A message from Vinny Varghese, the Secretary of Mar Athanasius College Association, announcing the release of a postal cover in recognition of Prof M P Varghese, the founder of the Mar Athanasius institutions in Kothamangalam by the Indian Postal Service on the occasion of his 101st birth anniversary revived my memories of Kothamangalam.
I was a reluctant visitor to Kothamangalam. After finishing my M. Sc at the Union Christian College, I had applied for a CSIR fellowship and was preparing to go north in search of a place to do my doctorate. However, I received an unexpected phone call from a friend working in the physics department of Athanasius College asking me quite earnestly whether I could join the college as a lecturer and shelve my long-term plans for the time being. My parents thought that an offer of a first job should not be rejected outright. They perhaps thought that my proximity to the Cheriapally at Kothamangalam might rein in the budding rationalism, which was beginning to annoy my father.
On an impulse, I went to Kothamangalam, joined the Physics Department and shelved the plans for departure seeking research opportunities. The college on the hill was imposing, and the town had a rustic charm, the students and colleagues quite earnest, all of which I found appealing. I also found a delightful place to stay near the college, along with Jacob Elanjickal and K. K. Daniel.
Mar Athanasius College
Mar Athanasius College started in 1955 and was formally inaugurated on 30 October 1956 by His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia. Mar Athanasius College Association founded four more educational institutions.
Prof. M. P. Varghese founded the Mar Athanasius College Association. He studied Economics at the Madras Christian College and joined the Department of Economics at Mar Athanasius College in 1955. In 1953, he became the Head of the Department of Economics and the Principal in 1963. He was a prolific writer, publishing four books — A Criticism of Keynes’ General Theory, Theory of Economic Potential and Growth, a Critique of Nuclear Programme, The Law of Land Acquisition and Compensation — A Criticism.
He was prominent in public life. Varghese Sir was elected a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1952 at the age of 29. He advocated self-financing colleges and formed the Organisation for Promotion of Technical Education in Kerala. He is a pioneer in the field of establishing institutions of higher education (1).
Running a Lottery
The Mar Athanasius College of Arts and Sciences shared a building with the high-profile College of Engineering. The growing institutions needed more space. One day Varghese sir told us of his plans to organize a fund collection for building a new facility for the Arts College. None of us had a clear idea of how to organize a lottery. I found the whole situation quite challenging, and, on impulse, volunteered to join the effort. O. M. Mathew was already an enthusiast, and we roped in a few more people.
I discovered that running the lottery meant travelling to the nooks and corners of Kerala, meeting all kinds of people and dumping books of a lottery tickets on them. People were naturally quite reluctant to take on this burden. Considerable moral pressure had to be skillfully applied. It is then that I found Varghese sir, in his element; he would curse and cajole and finally talk everyone we met into accepting much more ticket books than they could realistically sell. He would paint a glorious picture of the great cause of education that the sale of the tickets would support. He knew many people, connected with the church and outside, rich and poor. Though quite reserved, I discovered that he had an easy way of dealing with people.
These journeys, usually done in the car provided by the college, with four to five people, typically lasted a week. Relaxing in the evenings after a hectic day, we would talk, and I came to know Varghese sir quite well. He would talk about his work at Oxford and his time there. It was evident that he had deep-rooted respect for the excellence of Oxford and its extraordinary impact on branding a person for life, as he was. The earlier formality was replaced by warmth, which comes from working together.
The public perception of lotteries was not very good, with allegations that the names of prize recipients were manipulated. We had publicized that we would keep a record of the buyers of every ticket sold. Varghese sir was very particular about this, as he believed that this would add to the transparency and credibility of the lottery. The tedious task of keeping this record was mine, which meant that I had to collect all the counter- foils of sold ticket books, organize them in serial order, and keep the record in a register. That this worked well was proven when, immediately on the draw of the first prize, an Ambassador car, I was able to announce the name and details of the ticket holder. The lottery was quite successful in that it collected enough money to build a good part of the new building for the Arts College. For me, this was a lesson in setting targets and achieving them, which proved very useful later in my career. It was also a remarkable period of education for me in taking a close look at Kerala.
A Film Club on the Hill
The second year of my stay at Kothamangalam also coincided with Varghese sir taking over as the college principal. He asked me to set up a film club, which was a huge success, showing English movies every weekend. We also added a music system with a collection of long-playing records of western classical music. Varghese sir firmly believed that these would somehow touch the students’ minds and leave an impact. I found to my delight that Varghese sir had an eclectic interest in many aspects of culture. However, I think he hid this aspect of western sensibility, perhaps instilled during his stint at Oxford, with the rustic veneer of a son of the soil to put people off.
It was clear that Varghese sir had a truly remarkable vision about the college. He could see the college growing, adding postgraduate and research projects, the faculty growing in stature. He was also impatient about small minds and petty politics coming in the way of realizing this vision. He had strong views about people, though discretely expressed. He was very critical about young people not fully realizing their potential and would make cryptic comments about wasting their time. He had a nobility of behaviour, which perhaps conflicted with the politics he had to play in his dealings with the college management association.
After Two Summers
I left the college at the end of the second year. Pressed with my battles of life and career, I lost touch with the college and Varghese sir for quite some time. I occasionally revived it and would meet Varghese sir on my infrequent visits to Kottayam. The last time I met him, in the summer of 2002, he told me about his fight against setting up the nuclear power plant nearby. He showed me the enormous amount of material he had collected on the environmental issues arising from nuclear power plants. I found that the spirit of never saying die was still quite alive.
In February 2020, the college invited me and Prof O M Mathew for a felicitation for organizing the lottery to collect money to build the college buildings. The college on the hill had grown to a gigantic campus with schools from primary to engineering. Prof M P Varghese’s vision had truly flowered.
The two years I was at Kothamangalam, I had never gone to the Old church there. On my last visit, in 2002, as I returned from Varghese sir’s house to Kottayam and my car passed by the church, I asked the driver to stop. I went into the church and sat there in a corner. In the flickering shadows cast by the oil lamps, with the murmured prayers of the supplicants floating around me, I reflected on many things; life, work and people. And about the remarkable person, I came to know and respect.