MSS Pandian, A Self-Effacing Intellectual

It was in 1978 that I stepped into the Madras Christian College (MCC) for my under-graduation (BA – English Literature). The institution was not new to me as I had done my PUC as well there.

The same year, my cousin, M Samuel Soundara Pandian (MSS Pandian, as he came to be widely known), enrolled himself for his MA (Economics) at the college.

It was after that I got to know him better. We had some common interests but our interactions were largely centred around writing. He was already contributing thought pieces for the media on weighty issues such as social justice with a certain degree of authority.


An image of Dr Pandian downloaded from the Web through a Google search.

A multi-faceted personality: Prof. Pandian, who passed away yesterday in Delhi following a cardiac arrest, was not just an economist. He was a historian, a social activist, an academic (he had been with JNU as a Professor the last few years and a visiting professor in a few universities abroad), an author, a journalist and a rationalist. He was a multi-faceted personality!

Dr Pandian was earlier on the faculty of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), founded by Dr Malcolm Adiseshiah after his tenure as Vice-Chancellor of Madras University. Later, another eminent economist, Dr C T Kurien, became the chairman of MIDS. Prior to their MIDS postings, both Dr Adiseshiah and Dr Kurien had during different periods served as the Head of the Economics department at the MCC.

If I am not wrong, it was under the guidance of Dr Kurien that Pandian got his PhD. He also did his post-doctoral study in London. He moved with the best economists in the country, authored papers with them and wrote books with a focus on social justice and on the Dravidian movement.

One of his best-known books, though, is “The Image Trap: MG Ramachandran in Films and Politics”.

Caste-Class Nexus: When in April 1980 a few of my friends and I launched a campus magazine, Outburst, he contributed a brilliant piece on the nexus between caste and class. He argued how the caste system was a religious and social sanction for inequality, acting as a mask for exploitation.

Pandian’s piece stood out as much for the convincing analysis of factors contributing to Harijan oppression as for the lucidity of his style. That maiden issue of Outburst had a foreward from Dr Abel, then Principal of the college.

They were perhaps among the very few readable articles in the magazine that serves as an embarrassment for me when I revisit it now. Editing and production were poor and my own pieces mediocre.

I wanted to get into journalism even when I was doing my BA (English). By the time I was close to completing my MA from MCC, Pandian got into research and was preparing for his Ph.D. We stayed in touch and he asked me why I was keen on an editorial position rather than on reporting. I was passionate about writing, but I was not an outdoor guy. Nor was I gregarious or very outgoing.

It was only after I spent a few years as a sub-editor that I realized reporting could have given me greater satisfaction. After I moved to Singapore I got into full-time reporting, but that did not last long as I had lost interest in journalism.

Student union elections: During the student union elections, I had seen Pandian grill candidates at the campaign talks. Be it those connected with the Student Christian Movement or those having affiliations with entities of other religions, the treatment was alike.

There was no rancour involved, just objective questioning as his interest was in common causes transcending all religious or social barriers.

Close Bond: Pandian’s mother and my mother were first cousins. Our two families were always in close contact. Even after I moved to Singapore I remained in touch with his mother and sister (a doctor in London). It was not so with Pandian.

Though I had kept myself abreast of his whereabouts, I do not remember having met him during the last at least 15 years. We had not even exchanged mails which is a real shame in this Web era.

A few months ago, during one of my visits to Chennai, I visited his mother, Darling Mathias aunty, at their home in Thiruvanmiyur. He had lost his father, Wilson Mathias uncle (who was an Executive Engineer), a few years ago. Veteran journalist Sam Rajappa is Mathias uncle’s brother and Pandian’s uncle.

In September this year, his mother visited my home to pay her homage to my mom with whom she shared a close bond.

Pandian’s death is a huge loss for the academic community and to the oppressed classes for whom he had always lent a voice. It is a terrible blow for his mother and his family (his wife, who teaches at the MIDS, and daughter who is still in school).

As for me, it is another loss I will have to rue for the rest of my life. It is a grim reminder for me to stop focusing on the self, venture forth and stay connected with our dear and near!

Here are some links to reports about his sudden and sad death at age 57!

May his soul rest in peace!

G Joslin Vethakumar

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