FOND MEMORIES – Of Dr Kuttiettan Raja
(Of a Life that made a difference to many lives.)
At the age of twelve, I was told by my mother and uncle that I would shift permanently and pursue my school and college studies in Delhi. My uncle took charge of my life from then onwards and I spent over 19 years, the most impressionable years of my life with him. Till his death in 1963, he tried to give me the best he could.
Today, at a distance of 48 years, I can perhaps see and feel his presence with a deep sense of love and gratitude. I am recording for my own satisfaction observations on what I have seen and heard of him during those years.
As a member of what was once one of the most orthodox families in Kerala, he had many firsts. He was the first member of our family (all three branches) to become a medical doctor, the first to go abroad for higher studies (going abroad was then frowned upon by the conservative, senior members of the family) the first Indian to hold the highest post in health administration in India.
My uncle, known as Kuttiettan to our family and as Dr K C K E Raja to the world outside, was born at Kottakkal on August 19, 1893. The eldest of four children who survived till adulthood, he was deeply dependent on his parents, Eduthympatty Thampuratty and Azhagapura Vasudevan Namudiri. His mother’s death at the age of 36, a few days after delivery, for the eighth time, shattered Kuttyettan. From then on he had to be on his own.
Kuttyettan had his early education at Kottakkal, in a primary school run by family members within the family premises. He then went to Zamorin’s college, (now Guruvayurappan College) and after completing the Intermediate Examination, went to Madras to register for graduation in English literature.
He did not stay there for long. As the eldest son, he came back to Kottakkal to observe for a year the diksha and all daily rites associated with his mother’s death. A year later, he went back to Madras, this time to study medicine.
On getting his medical degree, my uncle may have practised for a while but chose to go into public health administration. He started his career as Health Officer, in Ooty, and his experience turned out to be a tough test of his integrity, courage and character. He came almost into direct confrontation with suppliers of adulterated foodstuffs, mainly milk .He had to inspect the markets and take action against sellers of substandard meat and fish. The Health Officer soon became the most targeted official among these traders. With some political clout, they got complaints against him right up to the Governor of Madras, an Englishman. In a tribute to my uncle, published in the Hindu soon after his death, Mr M K Vellodi, his close friend from school days, described in moving terms how my uncle stood his ground in his meeting with the Governor. He came back to Ooty and did what he thought was legally and morally right.
(Mr Vellodi’s career ran parallel to my uncle’s. As a member of the old ICS he rose to the highest rank that a civilian administrator could have risen to – that of the Cabinet Secretary.)
Perhaps the prospect of continued confrontation, and of course, the thought of advancing his career prompted my uncle to go abroad for higher studies. He went to the University of Cambridge to specialize in Public Health and Vital Statistics. He recalled to me later his attending the lectures of Prof Karl Pearson, at London or Cambridge –Pearson was then Professor at the University of London and had already become famous with his book The Grammar of science- and studying under some of the famous teachers of statistical sciences.
Stint as Professor
On return to Ooty, my uncle decided to change course. He found for himself a more satisfying job as Professor of Public Health and Vital Statistics at the All India institute of Hygiene and Public Health at Calcutta. This brought him close to Professor Mahalanobis who had set up the Indian Statistical Institute. Mahalanobis got my uncle involved in the work of the Institute in the area of vital statistics. Two of his articles in the Institute’s journal, Sankhya, got quickly noticed- A forecast of Population Growth in India and later, Population Projections for the 1941 Census. From then on he was associated with the country’s population census and was on the Committee to advise the Registrar General for the population censuses conducted in 1951 and 1961. The relationship with Mahalanobis lasted till my uncle’s death in 1963.
Onward to Delhi
In 1938, my uncle moved to New Delhi and back to public health administration in the Central Government’s Directorate of Medical Services. The top posts of Director General, Additional Director General and Deputy Director Generals were always occupied by Englishmen. He joined as an Assistant Director General. He rose to the post of Director General in 1947, soon after India attained independence-the first Indian to hold that post.
I remember the darkest hours that Delhi had seen soon after partition when thousands of refugees from across the border had converged on the capital. There were two refugee camps to give them shelter. The bitterness of partition had created a seething ferment, riots in Delhi and a dangerous atmosphere in the refugee camps. The outbreak of epidemics, particularly cholera, was a real prospect. As Director General of Health services my uncle had the overall responsibility to take preventive steps and to pay special attention to the camps. He accompanied almost every day, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the two refugee camps amidst all the tension that could have exploded any moment.
Earlier in 1944-45, my uncle was the Member Secretary of the Health Survey and Development Committee. Amongst the more important recommendations of the Committee was a proposal to start post graduate medical education in India. On his retirement as Director General, he was invited to implement this proposal and was commissioned to visit a number of countries running postgraduate medical education programmes. He prepared a blueprint and for 5 years he worked on it .The result was the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.
Perhaps in recognition of this, he got the Padmabhushan Award from the President of India in 1957.
Back to Education
In 1956, my uncle was invited by Dr John Mathai, then Director of Tatas, to set up a Demographic Research and Training Centre in Bombay- then a joint project of Sir Dorab Tata Trust and the Government of India to serve training needs in population studies in the South East Asian region. It is now called the International Institute of Population Studies. He was the Founder Director and served at the Institute from 1956 to 1959.Tatas took great interest in the project to the extent of giving us the residential quarters kept for Director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for personal and official use. We lived there for the three years of his tenure under the contract.
Return to Kerala
Some 50 years after my uncle left Kerala, destiny brought him back, this time as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Kerala. He remained Vice Chancellor for the full term of 3 years. I remember his talking during this period about the need for more universities- All Kerala had only one University. A visionary, he wanted to lay the foundation for universities at Cochin and Calicut. I remember the sense of joy he had when he laid the foundation for the centres at Cochin and Calicut as a prelude to the starting of full fledged universities.
My uncle’s term as Vice Chancellor ended in March 1963.We then moved to Nallur near Feroke, where the family property was allotted to my uncle, my mother and me. . The house, about 2 acres needed extensive repairs. He was busy with this. Equally busy he was with other assignments, starting to write the chapter on Health in the Indian Gazetteer, and visiting Delhi and Bombay for odd assignments. Early August that year, he was delighted to be invited as the Chief Guest at the Convocation of the International Institute of Population Studies .He did this on August 20 and returned on August 23.
He got ready to celebrate his seventieth birthday on 26 August. We had an unusually large number of guests and he spent good deal of time with them. There was a new glow on his face- a look of fulfilment, a sense of relaxation I had not seen in him for a long, long time.
The next day, August 27, 1963 he was scheduled to leave for Madras by train.
This did not happen. He woke up at around 5 AM and tried to relax in a reclining chair outside his room. My mother brought him his morning tea at 6 AM. He kept this aside and said he felt a pain in the chest he had never had before. Before anything could be done he was gone. He lay calm as if he was asleep, as calm as he was in life.
I have sadly lost many documents that I had kept out of sheer nostalgia: a condolence letter to him from Jawaharlal Nehru when my aunt passed away in 1952; a speech of his on Tagore; an introduction to a book of essays written by Sivdas Menon of Guruvayurappan College-they had been together at Madras during college days; his correspondence on population with Frank Notestein, eminent Population Expert at Princeton University and so on.
These do not matter to me now. What I treasure more than them is the memory of a person with exemplary courage, commitment, competence and character. A person who would stand up for his ideals at any cost. A person who would keep his friendships while refusing to compromise on issues. One who held no personal rancour against anyone . A man who was calm in all circumstances and helpful to everyone as much as he was to his own family.
Indeed he was a role model.
Not only for me, but for many others who had valued his kindness ,care and concern and whom he had touched at critical moments of their life and career.