Reconstructing my grandfather (updated)

I never really knew my father’s father. Not surprising, really, since he died on 12 March 1959, when I was all of sixteen months old.

I have nothing that belonged to him. A few photographs of him, yes. Some memories, possibly false, heavily influenced by what I’ve been told about him since, primarily by his wife, my grandmother, who outlived him by nearly 50 years. She died in April 2006, a real survivor. I remember being sad when told she was going to die of a tumour….. in 1966.

I never really knew my father’s father.

And so, for the last few years, I’ve been running an experiment. “Forensically” reconstructing him. Using the web. And only the web. Primarily book and magazine extracts that make their weary way on to the web. Trying to see what I learn as a result, not just about him, but about the web as well.

It all started nearly four years ago with My Grandfather’s Teeth, a passage I found in a book I came across online. Here’s the extract.

I now have a copy of the book. The incident of coming across the passage gave me the idea that I would, on a regular basis, trawl the web for evidence of my grandfather’s life, and, based on what I found, reconstruct a profile of the man. [In turn, I hope the exercise would inform me about my father, whom I knew well and yet in some ways didn’t know at all: he died when I was 22, sadly and suddenly. And as I learnt about my father, I hope to learn more about myself.]

So here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:

So now I know that he died of coronary thrombosis, in Calcutta, on March 12, aged 65. I can assume 1959, given the date of the publication. So I also know that he must have been born in 1894 or so. I now know that he was Managing Editor of Indian Finance [yes of course I knew that already, it was the family business, he founded it, and I was its last Editor and Publisher. But the point is to reconstruct the profile using the web and the web alone]. I also know that some people thought he would be missed, and that he was a picturesque and patriarchal figure in the world of Indian….

What else? My father starts making an appearance soon after that, not in chronological terms, but in the sequence in which I came across the web spoor. Here’s an extract from the introduction to the Silver Jubilee issue of something, in 1953. Although the cover is illegible, I can surmise that it is a commemorative volume to do with Indian Finance, the family-owned journal started by my grandfather in 1928.

So now someone else thought that people did not sufficiently recognise the greatness of the founder of Indian Finance, this someone’s old friend and colleague, my grandfather.  The writer goes on to say: I do not know of any greater exponent of current economic and financial problems than Mr CS Rangaswami, whose place is now gradually being taken by his brilliant son Raju. [That’s my father, he would have been 24 at the time].

By finding the excerpt below, I can get an idea that my grandfather was considered a quotable expert on aspects of finance. Here he appears in a review of the silver market by the United States Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, in 1932:

I then learnt that when he arrived in Calcutta, he had just a couple of rupees in his pocket. That he stepped into a dazzling world of maharajas and magnates. And that he was picked by the late Maharaja of Darbhanga as his Secretary, as shown below:

This view, of his having very little money when he arrived, is endorsed by the snippet below, calling him a self-made financial expert. And I get further endorsement that he started the magazine himself.

I begin to form a picture of the man. And then I find out he is listed amongst those in the press who struggled for India’s freedom, as shown below:

I learnt that he spent time teaching people, and explaining things to them:

I learnt that his opinion was sought by government committees and appeared in research journals:

I learnt he was befriended by many people also held in high regard, and that they wrote for the journal:

I learnt that he was a man of some humour, some scathing wit, someone who liked playing with language. An unprovoked compliment. I do like that turn of phrase!

The idea that he had something to do with the freedom movement is reinforced in the snippet below, evinced in his friendship with the Asaf Alis, with Maulana Azad and with Pothan Joseph. Something else I was told, that he’d harboured and protected Muslims in his palatial home during the Partition riots, that statement assumes more significance when I see the Azad and Asaf Ali names here. But I shall wait to “discover” that properly. [I was named after one of his friends, Jayaprakash Narayan, JP to his friends. Apparently he was my godfather; there’s a photograph somewhere of me in his arms. But I have no memory of him, and what I know is what I learnt living in India between 1957 and 1980.]

So what do we have? Let’s see. Born around 1894. Arrived in Calcutta penniless. Worked for the Maharaja of Darbhanga as Secretary. A self-made man, founder of a respected magazine, living in a palatial home, his opinion and advice sought on many matters by governments and politicians, hobnobbing with maharajas and magnates. Was part of the freedom struggle. Assisted by a brilliant son. Died of coronary thrombosis in 1959.

Everything hunky-dory? Not quite. What about this, found in the National Archives here in the UK?

A player. As I look further into the archives, I find out about letters sent from Grosvenor House here in London, and from the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. Letters asking various cabinet and board members to support Osborne Smith, to push back against Griggs. Here’s where it gets meatier:

So now my grandfather’s up to some intrigue or the other, appearing in classified documents, and there are copies of documents sent by him, but in the handwriting of the person he’s attacking. All this in letters from the head of the Police Office to the Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Hmmm.

And then Special Branch gets involved. [A bit cheeky of me, I haven’t yet proven to you in this post that PR Srinivas is my grandfather’s partner, but there is web proof of this].

And suddenly the Viceroy’s involved, with letters intercepted and returned….

That’s it for now. A lazy Saturday post, showing you how one can construct a profile of someone just using the web. Genealogy with a twist. Let me know what you think.

Addendum: Found evidence that he spent two months in the UK, ostensibly in November and December 1938. He wrote this in Singapore on his “way back from the UK”.



18 thoughts on “Reconstructing my grandfather (updated)”

  1. Brilliant. Imagine being able to do all that from a period where digital footprints didn’t exist. Rather they are digital archives, of the real world ones. Scary too, therefore, what is out there for the Moriartys of today. Phone hacking seems so brutish.

  2. Great Grandfather ?

    Would be interesting to see how far back can this approach of genealogical tracking take you.

    Enjoy the search! Look forward to read more as you uncover more.

  3. As a child I used to know Vatsala ? who I think is a daughter of CSRangaswamy, an extremely good looking girl

  4. Hi Kamala, nice to hear from you. Vatsala (“Vatsu”) is my aunt. Sadly she passed away in 2006. Her husband and sons are still alive, they live in Chennai. Her sister Vijaya (“Vijju”) my father’s other sister, is alive as well.

    How did you know Vatsu? Was it while they lived in Ballygunge Circular Road as children?

  5. Memories are vague . May have met her at some ‘kolu’ function. Two of my relatives were in UCO Bank . Vatsu married into ‘ UCO’ family , didnt she

  6. JP, Very nice. I am lucky enough to actually have memories of him – I was almost 7 when he passed away.

  7. thanks Jayanand, we shall watch this experiment unfold together. Still waiting to see where a photograph of him gets unearthed.

  8. Hi JP: As I was preparing a brief write up on periyappa, for the National High School, I thought I would look up google and am indeed delighted to read all the above. I must say ths complilation is touching and splendid. Congrats. Let me add a few more info.

    CSR was born in Komal, a town in Tanjore district. His mother happens to be the sister of my grandfather (Lawyer) Kachapeswara Iyer who lived and practiced in Dindigul. After Sadhu periyamma got married to him, who fixed “Kanthimathy” , her sister, to be the bride for Kachapeswara Iyer’s eldest son, Ananthanarayanan (also known as Doraiswami), and I am their eldest son! I spent a few years of my early life with my grandpa in Dindigul before joining my parents in Calcutta in 1950. In the next few years, when we lived in that huge palatial house on Lower Circular Road, I have seen T T Krishnamachari, CD Desmukh, Jaiprakash Narayanan (it was in his honour I believe you were named) and many other leading personalities.

    CSR, as he was popularly known, was President of National High School for a couple of years; he was active as President of South India Club and associated with many other institutions. I have known and heard people say, during my long stay in Calcutta that most South Indians who met CSR always received tremendous help and support from him. In fact, at Lower Circular Road residence, we had a “mess” for all the strangers that would have just arrived from the South and would be looked after by CSR until they could fend for themselves, more often than CSR assisting them with jobs thru his friends!

    Staying close to him in the same hourse, only your father (Raju) and myself would have the courage to sit next to CSR to eat, on banana leaf, and leave not a morsel of food as
    waste – because CSR taught us never to waste food. I follow this principle even today.
    May he rest in peace. He is one of the most lovable honest and sincere person I have met in my life. Be proud you are his grand son!

  9. sorry, JP

    there is typographical error in my response…. CSR’s mother happens to be my
    grandfather”s (Kachapeswara Iyer’s) sister…..

    Yes, the word “sister” is missing in my note!

  10. Thanks, I’ve amended the comment accordingly. And thank you for the further colour on CSR’s life, much appreciated.

  11. A recent book, ‘Barons of Banking’ by Bakhtiar Dadabhoy has a few pages on your grandfather, the late Sri CS Rangaswami (“CSR”), in the part where Sri CSR’s proximity to Sir Osborne Smith, the first Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, is discussed. This, of course, is his professional side.

    This book came out last year. I thought you may not have known about it. Sorry for spamming if you already did.

  12. My father S Satyamurthy worked for C S Rengaswami in Calcutta for many years before he moved to TOI in Mumbai. i grew up learning a lot about your granfathers virtues ,his humble beginnings , his geneorsity , his special affection towards my father and his family.
    whatever we are today we owe everything to your Grandfather . Wish to express my heartfelt gratitude through this mail though i would have loved to do this in person
    I had the good fortune of taking my father to visit your grandmother ( Sadhu mami if i am not wrong) in Chennai.
    May God bless his family and future generations to come.
    with lots of love,

  13. Thanks for all the information. My mother,brother,sister and I stayed with your your grandfather, grandmother and your father and Vatsu and Vijju at the house in Ballygunge in January and February 1948. At that time I believe there was an elderly Muslim couple also living there. Your grandmother was my mother’s youngest sister. Your grand father helped us to get berths on a ship called H.M.S. Karapara to Malaya. My brother and I once accompanied your dad(Raju) to the Ballygunge Cricket Club where we heard. Sri Rajagopalachari speak.

  14. This is absolutely fascinating and a trip, of sorts, down memory lane! My Thatha (mom’s father) G. H. Mani Iyer, was very close to your family and worked with Indian Finance. He passed on in 1986. And I have memories of visiting your home in Calcutta. I remember Sadhu Mami and your father too. Thank you for this beautiful and intriguing piece. Would love to know more.

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