On the holiday of Deepavali, November 13, 1879, a couple of hours before sunrise, a baby boy was born to C.R. Pattabhirama Aiyar and his wife Rangammal in the town of Wandiwash in North Arcot.
Wandiwash (the anglicized version of Vandavasi), is perhaps best known for a decisive battle fought in 1761 during the Seven Years’ War. Both the British and the French were fighting for control of south India, which, of course, neither of them had any right to, since they were from Europe and not from India. Having more money and more resources, the British won, securing the capture of Chengalpattu, Thiruvannamalai (the location of the mountain Arunachala), Tindivanam, and Perumukkal.
The holiday of Deepavali is celebrated all over India, in memory of the triumphant return of the great heroes Rama and Sita to reign over their kingdom, Ayodha. On their return they were greeted by a joyous populous, carrying thousands of lights; commemorated ever since then, the festival is a celebration of lights.
The boy’s full name was Chetpat Pattabhirama Ramaswami Aiyar. His father, C. R. Pattabhirama Aiyar, had high hopes for him and was a stern disciplinarian, all the more so since two astrologers, one a European and one an Indian, had both predicted that the young boy would never pass an exam in his life. This grim forecast made an impression on Pattabirama Aiyar, who was a distinguished judge and a prominent leader in the community. He concluded that his son would need a strict upbringing in order to make a success of himself and continue the family tradition of public service.
During his school days, if C.P. was more than a few minutes late arriving back home, he would find himself locked out of the house, expected to skip dinner, and forced to spend the night on the verandah. Actually, the verandah was pleasantly cool, and his mother Rangammal, or one of the servants, always found a way to smuggle his dinner to him, with some extra dessert as well.
His father had a special high desk made for him, so that he could stand while studying, since his father feared that he might otherwise nod off and fall asleep.
There was no need for his father to have worried so much about his success.
Not only did C.P. pass all his exams with flying colors, he was brilliant in school, winning prizes in English, Sanskrit, and Mathematics. Dreaming of becoming an English professor, he sailed through every course with ease. However, his father insisted that he become a lawyer, not a professor. In those days, as is still true today, children in India are expected to obey to their parents, not just when they are young, but throughout their entire lives. So C.P. gave up the idea of becoming a professor and took up the profession of law, graduating with distinction from the Madras Law College.
From 1920 to 1923, Sir C.P., as he later was known, served as Advocate General of the Madras Presidency — the equivalent of State Attorney General.
A brilliant lawyer, he won over 300 cases. Although he enjoyed practicing law, he declined an invitation to become a judge at the Madras High Court. Thanking the Chief Justice of Madras for the offer, he said, “I prefer to talk nonsense for a short while, to hearing it all day long.”
It was during a prominent legal case, in 1912, that C.P. first came into contact with Annie Besant, who later became a close associate of his. The Besant – Narayaniah Case was brought against Annie Besant by G. Narayaniah, and was prosecuted by C.P. Annie Besant had adopted G. Narayaniah’s two young sons and sponsored their education in England. Over time, however, the boys saw less and less of their father, and his suspicions grew that they were deliberately being kept away from him. The case had a link to Theosophy, since one of the boys was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who had been “discovered” as a future world spiritual leader.
Anne Besant was a leading figure in the Theosophical movement, and one of the accusations was that the boys were being indoctrinated into Theosophy. On behalf of the boys’ father, C.P. won the case, with Annie Besant acting as her own lawyer. Later on, however, the case was overturned by the Privy Council, a Judicial Committee in England, which was the final court of appeal for the British empire and could overturn the decisions of Indian courts. Annie Besant wrote to Sir C.P. to express her profound thanks for the great respect and courtesy he had shown to her during the case. He had, indeed, shown her great courtesy by declining to have her charged with contempt of court, though there were some grounds that would have supported this charge, which would have landed her in jail. The two established a firm friendship which lasted the remainder of her life.
To be continued…
Top photo: Author – Banandhan / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / Vandavasi, Tamil Nadu, India. The decisive battle of the Seven Years War, which the British won, was fought here over 100 years before C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar was born in the town.
Second, third and fourth photos: Courtesy of C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation