My Grandfather, K.R. Chandrasekhar (whom I, like many of South Indian descent, called Tata, meaning Grandfather, pronounced ‘Tha Tha”) was born a few years after World War 1 in July of 1922, in what was at that time part of British India. World War 1 saw many things happen in India from the early independence movement as well as many as 1.5 million Indians being drafted and 75,000 giving the ultimate sacrifice with their lives defending the British Empire against the Central Powers. Understanding the time that he was born, is instrumental in getting an idea of what India was like then. From his humble roots in a little village, about 40 miles north east of the present day town of Bengaluru (aka Bangalore) of the then Kingdom of Mysore, to his days in insurance sales from the 1950s onwards around the country, his was a life of hard work and sacrifice that he never let me forget. He went to different people’s houses to eat every other day and had a tough life until he was a young teen. Getting the ability to study, changed his life. A good education has been ingrained in every Indian parent’s life from as long as I can remember. That’s how, from close to poverty, he went to St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore and married my Grandmother in 1942. My Mother was born soon after in 1944 and another son, born later that decade, sadly passed away due to a medical error by the late 1940s.
My Grandparents went on to have 2 other children; two sons, my uncles in the early 1950s and that was his family after that. The story of how Tata ended up going into accounting versus engineering is an interesting one.
It was late 1930s and he was cycling down a road in Bangalore called JC Road on his way to pay his college fees to go to engineering school as it was the last day to pay. In the distance, a car was driving towards him. Thinking the driver would avoid him as he got closer, Tata continued cycling. He then realized that the driver (an Englishman who it later turned out was the Commissioner of Police who was drunk after an afternoon of heavy drinking) was swerving left and right and hit and ran over Tata. My Grandfather told me he remembered the wheels of the car on either side of him as he went down and his bicycle getting crushed. The driver, realizing what had just occurred, stopped, got down and proceeded to get Tata into the car and rushed him to Victoria Hospital; where he paid his hospital bill in advance and left the scene (not wanting to be around due to his position). There my Grandfather lay for 3 days unconscious. On the 4th day he opened his eyes and his brother, who had walked from their village north east of Bangalore was sitting in front of him and said “We were wondering where you were. I searched everywhere and someone said that you had been admitted here so I came. Looks like you are ok, so I’m off!” and he left to go back to their village.
In any case, Tata was now in a dilemma. Colleges had closed payment of fees for engineering and he was at risk of missing a year when someone told him that there was still a college in the next kingdom that was available and they had not closed admissions or payment. The only problem was that it wasn’t in Engineering, but a Bachelor of Arts in Economics. My Grandfather thought “Well, one degree is as good as another!” and off he went to start his Bachelor of Arts degree instead of an engineering degree!
From there, he came to Bangalore after one term and ended up getting a seat at St. Joseph’s College. After completing his Bachelor’s of Arts in Economics, he was interviewed by the local commander of the British garrison to be an auditor for their Bangalore region during WW2; the Commandant didn’t need a person with a degree even though Tata had one “As long as you understand book keeping, that’s all I need”. Landing the job, he then set out to audit the some of the billions of pound that India sent in war material and treasure to the British homeland and the war effort to defend and fight against Hitler and the Nazis (he also mentioned that because he was able to go on the base, people would ask him to get them whiskey and brandy as it was subsidized for the military and he could come back with cases of liquor to share with relatives and friends, something he told me with amusement some years ago).
After World War 2 ended and his work with the military was complete, he briefly got into the restaurant business, but at that time, caste and community played a big role in Indian life as he was chided for being a “brahmin” starting in the restaurant business and that too with the education that he had received, was apparently supposed to do more with his life than just being a ‘lowly’ restauranteur. Unhappy with the criticism of his entrepreneurial pursuits, he left that business in the late 40s and was able to go into life insurance sales with the then Oriental Insurance. This was his calling and he was as passionate about his job (as I think I am for my work in healthcare) and spoke endlessly about it years after his retirement.
In the late 1950s, my Grandfather enrolled my uncles in a boarding school around the ages of 7 or 8. (I speculate) Tata did not want their lives to be disrupted whenever he had a new assignment (though he lived 15 to 20 minutes away from them the first few years they were there) and was posted to a new position. My surviving Uncle shared with me that it felt like being put in jail by my Grandfather, but he’s gone on to be a senior executive of a few companies and I credit Tata for giving him a good foundation for much of his success and harnessing his natural talents, even though my Uncle may think otherwise ( after his undergraduate degree, Tata told him that he had called his accountant friend in Bangalore and my uncle will go work for him as an article clerk in his accounting practice; saying no to my Grandfather was not an option).
I find it interesting that Tata kept my Mother with him and not in boarding school like his other two children, two sons to live a very disciplined, boarding school life also gives us insight into the sacrifice of not having his two boys with him by his side during their formative years, especially since he had already lost one son in his life by then. Later in life, he relied on his youngest son more than anyone else after losing his older son to kidney disease in the early 2000s.
My parents were married in the late 1960s. Both of my sets of grandparents knew each other and as was the custom, it was an arranged marriage within our community; a “Ashtagrama” or “8 villages” community. One of the biggest responsibilities for fathers of daughters in those days was to make sure that he got them married into good families. Both of my grandparents were of good reputation and it was in this light that my mother’s father was able to fulfill one of his life’s obligations. My Uncles were married in quick succession some 8 years later.
He retired as the Divisional Manager for the Southern Region of the Life Insurance Corporation of India in 1985. After my own father passed away when I was a teenager, my Grandfather took us in 1987. Two years after he had retired, he had to take on a new set of responsibilities of his daughter and her two children who had never lived in India, didn’t know the language and customs and were emotionally disconnected from the loss of their well set lives overseas.
He had a never give up attitude. He instilled in me a sense of loyalty to family, reminded me that he came from poverty and he had worked hard to get to where he was. He gave my mother the confidence she needed to get through life without her husband and gave us all inspiration with his stories of the 1920s, 1930s and much of the 20th Century (one story he narrated was about how he was chased by a monkey in the temple town of Tirupathi in the 1920s. When I asked him how he was able to remember an event from the 1920s, his reply was simply; “If you were chased by a monkey, you’d never forget!”)
Persistence and the ability to endure was a hallmark he had. Having lost a child (a son) at a young age of 1 or 2 in the late 1940s, a son in law 31 years ago and then another son a decade ago, many would have grieved and wallowed in their plight. Not my Grandfather. Having faced difficulties throughout his life (he nearly drowned in a well, fallen out from trees numerous times at a very young age and could have left this world on a number of occasions in his youth) his continuous attitude of “Be Bold!” was something that I have continued to carry with me when I need it the most.
In June of 2016, my Grandfather suffered a heart attack and was an inpatient on a ventilator for 21 days in Bangalore. At some point, he could not stay on the ventilator indefinitely and his physicians said that when they took it out and he had trouble breathing, he would need a tracheotomy . After consulting with my family, the doctors were ready to perform the surgery the moment they removed the ventilator. My Grandfather, not one to go that easily and having practiced yoga for 70 years of his life, immediately started the “pranayama” breathing techniques in yoga that he had been practicing most of his life. He slowly began breathing on his own. The doctors were amazed at his endurance and at that age! No medicines, no technology. It was all him! He came home a few days after and when he got on the phone with me, he excitedly exclaimed to me”94, NOT OUT!” At the age of 94, he was still around as my Tata!
He was disciplined with all of his accounting and remembered his bank account numbers until the very end of his life (I’m lucky if I remember what happened yesterday!) The way he kept all of his documents was an amazement to all and he was a excellent document manager.
Prior to leaving to the United States for graduate school for my MBA in the mid 1990s, I had to go and ask my future father in law for my girlfriend’s (now wife’s) hand in marriage. I remember being with my Grandfather before I drove across town and sensing my nervousness he came up to me and said ” Be Bold!” Two words he would speak often to all of us.
While this blog post details his life more than anything else and departs from my discussion of healthcare, as an amateur historian and a grandson to an amazing man such as my Grandfather, I felt it both a privilege and duty of mine to share some of his story with my family, friends and readers of my blog. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this snippet of his life story as much as I have had in writing it.
My Grandfather was 3 months and two weeks shy of his 95th birthday and 6 weeks shy of his 75th wedding anniversary when he breathed his last during the early hours of March 27th, 2017. After a, many would say, full life of 4 children, 6 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren, he finally left us. Even in death, Tata wanted to make a difference. Ever the practical man he was and not one to go by convention or tradition, his was the first I’ve ever heard of a person in my family donating his body to science, something that he had apparently wanted to do since 1980, but wrote as his last wishes in December of 2015. Making a lasting impact on medical students to learn from him even a year after he left this world. That’s why I loved him so much. My Grandfather, K.R. Chandrasekhar was simply put, the best of all of us.