In 1931, Periyar had planned to make a trip to Europe from Puducherry via Sri Lanka. He wanted to find out how political and social set-ups in those western countries were contributing to changes in the social, political and economic fields. But just a few days before he was set to sail, he got fever but recovered somewhat by the day he was scheduled to depart. Some of his friends, especially revolutionary poet Bharathi Dasan, felt that it may not be comfortable for him to travel in the ship in the fourth class, and so started collecting funds for purchasing a higher class ticket. But Periyar disapproved of the move, and, instead, chose to travel in the fourth class, sitting on the lignite sacks stacked at the bottom of the ship. Generally, only soldiers and labourers travel in that class, but Periyar was firm that buying a higher class ticket was wasteful expenditure.
Likewise, once he was travelling from Coimbatore to Chennai in train in third class. Seeing this, the famous scientist-inventor G D Naidu compelled him and took the first class ticket for him. But the moment he left the place, Periyar got the ticket cancelled through a friend and took a refund. Superficially, this may look like an act of stinginess, but if one goes through his life story in depth, one can come across many of his noble traits.
Simplicity was something that he followed naturally, and he never forced it on himself or made a show of it merely to earn the appreciation of others.
He belonged to a very well-to-do family that was getting an income of more than Rs 1 lakh per annum even at the beginning of last century.
Till the age of 40, he lived like a ‘minor’, carefree and spending lavishly. But once he decided to join the Congress and enter state politics full-time, he resigned from as many as 21 positions of power that he was holding including that of Erode city mayor, on a single day. He also discarded fancy clothes and switched to wearing khadi.
Even when he left the Congress later in 1925, feeling aggrieved that they could not pass the resolution for class-wise representation, he still continued with his simple lifestyle, wearing only a lungi and a shirt. When he went on tour, he didn’t stay in expensive hotels, but preferred to stay only in the homes of partymen. When in North India, he used to stay in tourist homes, municipality guest houses, and even in dharmashalas, or choultries.
In 1959, the place where he chose to stay in Indore was full of filth, was noisy and stank. When those who went with him were wondering how he could stay in such a place, Periyar simply spread his bedspread on the floor and went to sleep, snoring loudly. This well-to-do man, who held so many properties against his name, remained an embodiment of humility.
Once when he was travelling in a train, the great Tamil scholar Va Ve Su Iyer too happened to travel with him, and he was shocked to see Periyar’s spartan appearance. Iyer knew Periyar’s family well for years and thought mistakenly that the once affluent family of his must have fallen into bad times. Holding Periyar’s hands with compassion, Iyer started quoting extensively from ancient Tamil texts and advised him not to lose heart! Periyar felt amused, but didn’t show it on his face. He didn’t want to clarify to Iyer that there was nothing wrong with him financially and that he had chosen to remain simple out of his own volition and in the process shock the sympathetic man. So Periyar just remained silent.
But, Periyar’s attitude and approach were very different on another occasion. Once, Peraringar Anna was found missing from the office for quite some time and he was told that Anna had gone to Higginbothams bookshop. Anna didn’t buy books there, as he had no money for that. But he was very interested in reading and so he used to read the entire book sitting in the book shop itself. When Periyar heard this, he gave money and asked two copies of the book – one for Anna and the other for the office library.
While he was firm when he felt that one has to be thrifty, he was quite generous when it came to matters concerning knowledge and education. When there was a request from the government asking for funds for building a college in a prominent place in Trichy town, he gave a donation of Rs 5,50,000 in 1965, without any hesitation.
Some people may have wealth but do not use it either for themselves or for others and their wealth they accumulate goes waste. But the wise are prudent in their spending; they do not go for extravagant expenses and waste their money, and instead live a thrifty life and utilize their wealth for social advancement. Periyar did just that.