My Grandfather, Dr. S Radhakrishnan

A- A+

We honour our country’s second President Dr S Radhakrishnan by celebrating Teacher’s Day. Besides being a great statesman, he was also ‘Thatha’ or grandfather to Girija Viraraghavan, now in her late 70s. She shares her memories of an indulgent and fun grandparent on the occasion of Teacher’s Day. 

Teacher’s Day evokes many delightful memories among all of us. Memories of day long fun, thanking the teachers with a rose and role playing a teacher, giving them a much needed break. While we all know Teacher’s Day commemorates the birthday of the legendary Dr. S Radhakrishnan, little do we know the endearing side of this internationally renowned academician and our country’s first Vice President and its second President. Dr. Radhakrishnan had five daughters and a son. Girija Viraraghavan is his grandchild from his fourth daughter. She shares memories of her beloved grandfather on the special occasion of Teacher’s Day today, in her own words…

I, owe my name to my grandfather, my thatha, as I was named Girija after our ancestral home in Chennai. I was the first grandchild to be born in that house. My fondest memories of my grandfather span over a period of eight years in New Delhi when my thatha, Dr. S Radhakrishnan, was appointed as the country’s first Vice President in 1952. I was 13 years old then. During this period, I met him every day, given the close proximity of our home and his official residence, as we would go visiting him after my father returned from work. This routine continued through my school and college days, till I got married and moved away in 1960.

Before Delhi, we saw him only intermittently, as my father was working with the Railways and was posted in different cities. During our stay in Bombay, I remember meeting Thatha on occasions but very briefly, at the sea port or the airport on his way back from Oxford or Russia before he would continue his journey to his final destination. While we were in Calcutta, he would visit often given his special connection with Calcutta University and he stayed with us briefly when he got operated for appendicitis by Dr. B.C. Roy.

Vice President of the nation but child at heart

My most endearing memories with Thatha are that of playing cricket with him in the back lawn, on his free days. I would always be the wicket keeper as I had an advantage at catching the ball dressed in a Pavadai (traditional Indian skirt worn by most young girls in South India). Thatha would refuse to accept getting out and would insist that when he is playing he will be the only batsman!
He would ask me to accompany him to functions if I was around. I attended many functions and events with him and have met many important Indian and foreign dignitaries including Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Mohammed Pahlavi and his wife Princess Soraya, Josip Broz Tito, Nikolai Bulganin, etc.

Post marriage I would meet him occasionally. My husband, an IAS officer, was posted in Andhra Pradesh. During that time the President and Vice President would come every year in August and stay at Rashtrapati Nilayam, for a month. I remember a particular incident when my husband, an undersecretary then in the General Administration department, had to go to receive Thatha, then President, at the airport in an official capacity. Thatha got off the plane with a twinkle in his eyes and laughing heartily, realising his grand son-in-law was there on an official duty. My son was just a few months old then and thatha would make me visit him every evening with the baby. He would sometimes break all protocol and would make impulsive visits to my home, to play with his great grandson even though just for 15-20 minutes. While I was always happy to see him I used to feel a bit embarrassed too, as we were living in a very small government quarter and he would come visiting with his cavalcade.

A man of habits

S Radhakrishnan

Girija with her grandfather and others in the family, in 1955

A very simple, vegetarian and frugal eater, thatha loved the traditional Andhra food. He was also a man of habits. First thing in the morning after his bath and prayers, he would devour the newspapers. When not working, he loved spending time in bed, lying down surrounded by books, for he was a voracious reader. Thatha would speak at events extempore but would carry points with him, jotted down on the inside of letter bearing envelopes as he was very particular about not wasting paper.

His turban had to be perfect! I remember helping him with this daily activity, when a freshly washed and ironed muslin cloth would arrive every morning from the washerman and we would help him tie his turban. If it did not turn out to his liking, he would throw it away and we would have to start all over again with a fresh muslin cloth.
He was also a man with great memory. I remember an incident from one of his trips to Hyderabad. Once when his convoy was progressing to Rashtrapati Nilayam, he suddenly asked his car to be stopped mid-way and got off to meet a man he had recognised on the street, a man he hadn’t met for almost 25 years and whose name he still remembered!

After he retired in 1967, thatha moved back to Madras, to the heritage house ‘Girija’ that was built in 1930s, long after my grandmother passed away in 1956. My grandmother had spent most of her time in Madras during his Russian stint and his vice-presidency and presidency, as she was not very fond of the hustle bustle of political life and the Delhi weather did not suit her. I would visit Madras with my children during summer vacations. However, by this time his health had deteriorated a bit as he had suffered from a stroke and his speech and activities had been impacted. This is where he stayed until he breathed his last in 1975.

S Radhakrishnan

Girija with her husband MS Viraraghavan. Photograph: Nidhi Chawla

His birthday and Teacher’s Day
Teacher’s Day was his way of honouring teachers who he admired and respected and who he felt did not receive their due in the society. So, when his admirers wanted to celebrate his birthday, he asked them to celebrate it as Teacher’s Day instead, as he wanted to celebrate the hard work and dedication of teachers towards education and teaching.
While I did not celebrate Teacher’s Day as a student, I have indeed celebrated one at Nellore University where I attended a function both as the wife of a collector and granddaughter of the great man, Dr. Radhakrishnan. I will always remember him as my grandfather and not as the President of our country.

Black & white photographs courtesy Girija Viraraghavan

About Author

Nidhi Chawla

Nidhi Chawla is the co-founder of Silver Talkies. She loves spending time with her daughter and enjoys reading, traveling and sketching.