Kalki and Rajaji: A Connection From Previous Lives

Fifty years ago today, December 25, 1972, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, one of the titans of India’s freedom struggle, passed into the ages.

Kalki Krishnamurthy, who penned the Tamil classic Ponniyin Selvan among numerous other novels, describes his first glimpse of the man who would become an august national leader and his cherished role model.

IMAGE: Kalki Krishnamurthy, left, with C Rajagopalachari (centre). Photograph: Kind courtesy, Gowri Ramnarayan

It was as a fourth form student in 1918 that Krishnamurthy saw Salem C Rajagopalachari for the very first time. Back then the man had not been given the well-known sobriquet ‘Rajaji’. It was four years later that the leaders from north India called him Rajaji — just as they called Gandhi ‘Gandhiji’ — and popularised the name.

It took ten years more for the student who saw him then, to morph into ‘Kalki’.

And fourteen years later, under the pen name ‘A Student’, Kalki describes his first glimpse of the man who would become an august national leader and his cherished role model.

One day, a big public meeting was held in front of the town hall. Bipin Chandra Pal, the famous nationalist and peerless orator from Bengal, was to speak on the occasion. A high school student was among those who came to see and to hear him. The boy became eager to know the identity of a Tamil dignitary seated beside him. ‘Who is he?’ he enquired from the man sitting next to him.

‘Salem C Rajagopalachari,’ was the answer.  

That was when the youngster heard that name for the very first time. He was curious to know what qualified the man to sit on the dais next to Bipinchandra Pal.

‘What does he do in Salem?’

‘He’s an eminent advocate, municipal chairman.’

The boy was not convinced that these were sufficient qualifications for the man to be seated with Pal. After all, the country was full of money grabbing advocates and feckless municipal chairmen.

‘What is his connection to the national movement?’ the boy asked.

His neighbour seemed to know a lot, for he answered, ‘He has funded those who serve the nation.’

Not bad. This was somewhat satisfactory. The boy asked, ‘Anything else?’

‘Ardent social reformist. He has been ostracised by members of the high caste communities in Salem for joining the untouchables for a meal.’

The lectures of Swami Vivekananda had first developed in the lad a hatred for the practice of caste distinctions and untouchability. This loathing increased as he noted the hypocrisy in the observance of rituals, and the fraudulent, selfish actions in the so-called vaidika community, whose members were regarded as the true followers of the scriptures. Bharati’s songs too fuelled this abhorrence.

Until then, the youngster had not seen any Tamil born who had actually abjured caste distinctions and untouchability. No surprise that the boy saw Rajaji as a valiant hero.

For the youth of today, it would be difficult to understand the struggles undergone by the social reformers of those years. Voyages overseas, sitting down to meals with untouchables, a non-brahmin’s presence when a brahmin took his meal, even accepting drinking water from someone who belonged to a lower caste — all these and more were punished with social ostracism. In short, it was easier to go to prison, than to work for social reform.

Only after he was released from his first term of imprisonment did Kalki see Rajaji again. This time he also got to speak to him. Let Kalki tell us about it:

‘After spending all of 1922 in prison, I was released in early 1923. I was preyed by anxiety. Ayo! They have kicked me out of the cell! What am I to do now?’ S Ramanathan, who was then secretary of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, put an end to my anxiety. His committee’s headquarters were in Tiruchirapalli. And there he gave me the post of a clerk, with a salary of Rs 30.

‘My family and friends were happy to know that the Congress paid any salary at all. But I was not happy. Do you know why?’

‘There was another clerk in the same office. He and I had been classmates. He did not quit school to join the non-cooperation movement as I had done. He was no great shakes in studies. He had not served the Congress for free, nor had he gone to prison. He got employed in this office when I was in prison, and was now earning Rs 40.’

‘What irked me was this: I who had made sacrifices and undergone imprisonment was paid Rs 30, and he who had done nothing at all got Rs 40. This thought ate into me. Therefore, a few months down the line, I applied for a raise in my salary. S Ramanathan who was very fond of me, added my request to the agenda of the next working committee meeting.’

Remember how in the Gaya Congress session the faction that won wanted no change and confirmed the resolution to boycott the state legislative assembly? Deshabandhu Chittaranjan Das and others broke that resolution and launched the Swaraj Party. The Indian National Congress committee decided to take a neutral stand over this state assembly issue, and not advocate the boycott.

Since this was contrary to the resolution passed in the Gaya Congress, leaders like Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Babu Rajendra Prasad resigned from the executive committee.

Rajagopalachari wrote to S Ramanathan and asked him to prepare a pamphlet in Tamil, explaining their stance by showing how the Indian National Congress Committee’s resolution contradicted the Gaya Congress resolution, and emphasising the need for the state assembly boycott. Ramanathan asked me to do it. I wrote that pamphlet. It was sent to Rajaji for his approval.

The moment he got out of the train in Tiruchi to attend the state executive committee meeting, Rajaji asked Ramanathan, ‘Who wrote the pamphlet you sent me?’ Ramanathan pointed to me, standing nearby.’

‘What does he do?’

‘He works in the state executive committee office.’

‘I thought I saw signs of approval on Rajaji’s face. For a few minutes he talked about nothing but the pamphlet, saying how he liked everything about it, including the handwriting.’

‘Good. The master is happy. He will increase my salary,’ I thought.

‘When this matter came up in the committee, secretary Ramanathan recommended a raise of Rs 5 in the clerk’s salary. Dr Rajan, who had been responsible for my leaving school and who had a special fondness for me, enthusiastically seconded the proposal. The others agreed. Ramanathan was just about to note it down when Rajaji, who had been lost in thought until then, broke in to ask, “Who gets an increment?” I felt uncomfortable.’

‘Since the others said nothing, Rajaji looked at me and asked, “Why do you want an increment?” I stayed silent. He began to shower me with questions.’

‘Are you married?’


‘Your parents?’

‘My mother is alive.’

‘Does she live with you?’

‘No. She lives with my elder brother.’

‘Do you have anybody else to support?’


‘Living all by yourself, is Rs 30 per month not enough to meet your needs?’


‘Then why do you want more?’

Silence was my answer. I couldn’t have told him what I had in mind, could I? Ramanathan came to my rescue and said, “He is very intelligent. And does extremely useful work.” Dr Rajan affirmed this statement.

‘This morning I too said his pamphlet was well written. Does it follow that we have to pay him more? Not possible in the Congress. If he wants to be paid more for his intelligence, he should have taken up some other job.’

The matter was closed. I cannot tell you how anger welled up in me. But as the days passed, my anger turned into devotion. I can say that his ruthless dismissal of my salary demand seeded that devotion.

[Much later, when I went to the Gandhi ashram in Tiruchengodu, and saw Rajaji living with his children in a hut thatched with palm leaves, I realiSed that he was not someone who stopped with giving advice to others. He had made immense sacrifices in his own life.]

On that visit Kalki stayed in the Gandhi ashram for a week. He has described that experience at greater length in the article signed ‘A Student’:

There, in a palm grove, in a hut thatched with palm leaves, Rajaji sat writing on a mat spread on the floor. This scene left the young man who was visiting the ashram absolutely wonderstruck.

The wonder increased when he saw that Rajaji was teaching the alphabets to a group of children, including some from the untouchable community. He was astounded when he found Rajaji, his daughter and several ashram inmates having their simple lunch cooked by a Gaundar boy. Seated in the same row with them were two young men from the Adi Dravida community.

At this time Kalki was merely a visitor at the Gandhi ashram. Later he went to live and serve in that ashram for five years. In those five years, only a few times did he get to interact directly with Rajaji. But these words show how those interactions were more than enough to make him regard Rajaji with the highest respect.

Rajaji’s appearance, speech, and all that I learnt about his rectitude and his life of sacrifice, instilled bhakti in me.

I had the same devotion for Mahatma Gandhi as I had for Rajaji. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi’s greatness is immeasurable. However, he is a man from Gujarat who does not know Tamil. So, there is some difficulty in absorbing his teachings. But Rajaji belongs to our own Tamil realm. What he speaks in our mother tongue goes straight into our hearts.

These words from an article titled En Purvashramam, ‘My Previous Life’, invoke Kalki’s feelings when he joined the Gandhi ashram. As he worked closely with Rajaji, these feelings were transformed into deep-rooted bonding.

Kalki had thought — and openly admitted — that some unusual relationships in his life could be described only as connections repossessed from previous lives. His connection with Rajaji could well come under that category. Amazing results emerged from that bonding. 

One of them was what Kalki described as ‘a pilgrimage, the result of good deeds I had performed in a previous birth.’ This was his visit in 1947 to the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan, taking with him a gift of books in Tamil.

In this chapter, let us look at Kalki’s very first glimpse of the poet.

Serendipitously, in the same Tiruchi city where he first saw Rajaji, and around the same time, schoolboy Krishnamurthy saw the great poet from Bengal.

One day, as he left school, he saw a poster announcing the arrival of Rabindranath Tagore to the city. Winner of the Nobel Prize! An international celebrity! A noble soul to whom Mahatma Gandhi bowed as ‘Gurudev’! What can you say when such a person comes to your own town! The youngster’s heart swelled with eagerness and wonder — only to wilt as he noted the information printed below. There was a payment for hearing the poet’s speech. Five whole rupees! For the Santiniketan fund!

In those days five rupees was a huge amount even for the wealthy. For a poor student it was an impossible sum. Impossible as it was, the desperate boy was determined to see the poet and hear him speak. He had five rupees left from the pittance his brother had sent from the village. ‘I will steal from myself,’ he said, as he paid every pie he had, to get an entrance pass for the meeting, even though this meant that he would have to go penniless for days to follow.

Some thirty years later, Kalki wrote about his having given up his personal needs for so many days to see the poet Tagore in person in the Kalki Deepavali issue, 1947.

When the enraptured Krishnamurthy looked at Tagore, he must have felt that a cloud sailing in the blue skies had wafted down to stroll on the earth. A face of copper-gold hue, streaming white beard, a robe of white silk hanging from shoulders to feet…

The youngster raised his hands to fold them respectfully. But an unconscious impulse made him touch the figure. What scent did he inhale as he placed over his eyes the fingers that had touched the poet? The scent of camphor… or the lotus? The scent of poetry… Fame?

Krishnamurthy had read innumerable books from childhood, but he had never read Tagore until then. Hearing the poet was to be aroused to fervour and wonder. He adds:

That touch inspired me to read his poems like the Gitanjali and The Gardener, and short stories like The Hungry Stones. I was intoxicated. And I drew a pleasurable comfort from Tagore’s verse and prose, the same comfort I had felt when I touched his robe. It filled my heart.’


Excerpted from Kalki Krishnamurthy: His Life and Times. Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan from Ponniyin Pudalvar by ‘Sunda’ M R M Sundaram, published by Kalki Biography Project.

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