S.S. Kannan

A life of service

Print edition : May 26, 2017

S.S. Kannan, popularly known as Karl Marx Library Kannan.

‘Karl Marx Library’ Kannan (1923–2017), a Gandhian-turned-communist who seized all opportunities that came his way to serve humanity and nurture the growth of knowledge, will live on in the hearts of those whose lives he changed.

“THEY accuse me of being a philanthropist as I serve the visually impaired instead of being a revolutionary,” said S.S. Kannan, popularly known as Karl Marx Library Kannan.

“Who?” I asked.

“Some comrades,” he said.

“Have they made revolution?” I asked again.

He laughed heartily and said, “They are good comrades.”

That is Kannan. He had no personal grudge against anyone, including his critics.

Kannan was born to R. Srinivasa Iyengar and Lakshmi Ammal on May 23, 1923, at Sarukkai, Papanasam, in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. “Srinivasa Iyengar was a staunch nationalist. He worked as the headmaster of Victoria Board School and introduced Tamil medium for the first time in the then Madras Presidency in 1922,” said S.S. Rajagopalan, educationist and younger brother of Kannan. Srinivasa Iyengar also admitted girl students in his school, after persuading an initially reluctant management to allow it. But he being a nationalist and the management being pro-British, conflicts between them could not be avoided. He resigned and went to Coimbatore and settled there.

Kannan finished school and his intermediate education in Coimbatore. He participated in the picketing of toddy shops in accordance with Gandhi’s direction as part of his temperance campaign and made Rajagopalan participate in it. His father sent him to Banaras Hindu University, founded by the nationalist leader Madan Mohan Malaviya with the cooperation of Annie Besant and other personalities. There, too, Kannan participated in the freedom movement. On one occasion, the Army entered the university campus to arrest student activists. Vice Chancellor Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become the first Vice President and later the President of independent India, objected to this. But the Army continued the search for activists. Radhakrishnan advised the students to go underground and stay in nearby villages. He assured them that the villagers would protect them. Kannan was one of those activists.

In that period, students were organised by the All India Students Federation. Marxist ideological classes were conducted by, among others, P. Ramamurti, Communist Party of India leader, and M.B. Srinivasan, the All India Youth Federation leader who went on to become a famous musician. The Gandhian Kannan participated in the classes. He was a voracious reader and started studying communist literature; in due course, he became a communist. He participated in the plays performed by M.B. Srinivasan and S. Ramakrishnan to propagate the ideals of the freedom movement and Marxism among students and other sections of society. Although he became a sincere communist, he never veered away from the influence of Gandhi’s constructive politics.

After completing BSc (Engineering), he returned to Coimbatore. He joined PSG Polytechnic and worked there for some time. Then he joined the electricity department of the State government as an electrical engineer. He was posted at various electrical projects. Wherever he was posted, he took care of the workers and their children. He conducted classes for the workers on electrical engineering, particularly on safety methods.

Rajagopalan said: “As there were no schools in the project areas, children of the workers could not study. He persuaded the local body leaders and others to establish schools. He conducted classes for the children, too. He was for education through the mother tongue. He prepared textbooks on electrical engineering in Tamil, which were used as textbooks in Nachimuthu Polytechnic at Pollachi. He was active in trade union work also. He was the president of the TNEB Engineers’ Association in 1971-72.”

When Kannan was working in Coimbatore in 1967, the Marxist intellectual and activist S.V. Rajadurai (SVR) was running the magazine Puthiya Thalaimurai (New Generation), with some other comrades’ cooperation, supporting the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or the CPI(ML). Kannan helped them run the magazine, financially and in other ways. SVR also ran the Sinthanai Manram (Forum for Thinking). Marxists, Periyarists, Tamil nationalists and others assembled under its umbrella to discuss everything under the sun. Kannan played an important role.

The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board sent Kannan to France to study the electricity distribution system between France and England, which enabled both countries to export and import electricity depending on local demand. On his return he prepared and submitted a report of that system and a model system to be implemented in Tamil Nadu with connections to other States. This became the basis of the system in Tamil Nadu created in the 1990s.

Kannan retired in 1978. In 1980, he and SVR met accidentally on Mount Road (now Anna Salai) in Chennai. “We discussed the future plan. In that discussion evolved the idea of establishing a library, Karl Marx Library, which would have as much Marxist literature as possible. We decided to keep the library open for all irrespective of the visitors’ party affiliation or creed. The decision was implemented soon,” said SVR. The library was initially run from the house of SVR in Chennai. SVR’s friend P.N. Rangasamy donated some books.

From late 1980 to late 1981, the police in Tamil Nadu carried out an “anti-naxalite” drive in which many CPI(ML) cadres were killed in “encounters”. Hundreds of suspected persons were arrested, including the author of this article. Many more were harassed in the name of investigations. SVR was one of them, and he had to go underground for some time. At that time Kannan shifted the library to his own house at C.I.T. Nagar, Thyagarayar Nagar, in Chennai. The library began to function from there.

Kannan spent much of his pension money to buy books and journals for it. In its last phase, the library had more than 7,000 books and many bound volumes of about 50 journals. The collected works of Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Maxim Gorky, books by Marxist leaders and scholars from around the world, books on history and on the international and Indian communist movement, communist documents and Marxist and other leftist journals were available there. Rajagopalan said: “When he started to serve visually impaired students, he bought a number of textbooks on English and Tamil literature. When one visually impaired girl student studied music, he bought many books on music.”

The library was very active in the 1980s and the early 1990s. Whenever I went there I saw at least two or three persons reading leftist literature and more than 10 visually impaired students studying textbooks. Sri Lankan Tamil militants were frequent visitors. A few years ago Kannan donated the books to the CPI(M) State Committee’s libraray, established in memory of its veteran leader A. Nallasivam, and the CPML(People's Liberation)’s Marx Library, both situated in Thyagarayar Nagar. The journals were donated to the Roja Muthiah Research Library.

Helping the visually impaired

Kannan’s affectionate service to visually impaired students is well known. It all started in 1983. One day he read the news that Annam Narayanan served visually impaired students and needed volunteers to read for them. Kannan immediately involved himself in the service. He cycled to the homes of the students and helped them out in all possible ways. Soon his house became like an institute. He read out for them; prepared them for examinations; filled in application forms for them to join colleges and universities; helped them get employment—the list is endless.

D. Veeraraghavan was a brilliant visually impaired student. Kannan helped him get everything he needed to write his doctoral thesis titled “The Rise and Growth of the Labour Movement in the City of Madras and its Environs A.D. 1918-1939”. Veeraraghavan completed the thesis and got his doctoral degree. Subsequently, he was appointed Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Kannan translated the thesis into Tamil jointly with Puthuvai Gnanam. It was published with the title Chennai Perunagara Thozhirchanga Varalaaru (Thotramum Valarchiyum ki.pi. 1918-1939) by Alaigal Veliyeettagam in 2003.

Kannan’s elder sister, Padma, also participated in the service for visually impaired students. His wife, Mythily, generously fed 10 to 15 students daily. When they came home, they would ask: “ Maamy, what is special today to eat?” Kannan’s housemaid Maheshwari’s extraordinary care for everybody, including Kannan, should be appreciated specially.

Kannan died on April 25 at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife and younger brother. His body was donated to Sri Ramachandra Medical College, as he had wished.

When the funeral procession turned the corner of the street, a spontaneous meeting was held by those who followed the van up to that point. In that informal procession, there were more than 15 visually impaired persons. A few of them spoke, and what they said was this: “For us, the visually impaired, Kannan sir was the vision. He helped us in all possible ways. He even dared to fight with a Minister for getting us employment and won. He will live in our hearts.”

R. Jawahar is a freelance journalist based in Chennai.