Racecourse legend, community chieftain, industrialist, philanthropist and unforgiving father. Open chronicles the triumphs and trials of MAM Ramaswamy, now largely confined to his bedroom in Chettinad Palace, Chennai, watching his favourite sports on television
V Shoba | 24 Jun, 2015
At 84, he is no longer the man with the spry gait and the trademark lucky tie who went gallivanting from one race track to another, cheering on the horses responsible for his remarkable haul of victories—over 3,000 cups and counting. It has been two decades since MAM Ramaswamy last mounted one of his gorgeous steeds and years since he stopped going to the races. “I used to weigh 53 kilos when I rode daily; now, don’t ask, I am almost 98 kg,” he says, his eyes rarely straying from an LED TV in his bedroom that is forever tuned to a sports channel. Watch- ing derbies on television, his leather recliner rocking gently as though mimicking an ambling horse, is a more accessible pleasure. But age isn’t the only reason he lives a curtailed life, Ramaswamy says. Member of the First Family of Chettinad —which owns one of its biggest business empires—Ramaswamy has, over the past few years, repeatedly insinuated that he is not a free man in his own house, a sprawling mansion on the Adyar estuary in Chennai, acquired and modified in the early 20th Century by his grandfather, Sir Annamalai Chettiar (1881-1948), the first Raja of Chettinad. Ramaswamy’s adopted son and sole heir, MAMR Muthiah, 43, aka S Ayyappan, took over the reins of the Chettinad Group from his rather uninvolved predecessor in 1999. He has allegedly kept tabs on how Ramaswamy, a philanthropist and a lavish host, spends his wealth and dismissed dozens of employees who had been loyal to the family for decades. While Muthiah’s business acumen does not go unacknowledged—he has grown the Group’s flagship cement business ten-fold in the past 15 years and broken new ground—Ramaswamy and supporters accuse him of ‘pettiness’; unbecoming of a Raja, even a titular one.
Ramaswamy always fancied himself a modern-day royal, spending much of his time pursuing an expensive passion for race horses—“It costs Rs 5 lakh to maintain a horse these days,” says the undisputed turf mogul of India—and patronising other sports including tennis and hockey. In the racing circuit and within the conservative Chettiar community—two exclusive worlds that rarely meet except at Ramaswamy’s birthday bashes—his propensity for largesse is the stuff of urban legend. “Aiyah has never said no to the people close to him. If you are in need, he will recognise it before you even think of asking for help,” says a longtime employee whose son attended an international business school thanks to Ramaswamy’s timely and generous intervention. As a hockey administrator in the 1970s, Ramaswamy is said to have hosted an unforgettable 30-course dinner for the Indian team in Bangkok after it lost to Pakistan. It was during his tenure as head of the Indian Hockey Federation that India won its only World Cup in Kuala Lumpur (1975) and gold at the Moscow Olympics (1980). A story goes that when the boys returned from Moscow loaded with electronic gadgets, Indian Customs officials quickly rang Ramaswamy, who readily agreed to pay the duty on the goods. “If he likes you, he will lavish not just money, but also his affection on you,” says V Baskaran, who captained the team that won the Olympic medal. “And that is what endears him to his friends.”
‘Measure even what you throw into the river’, goes an old Tamil saying that best applies to Chettiars, a mercantile community infamous for holding its money close. MAM Ramaswamy never went the proscribed Chettiar way. “It is true that Chettiars can be very calculating. We are just 1.5 lakh people in the world; we are like the Parsis: rich and very few,” he says. “I am personally happy and content to live the way I do, surrounded by friends and servants who have been with our family through thick and thin.” A man of few words, Ramaswamy speaks in short bursts. Attired in a striped T-shirt and a floral wrap that matches the bedspread, he wears a deadpan expression, as though jaded by the family feud that has festered in full public view for years, culminating in him ‘disowning’ his son earlier this month. While a fog of legality shrouds the process, Muthiah remains the major shareholder in the Chettinad Group, having come into the inheritance when Ramaswamy’s wife, Sigappi Achi, died in 2006. Many of Ramaswamy’s supporters, who do not deem Muthiah worthy of the legacy of one of the greatest Chettiar families in history, allege that his adoption in 1995 was not in keeping with the traditions of the Naattukottai Nagarathar community.
Ironically, if reports are to be believed, Ramaswamy, who by his own admission can “smile off a bad debt”, is a victim of his son’s deeply entrenched Chettiar values. A questing businessman, Muthiah, who helms the conglomerate with revenues of Rs 4,000 crore and interests in infrastructure, fertilisers, energy, healthcare and education, allegedly begrudged his father’s random acts of charity and suspected many of his aides of inveigling themselves into his confidence—and his wealth. When an assistant of Ramaswamy became too influential, says a Chettinad Cements employee, Muthiah decided he could no longer white-knuckle his way through his father’s growing army of attendants. As it turned out, they wouldn’t be the ones to stage a coup. Last year, ahead of the annual general body meeting of Chettinad Cements, Muthiah allegedly orchestrated the ouster of Ramaswamy as a director on its board. For the octogenarian who was still hurting from the state government’s takeover of Annamalai University, India’s first private university founded by his grandfather in 1929, of which he had been pro-chancellor since 1984, this was yet another blow to the family’s reputation. Muthiah could not have hoped to escape unscathed from this war of his own seeking: charges of criminal intimidation were filed against him after his men allegedly attacked an aide of Ramaswamy; more recently, Income Tax officials raided the Group’s premises, including the palace, after following Ramaswamy’s accusations that they had been evading Service Tax. Muthiah declined to be interviewed for this story.
The great doors of the Chettinad Palace in Chennai, I am told, are always open and the hearth never goes cold, feeding dozens of staff and visitors kozhi curry and rice, idli and filter coffee, through the day. When Achi, a connoisseur of exotic Chettinad fare, managed the house, it was filled with merry noise and the smell of food, flowers and incense, an old-timer reminisces. It feels magnificently bare now, the cool marble floors and the polished teakwood ceilings and doors pristine as on the day it was built, even as pieces of the past beckon from the walls. Attendants in white shirts and dhotis glide through the halls, righting a slanted picture here, flicking on a switch there, seeking comfort in the details as a bitter battle engulfs the mansion. A grand disused staircase leads up to Muthiah’s wing of the house; unsmiling portraits of Ramaswamy’s father Sir MA Muthiah Chettiar, the first Mayor of Madras, sport fresh garlands; scores of racing trophies sit neatly arranged incabinets. It was here that Ramaswamy’s father—banker, politician, patron of Tamil music and literature—hosted a lunch for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. In this historic ambience, the circle of time seems to spin a little faster, spitting out perfectly coined memories, shredding notions of permanence and rearranging relationships like old furniture handed down through generations.
Sir MA Muthiah was “noble by birth and nobler by deed”, says S Mohan, a former Supreme Court judge who knew him, paraphrasing poet Longfellow. “He once rued that Ramaswamy had no interest in his intellectual or political legacy. I told him his son would turn out okay. I must say he has inherited a lot of his father’s qualities, including a heart for philanthropy,” Mohan says. Growing up, did Ramaswamy or his brother, the late Kumararaja MAM Muthiah, feel fettered by privilege and the weight of the past? Ramaswamy, who took to playing tennis and riding horses in his teens, gave sport precedence over academics, and later, over business. A student of Economics at Vivekananda College, he rose early to practise—he played for Madras state—and made a beeline for the Madras Gymkhana Club as early as three in the afternoon to enjoy another session of tennis with friends. Some evenings, his chauffeur drove them to Mylapore Café, where they ordered masala dosa, badam halwa, coffee and beeda —seven of each, all for a sum of Rs 3.50. “My routine continued unchanged after I joined the family business. I left the management to capable professionals, I would sign where required,” Ramaswamy says. “My father was a soft-hearted and lenient man. If he ever disapproved of my life, he never said so.”
His illustrious cousins include former Union minister P Chidambaram and former BCCI president AC Muthiah, whom he has named custodian of his wealth after him. By contrast, Ramaswamy, say people close to him, was easygoing and unambitious. “We had enough wealth, lots of companies and institutions created by our forefathers. Why start something new? There was no need,” he says, with rare candour. RM Lakshmanan, a close friend who shares his faith in Lord Ayyappa, says he is a man of contrasts, “a Marxist, God- fearing billionaire”. The two men have together made over a dozen pilgrimages to Sabarimala, the one place Ramaswamy is drawn to that isn’t a race track. “The Ayyappan temple in MRC Nagar built by him stands testimony to his religious faith and his spirit of charity. He wanted fellow-devotees to be able to pray in tranquility,” says his sister-in-law Meena Muthiah, the other inhabitant of Chettinad Palace who also runs one of Chennai’s best-known schools, Chettinad Vidyashram, from a campus adjacent to the bungalow. Sources close to the family say that when a respected member of the Chettiar community proposed S Ayyappan, a boy from humble beginnings, as a candidate for adoption, the name alone was enough to kindle Ramaswamy’s interest. “Whatever the reasons, when he decides, you can’t change his mind. You don’t speak to him until spoken to,” says Baskaran. “I often joke, asking him why he doesn’t take me as his foster son. He would say, ‘poya, poya’ (go, man, go).”
Ramaswamy, Ramu to his family, was not nearly as political as his father, although for decades he craved a Rajya Sabha seat. Not even his friendship with AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa could ensure a nomination. (She hosted her foster son Sudhakaran’s fateful wedding at the Chettinad Palace grounds in 1995, a year that proved portentous for the two young men who stepped foot in the palace for the first time, and for their adoptive parents.) Ramaswamy finally turned to HD Deve Gowda, who gave him a JD(S) ticket and got him elected to the Upper House from Karnataka in 2004. “Once you are in, it seems quite pointless. I enjoyed myself for six years. But kuch nahi hota wahan (nothing ever happens there),” he says, lapsing into Hindi, which he picked up talking to his racing buddies. “As my father would say, there is nothing better in this world than being seated between a man who speaks sweet Urdu and one who smokes a really good cigar,” Ramaswamy says. He is grateful he didn’t manage to take up smoking despite lighting up every now and then—‘for style’. He is also trying to stay off meat and Scotch to lose weight. “I am healthy otherwise,” he claims, even if his swollen feet and the bottles of pills dotting his room suggest otherwise.
Mostly confined to his chair now, Ramaswamy diligently walks to the puja room at the other end of the first floor each morning, the entire Hindu pantheon— and some Christian saints—dangling from the rosaries around his neck. “What is wrong with being religious?” he retorts, suddenly taking umbrage. “I am also very sentimental. I believe in luck, and I have been lucky for most of my life. Some things are predestined, you see,” he says. Like his marriage to his uncle’s daughter. One day, when he was 19, his parents and his uncle summoned him home early from work. They had just fixed his marriage with 13-year-old Sigappi and he did not object. “It was a happy, contented marriage,” he says. “As long as she was alive, she kept the house and family together.” Then, ever so slowly, the bond between father and son began to unravel like some terrible, irreversible chemical reaction.
Ask Ramaswamy how he became the sultan of the racetrack and he will humbly submit that luck played an overarching part. To be sure, his first horse, Silver Jet, had an auspicious debut, winning the first day it ran a race. But it was his unremitting passion for horses that made him the man he is today: the most accomplished racehorse owner in India and the record-breaking winner of 599 Indian Classics. “Six hundred is just a number. I want to win as many races as I can. I have never thought of racing as an indulgence,” says the owner of about 600 pedigreed race horses and another 200 at his stud farm, a faint smile creeping up on his face. Jockeys who have worked under him say it is a pleasure to ride his horses, despite the pressure that comes with the job. “There will never be another Ramaswamy,” says Satish Narredu, a former jockey and a trainer who rode for him between 1995 and 1999, winning 51 Classics in those five years. The two have since fallen out twice, but Narredu says he cannot unthank Ramaswamy. “He gave me all that a jockey could ever want. My entire family—many of my relatives have also become trainers—owes its success to one man,” he says. Between him and his brother Mallesh, the Narredus won a hundred Classics for Ramaswamy. “He is not just a great judge of horses, but also a compassionate man who treats his jockeys well,” Narredu says.
In 1997, when Narredu was spending a few days at Chettinad Palace, Ramaswamy caught him in a dour mood. “Bolo, bolo, he insisted. I was considering buying a house in Kumara Park, Bangalore, and I had saved up about Rs 10 lakh. I needed another Rs 18 lakh. Ramaswamy immediately wrote two cheques for Rs 9 lakh each and attached a note: ‘With my love and affection’. I later repaid him, but I can never forget his generosity or the conversation that followed. ‘Ask me anything, anything at all’, he said, as if I were his son,” Narredu says.
Narredu reestablished contact with Ramaswamy in 2012, when the latter asked after his son, Suraj, who was a promising jockey by then. Suraj rode for Ramaswamy for a year, effortlessly winning race after race astride Be Safe, a champion horse that is arguably among the best to grace the Indian turf. “He has a canny eye—perhaps the best in the field—and yet he gives the jockey a free hand,” Suraj says. Earlier this year, when Suraj, riding crowd favourite Be Safe, lost the Indian Turf Invitation Cup to Quasar, an underdog from the Narredu stable, onlookers screamed in protest, deploring it as a fixed race. Ramaswamy, who is often described as a bad loser, lost no time switching stables, and the Narredus once again fell out of favour with him.
While Ramaswamy is regarded as highly competitive, jockeys say he is too much of a gentleman to directly upbraid them for losing. S Mohan, the retired judge, remembers a time when he was more impulsive. Sometime in the 1950s, Mohan was refereeing a game of tennis at the Madras Law College between a young Ramaswamy and a top-ranked Tamil Nadu player. “Ramaswamy was about to win a point, but he unexpectedly lost the set. He was so furious that he threw the racket and broke it. I walked up to him and told him he could win if he calmed down. He went on to win the game. He is a great amateur sportsman, having dabbled in hockey and tennis and everything in between,” Mohan says.
Indian hockey lost an invaluable ally and a reformer in Ramaswamy when he quit the game in frustration in the 1980s, says Baskaran. “It was under his leadership that allowances for hockey players were raised and professional kits issued. We were rewarded with perks we could have never imagined before. The boys were used to sleeping at the stadiums. He put us up in five-star hotels and the most exclusive clubs. He wanted to lift hockey out of poverty and he strove for good sporting relationships among Asian hockey-playing nations,” he says.
There is something implacable about Ramaswamy, even if he can no longer cut a bold figure in a tailored suit alighting from his Mercedes. Perhaps it is the formidable hauteur of a man who chose to live life on his own terms. To call him an indifferent aristocrat is a tempting pretence. For he is, without a doubt, a pillar of the Chettiar community, commanding the loyalty of hundreds of followers who feel at a loose end each time he is in trouble. Today, in the confines of his bedroom, the Raja of Chettinad seems oddly detached from the legacy he has been fighting so hard for. His eyes gloss over the photographs that crowd his room and he can only vaguely recall his last trip, for a relative’s granddaughter’s wedding, to the family palace in Kanadukathan, Sivaganga district, the font of Chettinad culture. “All I want to do is to live and die peacefully and to not hurt anyone,” Ramaswamy says. As I watch him tune into the evening’s racing event on his TV, I take his leave in the certainty that he could not be more at peace.