nature, when on realising the debatable point of view, he hastened in person to the writer of the review and made handsome confessions of his erstwhile one-sided opinion in the matter. Instead of keeping within himself the change inevitably he had to make in his pet aversions, he had the sense of fairness in making an open avowal of it to the very person with whom he had previously once happened to differ strongly.


Many are aware of the beautiful talk of his on the Mahatma, now included in the volume The Other Harmony published by T. N. Jagadisan. But a few, if none at all, knew the history of its rescue from oblivion otherwise. At the time of the sixty-first birthday of Gandhiji in 1929, Sastriar made a speech at the Hindu High School, Triplicane, paying tribute to the qualities of the Mahatma in a language which was remarkable for both its simplicity and sincerity. The speech appeared nowhere in the press, though a student of the Ramakrishna Home, Mylapore, took it entirely in shorthand and got it published also in the Home Magazine, circulated among the students. Long after (that is, in 1937) a friend of Sastriar happened to find the speech so enchantingly couched in memorable words that he was induced to suggest its being given as a piece of subject for an elocution competition for students. At the prize-giving function over which Sastriar himself presided, the winner repeated the performance of his to the audience gathered. Sastriar who had completely forgotten the text of his own speech, liked the matter very much and wanted to know who was its author. When he was informed to his great satisfaction of its being his own speech delivered nearly ten years back, he asked for a copy of it in order to send it to Gandhiji himself. When the copy reached the Mahatma, unusually the recipient remained silent, throwing Sastriar in a mood of disappointment, vocal enough to make him tell his friends that the copy sent by him “had attained Nirvana.”


Sastriar, it is well known, felt no qualms in correcting the fish of Gandhiji whenever it struck him to be faulty of grammar or inaccurate of idiom. It is equally known to people how the Mahatma bowed to his mentor in such matters, always taking it with a sense of good humour rarely true of many others in a similar plight of being found fault with. There was an unbreakable bond of fellowship between them both, which persisted to the last despite the many occasions of political differences placing them in opposite camps.


One thing, at any rate, which may have escaped many observers of the Sastri-Gandhi relationship is the total absence of reservation of mind which marked the exchange of their ideas. If it was in the nature of the Mahatma to be absolutely frank when dealing with an adversary, it was no less lacking in firmness in the case of Sastriar also in the expression of his differences with others. But unlike Gandhi’s, Sastriar’s expression always preserved all the graces of language and demeanour. The essential disparity between a saint and a sensitive artist alone proved responsible for the apparent diversity noticeable in the two.


Generally humble of disposition, Sastriar was never willing to appear needy or seeking help of others, however necessary it may be to his own comfort. While his closest friend, Sri T. R. Venkatarama Sastri, was ever-alert to attend to his comforts, there was never an occasion when Sastriar had made extra demands on him for anything. Even the use of Venkatarama Sastriar’s car frequently by him was more at the request of the latter than of his own asking. People today may have no idea how hesitant and unwilling he was in receiving a gift from the late Raja of Chettinad, Sir Annamalai Chettiar, in the name of his wife on the occasion of his Shashtyabdapoorti at Bangalore. It required the combined strength of advice of all his friends to make him not reject a gift which belonged legitimately to his wife, as the gift-deed actually was in her favour. He had to reconcile to a situation which denied him the freedom to interfere with his wife’s volition in accepting the gift.


His tenderness towards those who had remained loyal to him with a sense of dedication cannot be surpassed. To both Mrs. Anasuya Suryanarayana Rao and T. N. Jagadisan he was kindness personified, and if today they have each in his or her own manner cherished his memory as an object of worship for the rest of their lives, it is no little due to Sastriar’s unqualified confidence in their ministrations to his needs.


Whatever other incidents of his life might slip from our memories, nothing can erase the impression of unbounded love he bore the Ramayana of Valmiki as a book of the highest poetical and ethical value to humanity. It may be interesting to know how Sastriar started his discourses on the epic towards the close of his life in 1944-45. There was a raging controversy in The Hindu Daily about Sita’s lack of veracity in making a statement in answer to the Rakshasis that she had hardly any knowledge of Hanuman’s purpose of advent to Lanka or his antecedents. Partisans of both sides, namely those that argued she was not untruthful and others who said that hers was falsehood totally, contributed their respective opinions in the press, and Sastriar also joined the fray. He was very cautious in saying that Sita, judged by the standard of absolute truth, was lacking in it. But more than the conclusion of the controversy, the occasion proved very useful to Sastriar to dive into the text of the epic. Once he got into it, his immersion became more and more deep so that he began to evince a desire to speak On the greatness and beauty of the Ramayana under the auspices of the Madras Samskrita Academy, of which he was president then. It is now part of history that the spell he cast on large audiences during his discourses was a source of immense jubilation to those who had an undisguised suspicion that there might be an estimate from him of the book according to the standards of mere literature. The expectations were falsified in that he not only dwelt with reverence on the character of Sri Ramachandra but he even tried to make others ever consecrate the image of the hero of the immorta1 epic in their hearts. Even on his death-bed, when visited by the Mahatma in January of 1946, he could only recollect a verse from the Ramayana by way of reminding the Mahatma of his great duty to the world, then in the throes of the after effects of the second global war.


It was a fitting finale for an integrated person’s adherence to some of the highest principles of life, to have retained a sense of exaltation of spirit to the last, by dwelling on one of the greatest books that the world has treasured so long with reverence.