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Simple living, high thinking

The name Paalam is synonymous with social worker Kalyanasundaram who has worked tirelessly for the cause of the poor and the needy. A profile.


AN EPITOME of selfless service, `Paalam' P. Kalyanasundaram is a fine example of simple living and high thinking. He practices Gandhian principles without bothering whether the world takes notice of them or not.

As he approaches people and appeals for funds to help suffering children in his soft voice, they realise that he is not just another fund-raiser.

For someone who represents the best of humanity, his is a remarkable story. Kalyanasundaram was born and brought up in Melakaruvelangulam village, of Nangunari taluk in Tirunelveli district. "There were only 30 houses then. No roads, no buses, no school, no electricity, not even a petty shop. I studied in the light of a kerosene lamp or by candlelight till I was about ten years old," he says.

Kalyanasundaram lost his father when he was only one year old. After completing school, he was determined to pursue a B.A degree with Tamil as the main subject. As he was the only student for the course at St. Xavier's College, Tirunelveli, the college management persuaded him to take up another subject, but he refused. Impressed by the youngster's determination to study Tamil, Karumuttu Thygaraja Chettiar, the founder of MTT Hindu College, had no hesitation admitting him to the course he wanted. Karumuttu Chettiar also bore the youngster's study expenses. "Those days I can never forget, especially the Chettiar's munificence," recalls Kalyanasundaram.

The turning point in his life came when he was doing library science at the Madras University. That was when the Indo-China War was on. "I was listening to Nehru on the radio requesting us to contribute to the defence fund. Immediately, I went to Chief Minister Kamaraj and gave him my gold chain. I was probably the first student to have done such a thing," he says with pride in his eyes. Kamaraj was so impressed by the gesture that he felicitated the youngster at a special function on May Day that year (1963).

Another incident that Kalyanasundaram remembers vividly is his encounter with the then sub-editor of Ananda Vikatan. "It was he who told me that I would do well as a social worker, while engaging in some plain speaking on public service... But I decided I needed no publicity."

He later joined Kumarkarupa Arts College in Tuticorin as librarian and spent 35 years there, even while doing his social work. He donated the money he got from the sale of his ancestral property to the poor. An amount of Rs. one lakh that Kalyansundaram received as salary arrears, he promptly gave to the district collector to be used for orphans.

For 45 years, Kalyanasundaram's social work focussed on children. However, in 1998, after retirement, he decided to expand his service and, thus, Paalam was born. One of the first things he did was to direct the money he received as retirement benefit to social cause. Paalam serves as the link between donors and beneficiaries. Assistance is not only monetary. Children are helped in pursuing education, medical attention is provided to the needy, blood donation camps are organised and blood samples are reached to hospitals during emergencies, the unemployed, elderly, sick and handicapped are rehabilitated, and free counselling is provided.

"We work on the principle of gaining everybody's support. That is the reason why membership costs just a rupee a month (life membership is Rs.100). We take about anything used or unused - old newspapers, clothes and utensils - and reach these to people in need. We are sort of a bridge between donors and beneficiaries," states Kalyanasundaram.

Paalam has also taken active part in relief work during cyclones and earthquakes that have struck various parts of India.

People trust Paalam because of Kalyanasundaram and what he stands for. "I have slept on pavements and railway platforms to find out what it is like to be poor, without a roof over your head," he says, joyfully recounting an instance of his students running up to him to tell him that they had spotted his look-alike sleeping on a railway platform.

"I am a bachelor and my personal needs are meagre. I am able to manage doing odd jobs in a hotel or a laundry. I simply do not wish to own anything. In fact, one of my happiest moments was when, after being chosen as the `Man of the Millennium' by an American organisation, I donated the entire amount of Rs. 30 crores I received towards charity. Everything is, therefore, a state of mind. Finally, what do we take with us when we leave planet earth?" Kalyanasundaram wonders aloud!

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SASHI NAIR

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