Remembering ‘appa’

Emeritus Prof Singaravelu pioneered courses such as Tamil Culture and Civilisation in Bahasa Malaysia for students.

WE would like to tell you about our father. He was a phenomenal but complex man. Singaravelu Sachithanantham was born in 1936 in South Street, Topputhurai in Chennai, India.

The eldest of nine children, he demonstrated academic fortitude early on, learning Tamil by tracing out letters in the sand at his school on the beaches of South India.

In one of our father’s many books, “The Social Life of the Tamils”, he describes early Tamil society in three parts: their habitat and material culture; religious beliefs; and social structure and institutions. We will describe our father using these same characteristics.

So, what can we tell you about where and how he lived? Singaravelu studied at three different universities - the University of Madras and the University of Malaya in Singapore for his Bachelor of Arts (of which he had three) - with first class honours, and Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur for his Masters and PhD. Not satisfied, he then studied Law at the University of London, passed the bar in 1995 and was a practising lawyer for several years in his 60s. He learned multiple languages beyond his native Tamil. These included English, Bahasa Melayu, Sanskrit, German, French, Russian and Thai.

One thing I used to periodically do, and now even more so that he is no longer with us, is Google his name. We always feel slightly envious that the Internet seems to know more about him than we ever did. Growing up, he was just ‘Appa’ (father) to us, ‘Periappa’ (big father) to our cousins and ‘Prof’ to students, university colleagues and friends.

In 1980, he became a professor of Indian Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in Universiti Malaya. A member of the senate for 25 years and head of department for 15, he pioneered courses such as Tamil Culture and Civilisation in Bahasa Melayu for students. Our father taught everything, from history, to Indian Culture and Civilisation, to how to write our names in Tamil when we were younger.

Appa was a no-nonsense type, assiduously checking attendance and marking essays, examining every line.

There was no getting away with messy work. Many of his students say it wasn’t easy, but that they are only where they are now because of him.

Our father believed in a global religion, where God was everywhere and in you. We remember that if we were travelling, he would bless our luggage and put a few dollar notes at the altar as a temple donation. Whenever I was experiencing difficulty, he would tell me that Lord Murugan was beside me. That always made me feel less alone.

What can we say about his life, socially and beyond? Our father was an athlete and encouraged us to be the same. While we quietly prayed for rain, Appa would drag us to karate, taekwondo, jogging, squash, tennis, swimming, badminton and more. One thing that thrilled us was going to the Royal Lake Club every weekend, relaxing and being pampered.

Our father was very generous, especially with food. When, in primary school, I accidentally revealed I loved nasi lemak, he then bought me a packet “just in case” (as he would say) every single morning. I took to hiding them all above my cupboard – until one day my mum and I discovered them, much to my horror. He went out of his way to buy us the nicest of everything, from gifts, toys, books and clothes, wherever he travelled.

He funded our education, never asking for anything in return, and giving us complete freedom to study whatever we wanted. Because of my father, I have a degree in aerospace engineering and a Masters and PhD from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. None of us would have the lives we have now without Appa (and of course Amma).

Sadly, we only learned important details about him much later in his life. I wish we had asked him more searching questions about himself. I don’t think we appreciated how much stress he was under as an academic, father, husband, brother, son and colleague. Men in those days did not openly discuss their feelings, thoughts and ambitions. We know he held on strongly to his principles, which could sometimes baffle others. We know that he became Emeritus Professor in 2004, he loved “Yes, Minister”, and onion curry – and for some unexplained reason, hated cauliflower. We know he passed away peacefully on Jan 13, about two weeks ago.

But we don’t know what he remembered about his mother when she fell ill while he was a young boy. We don’t know what it was like to move from India to Singapore and then Malaysia, and start his life anew each time. We don’t really fully understand why sometimes he could be aggravated, conflicted, at times dissatisfied. But we know that we love our Appa and want people to remember him as a brilliant scholar, father and human being. We would like to end with some of Appa’s own reflections:

“Respect every source of knowledge, however small it may be. Every moment one becomes aware of some new knowledge, one becomes aware of one’s previous ignorance.

Whatever obstacles one may have to face while striving for success and excellence, one has to carry out one’s duty to the best of one’s ability and leave the results as an offering to God Almighty.”

What a bountiful offering you have left, Appa. Thank you.



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