Book readings

V P Raman: The Man Who Would Not Be King

Read Time:13 Minute

MMA organised a discussion on the theme of the book, The Man Who Would Not Be King, authored by Mr P S Raman, Senior Advocate, Former Advocate General. The author led the conversation with Mr Sriram Panchu, Senior Advocate, Madras High Court; Mr Ramesh Krishnan, Former Tennis Player and Arjuna Awardee; and Mr Mohan Raman, Actor, Film Historian.

P S Raman: My father V P Raman was truly a multi-faceted personality. What do you say about a man who joined school and by the time he was in his fourth or fifth standard, was already talking about Plato, Aristotle and Socrates and not Enid Blyton and the Malory Towers? When he was in the seventh, he was learning violin from Papa Venkatramiah and became an accomplished violinist. By the time he had come to the tenth standard, he had two double promotions in Church Park Convent.

So he was underage to write the Senior Cambridge examination. What did he do? We would have normally sat at home and waited for a year or two to pass. But his higher achieving father—my grandfather—made him  learn shorthand and typing in six months’ time and at the end of that six months, made him become the private secretary to the late TT Krishnamachari (TTK).  He made him work as his PA for one full year before he had the time to start writing his Senior Cambridge and become a member of the Loyola College. 

He then got into Law College and in two years broke all the records. He joined the DMK party, becoming its first and the only forward community member of the DMK’s executive committee, becoming its Constitution drafting committee’s convener. Later, he quit DMK. He had a hyperactive social presence in Chennai and beyond. Then he said goodbye to everybody. All these were packed in just 59 years.  

What started off as a book of anecdotes turned into something more, because of the discovery of various records which my grandfather and father had maintained inside a forgotten safe deposit locker behind a painting in my house. It was almost cinematic. I opened it one morning and there I found some 20 to 25 files, ranging back from 1920 and going up to almost the time of his death. I was amazed by the record-keeping ability of my father and my grandfather. I could spot the conduct certificate given to him in 1945 by TTK and his mark sheets in Church Park Convent.  

‘The Man Who Would Be King‘ is a beautifully written a novel by Rudyard Kipling. He wrote it in 1888. It’s about the life of two adventurers who travel to a fictional place in the northwest of India, the then British Raj. The book got immortalised 150 years later by John Huston. He made it into a movie in 1975 with Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer acting in it. Coincidentally, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer died during Covid, as I was writing the book. 

I tweaked the title a little by saying ‘The Man Who Would Not Be King,’ because in Kipling’s book, the lead character desperately wanted to be a king.  When he had it, he lost it. But the protagonist of my book, VP Raman, whenever the kingdom was offered to him on a platter, declined it for some reason or the other. There were particularly four crucial moments in his life when he declined.  

Four Crucial Moments

First was his resignation from the DMK in 1960 from a position of high eminence. Had he swallowed his pride and stood there at that time, when the DMK came back to power in 1989, he would have been the second senior-most in the government, as he was even senior to Anbazhagan. That is one kingdom which he lost. Thereafter in 1963, when he had gone for his first appearance in the Supreme Court, then Chief Justice Gajendragadkar was so impressed with him. He called him to his chamber and asked my dad to become a judge. He said, “No. I’m only eight years in the bar.”  The Chief Justice said, “I will make you a judge in two years’ time as I will be around for nearly four years.” If he had accepted it at the age of 32, he would have become a judge of the High Court. Possibly, if he had continued and with this brilliance, he would have made a great judge. But temperamentally, I think, he chose the right decision. He would have possibly become the Chief Justice of India and been there for 10 or 15 years. It was the second time he refused the kingdom. 

The third time, it was in 1977, after emergency was lifted in India and Shah Commission was appointed. Mrs Indira Gandhi wanted him as his lawyer. He was already her lawyer as Additional Solicitor General. Mrs Gandhi wanted him to defend her and her son Sanjay Gandhi in the commission. My dad for some reason said, “I will defend you, Ma’am, but I won’t defend your son.” She said, “No, Raman. We are very keen that the same defence should be there for both of us. We don’t want separate counsel.” He said, “In that case, I’m out of the case,” and he left it. Had he stood with them through that commission, which was anyway a commission which didn’t result in anything significant, much like most other commissions, he would have been possibly the Attorney General of India when Mrs Gandhi came back to power in 1979.  

The last time was in 1984 when he got his revival into his legal career. Everything was going great. I had travelled with him to many places. Very suddenly, he lost the zest for the profession. At that time, if he had gone back to Delhi and set up a practice, he would have become one of the big time senior advocates of the genre of Parasaran, KK Venugopal and Soli Sorabjee. They were all in the same vintage, three years up or down. So the fourth time, the kingdom was thrown. When somebody does that four times in the life, I think he definitely deserves to be called ‘A man who would not be king.’ 

In 1963, when my dad was hardly 31 years old, he made his first appearance in the Supreme Court as a lawyer taking up a Special Leave Petition. He was standing before five Supreme Court judges and even before he could say a word, all the five judges started bursting questions to him, one after the other, without waiting for him to reply and when they finished, he quietly turned to the Chief Justice Gajendragadkar and asked, “My Lord, the Chief Justice. Excuse me. This is my first appearance in the Apex Court. So I do not know your protocols. Do I answer your Lordships’ questions in the order in which they were posed to me or based on the seniority of your Lordships or based on my perception of their relevance to the case?

Justice Gajendragadkar looked at his side and all the judges started laughing. He said, “Issue notice.” Justice MC Chagla was sitting next to dad. He caught dad’s hand and said, “Well done, young man. You had a very tough case for admission. You won them over with your wit and repartee. Never lose the two.”   

Sriram Panchu: I shared a relationship with VPR (VP Raman), which wasn’t the best to begin with, because I was a fervent anti-emergency man as a young lawyer. Our first few encounters were not exactly of the pleasant kind. Things warmed up as I started to engage him in professional matters. And then, I marvelled at the razor sharpness of the man’s mind—his sharpness in understanding a case and delivering it in court. I had never seen anything like it. 

In his last few years, VPR took the privilege of asking me to be the executor of his will. One thing about having an executor is that you have the right to change your will at any point of time. Handling VPR’s will meant going to Lloyd’s Road every week. We both would sit and have long conversations. He would share anecdotes, his reminiscences and the wisdom that flowed from him.

But on my part, I troubled him and said, “You cannot quit. How can you stop?” I cajoled, begged, pleaded, remonstrated and threatened. I did all kinds of things. I said, “Just come back to it. Practice in Chennai if you want. Or let’s go to Delhi. You will be the king of the SLP (Special Leave Petition) Court.” In the Supreme Court, you can file Special Leave Petitions and the judges do not give lawyers more than 30 seconds to make their point. I knew that VPR could have taken apart a 300-page High Court judgement in 15 seconds. He didn’t need 30. He would have been the king. I consider it as one of my greatest failures that I could not succeed to get VPR back in his legal profession.  

But I understood that he was a man who had conquered his own Everest. Lesser peaks and minor plateaus were of no charm to him. In the heavenly firmament, we have stars. But we also have comets and meteors and they blaze across the sky. They blaze when they are young. Perhaps it is in the character of a comet or meteor that it must run its course before other twinkling stars run their course. I simulated that. But he was a wonderful man to get to know and to spend time with. There are so many facets to his life. He had a great style of advocacy and held to his principles. 

In court, VP Raman wielded the assassin’s knife. He had the art of going for the jugular in a matter of minutes and a few crisp sentences. The judge would have no way but to give it to his way. When he argued, there would be no blood all over the place but it was the lawyer on the other side who knew that death was in the air. He also had a gift of combining humour in his arguments. He used humour, wit, quotations and drew on his extensive engagement with literature. That made him a very fine lawyer and not just his knowledge of the statutes. One of Rudyard Kipling’s quote says, ‘Do not over pride yourself in money, position and glory because one day you will meet the man who cares for none of these and that day, you will know how poor you are.’ VPR is one of that fast vanishing breed. He had the courage of speaking truth to the power.   

Mohan Raman: My father was a great lover of sports. He had many friends in the film industry. Lyricist Kannadasan was one of his closest friends in the film industry. One day, he walked into our house and told my father, “Just now I wrote a song about your family, for the film ‘Lakshmi Kalyanam.’ My family has many Ramans. My father was V Pattabhiraman. My elder brother is P Sundaraman. My youngest brother is P Raghuram. The Tamil song that Kannadasan wrote is, ‘Raman. Ethanai Raman adi?‘ (Raman. How many Ramans there are!) The song lists many names of Rama. As we had many Ramans in the family, there would be constant confusion. Whenever my father picked the bakelite phone, somebody would ask for a Raman and my dad would ask, “Which Raman do want to speak to?” 

I have a feeling that my brother (PS Raman @ Bharath) with his knowledge of law, his association with politics, following my father in his footsteps and being the Attorney General of Tamilnadu, has a better perspective of my dad’s life than me.  

I would like to add one more point where my father refused to be king. Between 1977 and 1979, my father was Tamilnadu’s Advocate General when MGR was the Chief Minister. Then suddenly, due to some misunderstanding created by somebody, MGR kept my dad a little away. All he had to do was to seek 15 minutes time with MGR, sit down and say what happened and clarify things over a cup of coffee or Horlicks. (MGR did not take coffee. He would have Horlicks or milk). We all persuaded him from the family. But he did not listen and simply said, “I know MGR from 1952 and he knows me so well. There is no meaning if he expects me to go and sit with him and clarify.”  

He always called a spade a spade, sometime a club. I will never say he was a benevolent king to all because he was benevolent to the person for whom he won the case but not for the other guy. Everything was black and white to him. There was nothing called grey. He could be charming with someone and at the same time, be so brutally honest with his feelings, emotions and views with another person. That was his problem.  

Ramesh Krishnan who is my brother Bharath’s close friend from childhood, had been the apple of the eye for my dad because of Ramesh’s extraordinary success even as a school child, in the world of sport. He was a Junior Wimbledon champion. Dad would tell me, “Either you have to shine in studies like me or be good in sports like Ramesh Krishnan.”  

As Bharath said, my dad had a meticulous way of keeping records. It is very sad that most of us are poor in keeping our records. The film industry is paying for this lapse. They are unable to locate the original prints (or negatives) of the films made in 70s and 80s. This is true even for Mani Ratnam’s movie Nayagan. Luckily, they had the Telugu version. What we have in Tamil today is based on this Telugu version mixed with sound track from the Tamil version. The national film archives is doing its best but I don’t think they are succeeding pretty well. My advice to you all is to keep all the photographs -of your granddad or great granddad and others safely. Someday, it will be a treasure for your grandchildren. Who knows? You might also get to write a book and they will all come handy.   

Ramesh Krishnan:  I have a feeling that we have not heard the last of this book and that it could well be made into a movie. That is Mohan’s forte! My connection here is with Bharath (PS Raman). From toddlers, we’ve been at school together and we spent 14 or 15 years in school. We got to know each other very well. I regret to say that I did not know his dad VPR very well. We were in school till 1977 after which I started getting into my tennis. I was away from their family for 14 years, perhaps since we are in the subject of Raman and Ramayana! By the time I got back, it was early 90s and VPR had passed away. Of course, I reconnected with their family and we were able to pick up the threads from where we had left.

Bharath and I, both represented our school in sports. I remember fondly the trip we made to Yercaud. Bharath represented the school in Table Tennis and I played in Tennis. We both got into the fields of our fathers—Bharath into law and I into Tennis.