A Tribute To Dad

“We are like the sailors and boatmen of the oceans. We often drift from place to place, subject to subject, and reality to philosophy. Some are guided to their destination by trained captains and powerboats. Others reach their targets after struggles and challenges like the man on a sailboat. Though the sailboat is pushed by the wind, drifted by the waves, the boatman steers along the direction of the wind and the waves and finally reaches his goal. Here, I am mentioning some of my memoirs, experiences and encounters during my sojourn and anchoring in various places.”

– Prof. G. Shanmugam (opening paragraph from his memoirs for his non-profit organization, Shanmugam Foundation)

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Prof. G. Shanmugam. Photo: 11/2011

Appa passed away on April 15, 2015. He’s the most beautiful loving father we could ever wish for, and hope to be born under his guardianship many more times. We will miss him dearly and he’ll remain in our hearts forever.

No amount of words can express how much we will miss him or what he meant to us. Even more so that it was such an untimely death, nobody saw it coming so soon and so suddenly. Appa was very lively, healthy, enjoying a peaceful and happy retired life. He had a strong and healthy body. The only thing that destroyed it is the marvels of modern healthcare. He was even genetically predisposed to longevity: his mother lived till 99, and his father till 86 (that too his father died of an injury when he was jolted while traveling on a public bus). If it were not for the medical negligence by doctors, he would have lived gracefully all the way into his 90’s.

This post is a brief tribute to appa to capture who he was as a person, his humble beginnings, accomplishments, and what he meant to us.

Cause of Death

Appa died due to the fatal side effect of a cholesterol control statin drug. It is the same class of drug that caused his renal failure in 2006 (which he had completely recovered from). There was even a 1-hour PBS documentary investigation on the FDA corruption with Big Pharma for having approved this drug for market. Not only does the drug carry a warning saying it can cause acute renal failure, but it also says those with a history of renal failure should not be given this drug. That the doctor prescribed such a drug without considering his case history, is a case of serious medical negligence. This resulted in acute renal failure again (after 8.5 years of enjoying a life of full recovery). To make matters worse, this time the kidney failure had accentuated peripheral arterial disease (which is not uncommon in old age) in two of his toes, resulting in the second medical negligence: the doctors did not even attempt to address the continuous pain in two of his toes despite appa and others around him repeatedly pleading to the doctor on every visit. This resulted in gangrene to develop on those two toes. Gangrene is a deadly condition (caused by bacterial infection) that can spread rapidly and poison the entire system, and kill you within a matter of a few days if not treated early. Without even investigating, they just told “it will be ok with 4-5 dialysis”. They should have at least investigated the foot pain, when instead of improving, it got much worse (it became so bad he could not eat or sleep). Instead they put him on more dialysis. It only accelerated the spread of the gangrene infection, as dialysis (plus sleep deprivation, plus being unable to eat) terribly weakens the body, depriving it the ability to fight the gangrene infection. It was only in the day before is death when there was a sudden turn of events, that the doctors realized it was gangrene. But by then it was too late: the gangrene had spread, becoming sepsis, body went into septic shock, and cardiac arrest.

In more detail: When appa first went to see the doctor on February 25 about the foot pain, the doctor said it would be ok with 4-5 dialysis. Three weeks went by, hoping appa’s foot pain would go down with dialysis. When it didn’t, we started to emphasize to the doctor to focus on the foot. When the doctors continued to ignore the pleas, I called my brother and said we have to take him to a different doctor, and conveyed to appa about the plan around March end. Appa said he’ll feel more comfortable in going to another hospital once the dialysis fistula in the jugular is removed. It was removed on April 4. Next, we thought, let’s try to slowly get him to eat. It didn’t work, he still could not eat. On April 7, appa said he felt 40-50% improvement in pain (but looking back, it is likely because the gangrene would have eaten away the toe completely). So we gave it one more week to see if it will further improve. No change in food/sleep pattern, and no further reduction in foot pain. By then one week had passed, coming to that fateful day of sudden turn of events on April 14. On the morning of April 14, appa had gone into the ICU (because of chills, drop in BP, and drop in blood sugar) fully conscious and speaking with clarity to everyone before he went. He never made it out. While in the ICU he had suddenly lost conscious, went into cardiac arrest three times, never regained conscious, breathing his last on April 15. The tragedy underneath it all was this deadly gangrene spreading and poisoning the system. Had the doctor just taken a look at the foot back in February 25, the gangrene could have been treated on time, and appa would still be alive today. For further detail on the statin drug and gangrene, see Cause of Death link at end of this post.

He had a strong and healthy body for his age. I always remember his handshake was always firm and wholesome, completely eclipsing my hand, every time he left me at the airport. His bones were strong (while many of his age get osteoporosis he had no sign of it), he had strong set of teeth (while myself and amma have had even lost a tooth or two), very good eyesight (only low power reading glasses), strong lungs (his belly would rise and fall deeply when sleeping, while most of us have such shallow breathing; when he called you could hear his voice across the yard, as he would call me to eat or go out). He was always an early bird, waking up at the crack of dawn, starting off the day with his routine around the garden. He was even planning on making a trip to the USA this summer (he had already renewed amma’s passport for that purpose), and had even asked me to buy a new laptop for him before my next trip.

It could not be further from the truth when doctors say appa died because of “kidney failure and old age”, instead of stating the two acts of medical negligence without which this would not have happened in the first place: prescribing the statin drug known to cause acute renal failure (that too to someone who has had renal failure in the past), and neglecting to diagnose the foot pain which turned out to be gangrene (which can kill you within a matter of days if not treated immediately).

1. As a Scientist

Myself being in a totally different subject area (myself an engineer, and he a Professor of Molecular Biology), I’m certainly not the right person to express the extent of his scientific contributions. But let me quote one of his students, by saying as an accomplished scientist in his field, he’s been cited in books written by Nobel Laureates, a Nobel Laureate even visited him in his home in Madurai {todo: get their names}. The research papers he had published back then in the 70’s were groundbreaking for that time and are still cited even today.

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Two of dad’s colleagues reminiscing the great times working with dad 1970-78. Photo taken in same lab he worked in, when my brother and I visited. 06/2007.
{todo: replace with photo of appa’s Cancer Biology Unit lab — who has it?}
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More recent photo of the lab he worked in back in the 70’s, at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. 06/2007.
{todo: replace with photo of appa at his desk in Cancer Biology Unit — who has it?}

Here is a list of credentials and achievements, graciously taken from a presentation from his students.

Academic Credentials

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Lecture.
{todo: when and where this was taken}
  • PhD in the area ‘biosynthesis of nucleic acids’ working at the erstwhile Regional Research Laboratory (now Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology) (Hyderabad, India).
  • Postdoctoral studies at the St Louis University School of Medicine under the famous tumor virologist Prof. Maurice Green (St. Louis, USA).
  • Assistant Professor of Molecular Virology at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
  • Joined Madurai Kamaraj University (1978) and established the Cancer Biology Division (Madurai, India)
  • Retired in 1999 as Senior Professor of Biochemistry and Head of the School of Biological Sciences.
  • He was INSA Senior Scientist and Emeritus Professor (1999-2007) at Madurai Kamaraj University.
  • After retirement, Founder and Director of non-profit Oncophyta Labs, a phytoceutical company developing plant-based drug formulations.

Research Achievements

  • Many novel contributions in the area of molecular mechanisms of viral carcinogens, and replication of RNA tumor viruses including HIV.
  • Identified several genetic alterations in oral cancer such as mutations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.
  • Role of hypermethylation in the genesis of oral cancer.
  • Identified potent anticancer agents like Cleistanthin A from indigenous plants.
  • Published over 100 research papers in high impact journals (see ResearchGate).
  • Supervised over 25 PhD students.

Awards and Honors

Prof. G. Shanmugam was conferred the following awards and honors:

  • ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) Award for Biomedical Sciences.
  • INSA (Indian National Science Academy) Senior Scientist Award (1999-2004).
  • UGC (University Grants Commission) National Lecturership Professor.
  • Fellow, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.
  • Fellow, Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore.
  • Fellow, National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad.

Other Contributions

  • Served the INSA Council (1995-97).

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    Prof. G. Shanmugam. Photo: 05/2011
  • After retirement, founded Oncophyta Lab in which he gave practical training in Molecular Biology Techniques and Animal Tissue Culture to college students.
  • As part of Oncophyta he also formulated a very successful nutraceutical, Spiruplus, which many people have reported amazing healing benefits, to the extent they’ve come right to our home thanking him for the wonders it has done to for their ailment.
  • Oncophyta was also involved in the dissemination of drugless healing and environmental education.
  • In his later years of retirement he focused Oncophyta on traditional medicine and medicinal plants. He was against pharmaceutical companies patenting traditional Indian medicine and medicinal plants. For example, there are over 400 patents based on turmeric alone. Which means if you give some treatment using turmeric, you would owe royalty fees to that company. According to NISCAIR of the 5,000 patents given out by the US Patent Office on various medical plants by the year 2000, some 80% were plants of Indian origin.
  • FYI, the name Oncophyta (a portmanteau of oncology and phytology) derives from the original objective of the organization which was to promote development of cancer treatment drugs from Indian medicinal plants, as opposed to chemotherapy which often takes a devastating toll on the body.
  • He’s traveled the globe on scientific conferences and symposiums, including several times to the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories and the Gordon Research Conferences (these conferences are attended by top cream of scientists from around the world, including many Nobel Laureates).

Return to India

GreenCardAppa returned to India in December 1978. This was a period of “brain-drain”, where top talent was being siphoned out by the USA, by luring them with attractive salaries, relatively luxurious living, and advanced laboratory facilities.

Upon return to India, appa started the Cancer Biology Unit at the School of Biological Sciences (a cluster of about 6 buildings, each of which were headed by scientists of exceptional reputation back then) at Madurai Kamaraj University, where he replicated such critical laboratory facilities and passion for research as in the USA, and supervised at least 25 PhD students.

His department excelled in the amount of passion, enthusiasm, and love for science with which the students worked, producing high quality research, landing them in leading research journals, and in top institutions (his department came to be known as the “Gateway to the USA”).

2. As a Guru

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Appa with some of his students. 1988.

Appa was a renowned scientist who touched the hearts and kindled the passion for research in many students during his tenure. The outpouring of condolence emails across the globe expressing grief and tears is itself a testimony that he was no ordinary teacher but a guru who took personal interest in each and every student. For instance, just how many students would express grief over the passing of their teacher from 25 years ago (let alone even remember them, or stay informed about their well being)?? Such is the mark of a great teacher, and so rare that is. As one of his students said, you come across only one in a million teachers like that. Everyone describes him as inspiring, unassuming, soft spoken, generously kindhearted, and approachable by all.

When speaking about family, appa often referred to his “extended family”, i.e. inclusive of his students whom he had not just taught, but treated and taken care of like his own children. He used to always say he has 30 sons and daughters. And the other way around also: students looked up to him like they would a father, confided in him and sought his advise even in personal decisions. As a guru, appa understood the importance of taking into account each persons personal backgrounds and temperaments, and not just teach them under one blanket umbrella.

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At Gandhi Museum. 11/2011.
{todo: I think handing out certificates?}.

I remember how much personal interest and time appa spent in getting the Cancer Biology Unit built. The lab came to be known by folks in other departments as the lab that had all the equipment/facilities, including equipment that was much sought after. It set the standard on what a lab should be like. More than that, it set the standard on how research students should be. I remember in my 9th-12th grade when I used to frequent the lab after-hours, it was the only lab building I’d see fully lit up with students worked late into the night, driven not by pressure, but by the passion and inspiration from the guru’s guidance… and it was an inspiration to see such activity (as opposed to a an empty building at night). If every teacher were to inspire such passion in their students like that today (unlike today’s research students who do it just for sake of work), India would have plenty more Nobel Laureates.

Even after retirement, he never stopped giving talks inspiring and encouraging others, especially those coming from poor families or village backgrounds.

Here are two of many condolence emails we received, that summarizes it all in what appa meant to his extended family:

Dear All,

It is very saddening to know that  Prof. G.S. has passed away. My deepest heartfelt condolences to his wife, Pari, Mani, Selvi and his extended family members.

G.S. was an amazingly simple man, an accomplished scientist with unassuming persona, an inspiring leader and a perfect teacher in totality, an inspirational scientific mind with everlasting child-like curiosity, who has touched deeply my life and every one of his students’ lives with his unique cheerful simple style. Always with a smile on his face, even at difficult times, very composed and cool. He taught me science and showed me the meaning of life by being a true role model. He taught me not to be afraid of making mistakes, but to take notice of them and learn from them. That is how I started my scientific life. He made me realize the iterative evolution of scientific thought process leading to baby-step discoveries. I am very grateful for my master and mentor GS in making me who I am today.  He will live in my thoughts and memories.

– Jeyaseelan

It is also what he did NOT do that made Prof. GS the great man he was and will be remembered for. He did not have the high and mighty superior attitude that many of the professors had.  In a true Socratic tradition, he did not impose any sort of intellectual limitation on his students. His students were as free to choose their topics as they were to make mistakes. He did not ridicule when his students faltered, neither did his exalt the success of any one person. He did not set a hierarchical system within his domain. From the glassware washer to the postdoc, everyone was on the same footing in the lab. His attitude was perhaps best epitomized by the fact that he never locked his room and every student could walk right in without once knocking.

Sir, I Salute you for all that you were and all that you were not. I salute you for standing your ground with quiet composure, for your inspiration and support through the years.

– Padmaja

In Loving Memory of Prof. G. Shanmugam

The following is a tribute to GS (as he’s more fondly known by his students), put together by appa’s students. Click inside document to scroll.

The photo in the title page of the document is of appa in his office back in the early days (the 1980’s and 90’s). It is a memory which everyone will cherish, of “GS” sitting behind his desk and chair in his office (in the lab building that he started and ran for many years till his retirement). I used to frequent his office often and spent many late nights there studying or on the computer (the only computer for miles around). It was also the place where I’d have my 1:1’s and quality time with appa, else at home we’d each be preoccupied in other things.

I’m sure this photo is as deeply moving for his students as is for me, this is an indelible image. Thank you to his students for putting this together! Appa will be very proud seeing this, it is probably a testament that he has done his job, and has done it well, and an immense sense of fulfillment for his atman.

3. As a Yogi

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One of appa’s early morning nature walks. 09/2013.

Appa was a really humble and simple man, who despite his credentials as a reputed professor, never lost his rustic way of life. One time I exclaimed jestingly, “why do you go about doing gardening work always dressed like a villager — shirtless with just a veshti/dhoti, unlike other neighborhood professors”. He grinned and said: “[but] I am a villager :)“. See Humble Beginnings section below on his village background.

Karma Yogi. Unlike idealized notions of karma yoga and practicing selfless service, appa was a living example of it, a karma yogi in the most practical sense.

Despite the amount of accomplishments, credentials, publications in top journals, number of students in well placed positions, he never flaunted any of it. Many today, even with a fraction of what he had would use it to propel their career to the next level. For example, when appa was short-listed for position of vice chancellor, while we siblings were anxious, he was not so interested, saying he’d like to remain as a scientist as that is his nature (though I believe what he meant was he’d like to remain as a guru, continuing to guide and transform students into world class scientists, by instilling confidence in themselves that they can be anything they want to be).

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Appa in his most typical attire, with grandson. 03/2012.

I remember back then, he spent so much out of his own pocket to buy critical equipment and custom biochemicals so that the research won’t be stalled by bureaucratic red tape. Contrast that when so many today do the opposite: finding devious ways to pocket money belong to the university! I remember around 1994-2004, sending him checks adding up to around $8,000 at least, as well as buying and lugging equipment on flight, like two Thermal Cyclers / PCR machines for his lab.

Rural India. Coming from a village background, he never forgot his roots as a villager, and always had an attachment towards village life (see Rural India). He was an altruist who took special interest in helping those from poor backgrounds to rise up (ranging from monetary help like giving free loans to inspirational talks). He’d often bring me back to ground reality by taking me to schools closer at home where kids could not even afford basic school supplies or a school uniform. He only introduced me to supporting this school/orphanage. After retirement he spent the next 15 years in teaching college students interested in science, spreading awareness on cancer, environmental toxins, medicinal plants, the method of science, etc. I plan on reviving Shanmugam Foundation, and carry on his work of education, awareness, encouraging school children and college kids, restoring pride and self-confidence that anything is possible.

…when my son Pari was studying at Chennai in the eighties, I used to visit him in his hostel. There was little water in the bathroom. Every day a couple of drums were filled up for the early birds. Our students are very patient and we have to admire them otherwise in no other place in the earth the students will remain so quiet and patient in a situation when swimming pools and fountains are built for the statues while their hostels did not get sufficient water.
– Prof. G. Shanmugam (from his memoirs for his non-profit organization, Shanmugam Foundation)

One of Appa’s favorite spots which he frequented at least once a week for a nature stroll (and collect fresh coconuts).

Sadhana of Gardening. Like any yogi or genuine scientist (probably a tiny fraction of all the scientists today), appa had a great respect for nature.

Our house compound represents over 20 years of his gardening work. He had tropical trees every kind: coconut, mango, almond, banana, guava, papaya, jackfruit, amla, neem, ashoka, teak, rosewood, tamarind, curry leaf, drumstick, orange, kumquat, lemon, sapota, cotton tree, custard apple (சீத்தா பழம்), jambu (நாவல்), etc. And various flowering plants like jasmine (மல்லிகை), button jasmine (குண்டுமல்லி), night jasmine (பவழமல்லி), tree jasmine (பன்னீர் மரம்), firecracker flower (கனகாம்பரம்), hibiscus (செம்பருத்தி), east indian rosebay (நந்தியா வட்டை), frangipani (சம்பங்கி), four o’clocks (அந்தி மந்தாரை), butterfly pea (சங்கு பூ), roses, orchids, bougainvillea (காகிதப்பூ), etc. Various herb like aloe, mint, omam, tulsi, henna, betel leaf, red chillis, eggplant, okra, various cacti, various creepers, etc. So much that our house with its thick foliage stands out distinct from other houses in satellite view from Google Maps, and our house had become grand central for birds of all kinds (see: Nature). He also totally had green thumb – while others have to take effort nurturing a plant, he’d just “drop the seeds and add water”, and it without fail grows all the way into a full grown green tree. While we mechanically nurture it (and often kill it), he just gives his love and happiness in watching it grow.

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Grandson enjoying fresh coconut water from his thatha. 03/2012.

It’s no coincidence that yogis (ancient rishis, sadhus, buddhists) have gardening as one of their preoccupations (hence, “zen gardens”). While others go on nature tours, appa appreciated the finer subtler things in life: watering his plants, trimming a flower bush, nurturing a sapling, smell of earth after a rain, morning sunrise, the morning mist and dew, sounds of the day awakening with birds, sleeping under the light of a full moon (long back, appa got us to do that a few times, to sleep on the terrace under the moonlight), etc.

Along that line, I’d say appa connected with God not through places of worship (unless they were ancient and set in a natural surrounding), but through nature and simply by having a soft heart for all things, and living a simple and honest life, and in his later years through addition of listening to bhakti songs and chanting, and simple one-on-one with God at temples during times when no one else was there.

Childlike Curiosity. Appa always had a childlike curiosity that never faded. Einstein once said “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education”. Appa is one such person. For example, if he saw a new bird in town he’d pause to observe (contrast that with today’s generation, where people are too busy to notice, let alone even pause to observe). He knew which type of bird came when to our compound, including any newcomers to the area (which caused me to do a bit bird watching as well, see Local Birds). He often carried a sack of grains with him whenever he went for his early morning strolls at the university to feed the peacocks. I believe it’s that curiosity that took him on his journey from a village boy to a reputed foreign returned scientist.

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With grandson. Lawrence, KS. 05/2011.

Rain. He loved rain, anxiously looked forward to it, even more so summer rain. Whenever it rained, he used to say the plants must be dancing with joy. The way he expressed it, sneaking a peak outside with huge wide open smile and all excited… one would think he himself was a plant :). He’d even get so excited, that without fail, he’d make a call to Bangalore saying it’s raining in Madurai. After the rain tapers off, he’d always take stroll taking a look at the plants, commenting how fresh, green, cool, satiated, and happy they are (he’d say, “செடியெல்லாம் பார்த்தால் சந்தோஷமா சிரிக்கிரது”).

Trees. He had a great compassion for all life. He had sensitivity for all creatures in distress, even plants, like coming to the rescue of trees from being chopped mercilessly. You’d think that it is a common trait, but most people are just so busily preoccupied to stop a second and empathize. When government workers tried to unscrupulously chop down trees in the area to widen the highway, appa was among the first to write to the city officials. When he finds a school, temple, or any place for that matter of his liking, he buys and donates tree saplings. He even successfully stopped our own neighbor from chopping a big neem tree in front of their house with help of some intervention from a retired law advocate. His sensitivity for nature has been passed on to us, as we’d get so riled up when people as much as try to chop a tree branch. Over a third of the photos and slides that my dad took during his prime (over a thousand, including about 400 slides) were all of nature (including lot of autumn and spring photos of trees through the four seasons when in St. Louis).

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At Kurivithurai Kovil. 12/2013.

Ancient Places. He loved to travel and see places, especially places of natural beauty and places of ancient origin. In fact, I owe to him for almost all of the nature related or ancient sites in this blog (see for example, Samanars), and for instilling that temperament in me (always drawing me back to love for nature, from my preoccupation in technology/engineering). Any temple he went, he’d more interested in the marvels of ancient architecture, like what the building stone is, where it could have been brought from, which king could have sponsored it, how could it have been back in those times.

Man of Action. Yogis don’t plan, think, or deliberate. They just “do”, execute, act. They have a full satisfaction of whatever they undertake, regardless of the outcome, because their svadharma is aligned with the cosmic dharma (whether it is part of a larger task or just planting a tree…), a complete satisfaction with life. Similarly if appa thinks anything, he right away materializes it into action, even before the thought has time to mature into a desire, the act is done (just like the pure desire of an infant, which is not preceded by thought; such desire causes less suffering). One might say it is responsible for his meteoric accomplishments from his humble beginnings. It is a profound concept and attribute of a yogi (entire sections of the Bhagavad Gita are dedicated to cultivating this type of action that is in tune with the cosmic consciousness).

4. Humble Beginnings

Succeeding generations of people, often take for granted what their parents accomplished. What appa accomplished in his lifetime went way beyond anything we can dream of doing ourselves.

Starting from humble beginnings of growing up in a small thatched roof hut (the size of a bedroom) which would leak rainwater, walking 5km or hitching a ride on a bullock cart to school (Pachaiyappa’s High School, Chidambaram),… to being the first from his village to go overseas to the USA (let alone even leave his village to a different state during that time would have been great achievement in itself), and being the first in his batch of colleagues in the USA to buy a family home.

The Journey begins...
Appa standing on the bridge that connected his village to the rest of the world (this bridge/train was as much of a pride as would be a town having its first airport today). This is the train he took to his college/university (if he missed the train he’d walk along the tracks, says his brother). It is one of the only two solo photos from his bachelor days (the other is while on a boat across the same river). Who would have known this would be the start of a tremendous journey out of his village and across continents on a passenger plane (at a time when air travel was only a handful and limited to the rich and privileged). TODO: who sponsored appa’s flight out or was it his own savings? Photo: ~ 1956-1961
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Appa, amma, and myself (and a luxury item — an AM radio). Hyderabad, India. 05/1965.
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Appa and amma visiting after almost 33 years their first house, in St. Louis. 06/2011.

Appa grew up in Vallampadugai, a small village about 5 km from the temple town of Chidambaram, the home of Nataraja. In his own words, from his brief autobiography book for his foundation:

Vallampadugai, a lush green village on the northern bank of the river Kollidam is where I was born and raised. In my childhood days there was no bridge across this river. The result was quietness. Now there is a long bridge. The quietness has gone. Thousands of automobiles zoom each day.

We lived in a thatched house with a small hall, kitchen and a storage area. I enjoyed the rain dripping through the palm roof, keeping utensils to catch the rainwater and occasionally sitting under a table. Our calf happily lived inside our hall and once swallowed part of my notebook when I slept during reading for my examination! I often used to spend the fore night leaning in an easy chair and gazing the stars. I have seen brides being brought in palanquins from one village to other. The two palanquin carriers chanted some rhyming words while speed walking with the palanquin on their shoulders. They used to rest for a while near an Ayyanar temple where we used to collect clay for making dolls.

My father K. R. Govindaswamy was a popular elementary school teacher. After his school hours, he spent rest of his time treating scorpion bits, conducting marriages and writing boards for the public meetings. He made thousands of people literate not only by teaching in the school but also by free tuition in the night.

Chidambaram is the temple town, the abode of the cosmic dancing-supremo the Natarajar. This town is five kilometers away from Vallampadugai. I had my schooling here in the Pachaiyappa’s High School. The same old school building is there ready to collapse then and now. I used to walk from my village either way to school and imagine a drill class in the first period after this walk! All of the teachers were highly dedicated and Thiru N. V. Ramasamy**, a middle school teacher asked me to attend his tuition class daily at 7 a.m. absolutely free of fees. I could not refuse this offer and hurt his feelings although I felt that walking from my village and showing up at 7 a.m. was cumbersome.

– Prof. G. Shanmugam (taken from his short autobiography book for his non-profit Shanmugam Foundation)

**{many years later, when Thiru N. V. Ramasamy visited appa in Madurai, appa prostrated at his feet. I have never heard of appa prostrating towards anyone. Amma tells us that he is the only person that appa has ever prostrated to. Not only it shows the humility of a student for a guru, but also shows the mark of a true guru (that not only so many years later the student has such respect for the teacher, but that the teacher came to visit his student after so many years), just like appa and his students.}

Adding to the above, I try to capture his humble beginnings in my own first-person experience. When appa took us on our first visited to India in 1974, it was a humbling experience to see the village home he grew up:

  • I remember seeing the home he grew up in, and where his parents were still living in: a small mud house the size of a bedroom. It had rained when we visited, and the palm-leaf thatched roof still dripped rainwater just as appa mentioned in his memoir,
  • I remember my grandfather graciously lending his “bed” to me (just a hard wooden plank, so narrow that an inch this way or that and you’ll fall off; during the day it doubled up as a seat or table, that was the only piece of furniture I remember they had),
  • My grandmother preparing some halva sweet for us in the kitchen on mud stoves on the floor (with flames being fed by sticks and cow dung based biofuel, with smoke rising up through the hole in the thatched roof, blowing on a pipe to fan the smoke, and myself choking on the smoke several times trying to help) with mostly clay cooking vessel, few brass/copper vessels,
  • The night lit by a kerosene lamp, and of course, no phone, fridge, tv, stove, hot water, a/c  — things most people take for granted. At the most you’ll find the village having one vacuum tube radio (like my maternal grandparents who lived in the city (Chennai) had).
  • a corner of the hut with combs of bananas and sacks of rice/grains in large storage bins,
  • we’d all eat together on banana leaves on floor, and we’d sleep together on straw mats laid out on floor,
  • feeding the cows, watching them being milked, manually pumping ground water,
  • taking a bath with appa and my brother in the peanut farm’s irrigation canal,… and visit to the huge irrigation well,
  • Remember appa supervising the building of the new house for his amma and appa, right next to the hut/home he was raised in (and being the first house in that village made of brick and cement).
  • Remember one particular walk with appa which always replays in my mind whenever I hear flute music from T. R. Mahalingam (which I owe to appa for introducing via his vinyl phonograph records). Early morning walk, morning sun after the rain, pure village, birds, fresh air, cool breeze, morning dew, appa was showing me a guy scaling a coconut tree (my first time seeing coconuts being picked), while flute music played in the village background (who knows, it might have been my paternal grandfather on the flute, as amma says he used to play the flute).
  • Remember a visit in around 1986, waiting at the railway station for a car to pick me up — because the relatives anxiously told me that they’ll send a vehicle (வண்டி) to pickup me up to take me to the village. I was curiously piqued when the “vehicle” was not a car, but a bullock cart (மாட்டு வண்டி) waiting right in front of me (and dad’s grin when I shared that with him).
  • My chithappa (appa’s younger brother) said appa once found a wrist watch stuck in the mud of a bullock cart wheel. Appa took the watch, cleaned it, and that was his watch for years.
  • Chithappa (appa’s younger brother) also said whenever appa would be upset, he’d run off to catch the train to college without eating breakfast. In which case his mother would package the breakfast (usually idlis) and have his brother run after him. When he caught up with him, appa would always ask him if he’s eaten, else have him eat first before he partook anything. Appa always placed the well-being of his siblings before him.
  • If appa missed the train, he’d walk along the tracks. Shown in the above photo is him standing on the girder bridge (now replaced by an RCC pre-stressed bridge) across the Kollidam connecting the village to Chidambaram
  • Remember going on early morning walk to the local thatched roof tea shop with grandfather, watching them brew and serve tea, and seeing the village folks read newspaper and discussed the issues of the day, like everyone knew each other. This is something appa always missed. It is this village/people connection that enabled my paternal grandparents to live healthy and active into their 90’s, with a relatively very good quality of life till the very end. Today even neighbors you’ve worked with for years don’t even come out, everyone is preoccupied by technology. Today we are just automatons… go to work, do work, come home, hook your brain to the internet or the TV, eat, sleep,… and repeat. As one famous computer scientist in artificial intelligence said (more than 40 years ago), something like: “the danger is not that machines will become more like humans, but that humans will become more like machines”.
  • That appa raised himself from a remote village to the level of education enough to earn the recognition to go work in the USA back in 1969 was in itself feat. Let alone get on an airplane — not just the first from his village, but in a time period when flights out of India were only a handful. Amma, myself, and little brother, followed in 1970 on a TWA (the era of passenger planes had just begun, such that “airplane” was synonymous to that one airline, just to give you an idea of time period, and what it would have taken to have accomplished this from such small beginnings).

Vallampadugai was an irreplaceable experience, a lesson in humility, nature, and respect, that I would forever be grateful for and cherish.

5. As a Dad…

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Family photo. 10/2009.

Everyone, family and extended family of students, will all definitely have their sentiments and memories they will cherish. The tribute would not be complete without sharing those. Here I share my own sentiments as a sample of what he meant to everyone.

  • We will miss his loving jovial presence and child-like expressions. His eclectic yet offbeat sense of humor that would perplex you and make you smile at the same time, and the mischievous grin that accompanies it (knowing full well his humor has achieved its desired effect). No matter what turmoil around him (like us siblings arguing), he would remain totally unaffected and go about his business — often perplexing us by his detachment!
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    Having fun with his granddaughter. 01/2014.

    I will miss him greeting me at the Madurai airport with such a beautiful wide smile on his face, he’d be standing there with his loose pants and shirt tucked out, waiting for me,… never failing to put a smile on my face. I’ve made a six week trip almost every single year to Madurai just to spend time with my parents, almost entirely spending my time at home. I can’t imagine the sort of pit in my stomach I’m going to feel in my next trip back to India, not seeing him, not seeing that smile and greeting. He looked after our safety like we were his young children, the way he left us or picked us up at airport or railway station or called us to see if we reached safely.

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    In his most common at home attire, a simple veshti with no shirt. With his granddaughter. 10/2009.

    Similarly, I can feel the dread already of going back to the USA and facing the emptiness of the “Appa” icon in Skype with no one to dial or receive calls from. There was not a week that went by that I had not spoke to appa, and there was no one I spoke to more than him. In all sense he was the closest friend I had. It’s going to create a real vacuum in my life for quite some time.

  • We will miss him sitting at the dining table and watch him relish his food. Appa was such a connoisseur of food, especially traditional south Indian food and finishing off each meal with fruits of all kinds. He’d always reminding us to eat more fruits throughout our lives. In Skype calls with me, he’d tell me to ask amma to eat more fruits (because she hardly eats any fruit at all, and that is not good for her health). Will miss the four different varieties of bananas that he’d always have ready on the dining table when I arrive, knowing that’s pretty much my favorite fruit, and the compassion he took in always making sure that it never runs out. He’d always make a trip to the farmers market (சந்தை) or a local family owned store (a true mom-and-pop shop) for fresh vegetables and grains (instead of Reliance department stores, as a way of supporting local family owned businesses). It was a terribly hollow feeling when I went to the farmers market myself this time, alone, downcast, the noise and bustle of the market not even registering.
  • Will miss the expression on his face whenever he sees me get all excited about lemon rice or upma — both of which are among my favorite,
    05/2010.
    Appa, granddaughter, her mom, and amma. Bangalore. 05/2010.

    but his least favorites! And the other way around, the sardonic smile he had on seeing the annoyance on my face whenever we had eggplant again, his favorite, and not really mine (though later I developed a love for eggplants also, an acquired taste through him which I never told him ;)). Miss seeing him in the kitchen in early morning cooking his favorite dishes: his special herbal chutney,  eggplant curries, or pineapple rasam.

  • We will miss his early morning and evening gardening related work. First thing in the morning appa will be doing his rounds around the compound. The foliage around our house represents over 20 years of his gardening.
  • Appa had great appreciation for music of all kinds, from Indian instrumental classics to the 70’s western classics hits. Amma tells me of how my
    Visiting me in California. Photo: 07/2011.
    During his visit to California. 07/2011.

    maternal grandfather used to purchase and ship vinyl phonograph records of classics that appa asked (veena, flute, nadeswaram, etc) and mail it to him. He had also saved up enough to get what was back then an audiophile’s dream: a top of the line Pioneer stereo receiver and an Audio Technica phonograph player (we still have it with us).

  • Will miss the long road trips. Dad and I hardly fall asleep on long road trips. He’d sit in the front passenger seat, and myself in the back, we’d talk, chat, argue in jest for hours on and off in all sort of topics (even though only a few topics overlapped each others interest, we’d find something to talk about or knock each other!). Even in the gaps of silence we’d be awake, observing the surroundings and talk would pick up on things common to us, often nature related, like age old trees, environment, fields of millet, wind turbines, he’d give me tidbits of information that comes to his mind…
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With grandson and amma. Lawrence, KS. 5/2011.
  • Not to mention, even the most mundane of things brings back flood of memories… like his unique handwriting of a scientist, which dearly reminds us of him whenever we see it in his notes, documents, diaries, etc. Or when I’m cooking, of how he first taught me to cook back when he visited me in 1990. Still have the recipes in his own handwriting from back then (on making sambar, rasam, idli, vadai, lemon pickle,…). Or anything of natural beauty is enough to invoke memories that stop me in my tracks, like the breeze, trees, flowers, early morning sounds of birds, etc.
  • His grandchildren will miss him. Their favorite reason for getting excited about making a trip to Madurai, is to spend countless hours with their thatha… telling stories, playing games, jumping on him, etc. At least a good 10 more active years (grandchildren, youngest to oldest, would have been 10-16 years old) of time with him cut short by doctors and modern medicine.
  • The above list doesn’t even come close to all the wonderful childhood
    With grandson. 05/2012.
    With grandson. 02/2012.

    memories with appa that each of us have, which we will cherish forever. For example, often I remember him taking me to his lab in St. Louis when I was a small kid. I used to stare in awe at the array of beakers, test tubes, pipettes, centrifuges,… and he used to give small talk about cells, DNA, genes, viruses, and so on. When I was 3 or 4, he used to take me to his lab in Hyderabad and show lab animals (rabbits, mice, etc). I owe a lot of what I am today to that initiation.

  • Nor does the above list capture the deep sense of loss and emptiness for amma after 50+ years of life together, having lived her whole life in dedication to him (and family). In itself her own amazing journey with appa, from her own humble beginnings, and her own sacrifices. For example, when her mom passed away unexpectedly while we were all living in the USA in the 70’s. This was in a time when the only communication you had was mail, no international calls (apart from it being in excess
    IMG_5737
    With granddaughter during Pongal. January 15, 2015.

    of $10 a minute, no phone on the India side), and only one visit to India in the eight years in the USA. I can’t help but thinking how traumatic it would have been to amma when she got that fateful telegram, and how lucky we are today with the amount of visits, phone calls, internet. {Note: this was also a time when there were virtually no Indian grocery stores — appa would get metal containers full of grains and spices shipped to us from India (packed and shipped by amma’s mom and dad), literally by ship, taking 3-6 months. It was also a time when the USA was still acclimatizing to cultures other than of European origin (I still remember the time when my school bus driver stopped the bus, and not start until someone sat next to me (because of my skin color, non-white). This is just to give people  an idea of the time period and environment that appa walked into, compared with how easy we have it today.}

We will miss you…!

Appa, we will miss you, and you will remain in our hearts forever! For the amount of punniyam /good karma and accomplishments you’ve done as a scientist, a guru, a yogi, a dad… I have no doubt that you’re in the higher realms of the super-consciousness normally reserved for the great yogis, devas, and other enlightened beings. Wishing you an amazing next life, and we all hope to be under your guardianship once again! ॐ

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In Mani’s home, with granddaughter. Classic pose of appa reading something. 02/2009.
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In chithappa’s residence with grandson and granddaughter. 02/2012.
Pongal. 15-Jan-2015.
15-Jan-2015.

Coda

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Rain almost every other day since April 15. Appa’s car. 05/2015. Click here for video.

Heavy Rain. If there was a last wish that appa had, it was a simple one. He told my sister-in-law on April 13 (the day before he became unconscious), that he really wants to see one solid rain, not a drizzle. If I fall a sleep, and there is a solid rain, wake me up, I want to see it.

The period of May, known as “Agni Nakshathram” (this year May 4 – May 29) is the most dreaded part of the year, known for its heat waves. It is the peak of summer (April, May, June) in the South. Temperatures hover at a steady 40-41C (104-106F) day after day, at times hitting 43C/109F. The fans or a/c runs 24 hours (if you switch it off, within 10 minutes the indoor temperature would climb to 37.7C/100F).

But this is the first time ever, that in the month of May it rained almost every alternate day, and we could sit comfortably even without a fan. First time ever, that I or anyone here can recollect, not only was the Agni Nakshathram was skipped in Madurai, it looked like winter in May. See Southern Districts Enjoy Cool ‘Agni Nakshatram’ This Summer.

Appa didn’t get to the see the rain while in the body, but right from the day he left the body there was very heavy rain, and the rains continued almost every alternate day. Total 13 days of rain from April 15 – May 18 (Apr 15, 17, 18, 22, 25, 27, May 8, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18). It was easy to keep track of as there were so many things to perform (cremation, hasti ritual, pindam offering ritual, bore well, 30th day ritual, temple visit, death certificate from corporation office, panchayat office, etc) — all of which were intertwined with generous rain, keeping the temperature in Nagamalai area down at 30C/86F (with even 3 days with a cool breezy 27C/80F, and only 2 days where it climbed to 35C/95F). Almost all of the 13 days were generous rain (only 2-3 light rains), and with 3 super thunderstorms with torrential downpours, no visibility, darkness at 3pm, and very loud thunder and lightening which continued into the night. The Nagamalai mountain was green, as opposed to the scorched dry brown you’d see in this season. Surrounding agricultural fields in Madurai were lush green and (as appa would say) dancing in the cool breeze after the rain.

Almost as if all the devas are celebrating the return of a great atman… or as I see it, such is the power of a great atman expressing itself. Even more so since that was his last wish. I’m told that it is also by popular belief, that when a great atman leaves the body, it is said that there is solid rain. People underestimate the atman (by still relating it to the body). The level of conscious expansion of a great atman is unfathomable once it is released from the body (at least, as recorded and experienced by scores of ancient yogis; it is for us to verify/experience that ourselves through the many spiritual technologies they’ve left us, like that of yoga). Add to that the fact that everything we see arises from our thoughts: we are constantly reshaping and projecting the world, according to every thought and action, and past actions/karma.

This period of rain in May is without a doubt his doing only. I could not think of any other way the atman that he is would express itself other than this beautiful and compassionate parting gift to his plants, his home, and to the city in which he was for 36 years, as he continues on to his next journey. Wishing him again an amazing next life… I will close with the quote I began this article with:

“We are like the sailors and boatmen of the oceans. We often drift from place to place, subject to subject, and reality to philosophy. Some are guided to their destination by trained captains and powerboats. Others reach their targets after struggles and challenges like the man on a sailboat. Though the sailboat is pushed by the wind, drifted by the waves, the boatman steers along the direction of the wind and the waves and finally reaches his goal. Here, I am mentioning some of my memoirs, experiences and encounters during my sojourn and anchoring in various places.”
– Prof. G. Shanmugam (opening paragraph from his memoirs for his non-profit organization, Shanmugam Foundation)

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Appa on a boat in the Kollidam river across from his village (this is one of two earliest photo of appa, the other is him standing on a railroad track bridge). Likely he is the person on the boat sitting on the side up front.

Hope your next anchor is even more fulfilling and amazing as this one, and hope we are all there with you again on your new journey :). Thank you appa for everything, and see you soon! ॐ

See Also

“A Tribute to Dad” is one of 4 articles. The other 3 articles are:

Comments

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Use separate articles “Cause of Death” and “Doctors Attitude” to comment/share and spread the word about risks of statin drugs, gangrene, and the medical negligence in the Indian medical industry.

9 thoughts on “A Tribute To Dad

  1. Anna, this is such a heartfilling article. It brought back all the little time and sweet memories I had with mama and tears.
    The first visit me and Ashok had immediately after our marraige was to Madurai. He greeted me at the door with a childish smile. We were staying there for more than a week for Ashok ‘s research work. Mama was my company at that time, since Ashok would be in the laboratory. We used to talk so many stories in our garden walks and mid day stories. Like a child, he showed me all the childhood stories of all of urs and told me how Ashok inherited taste buds of the family and that I must learn to cook tasty and healthy. When I told him I can cook, he dint believe me coz he thought I’m a child. And when I cooked for him chapati and channa, he was so excited even before tasting it. So curiously he was standing with me in the kitchen and kept telling me, it smells really good let’s see how it taste. N the happiness in his face on tasting it was so innocent. He then taught me about the oil I should be using, what for what, herbs I should incorporate in everyday cooking. That one week was one of the bestest time I spent with anyone in our family, especially when I was just married. His love and childishness just made me close to the entire family instantly.Everytime he visits me, even before reaching he’ll tell me the list of food he wants me to cook for him. Like a small child, he used to relish every bite with a childish smile in his face. He ll stand with me in the kitchen looking for the receipe. He used to tell me healthy alternatives I should use in my cooking and explain me the benefits. He always loved the way I used to keep pulling Sathiyamoorthy mama. He will be sitting next to me and watching us having arguments and me playing pranks on his brother. He had spoken so much good about me to my parents that my parents told me that they are so happy that I brought good name to them. Everytime I visit madurai, he’ll take me around the garden and tell me about the benefits of each plant. I used to ask him his childhood stories, he ll happily tell me all those stories while we water around the garden. Everytime I ask his lovestory, saying that his mom has told me it’s a love marraige and not to lie to me, he’ll sport a shying smile as if he is in his teens and I have caught him. He used to prepare that green chilli chutney for me everytime we visit each other.
    Everytime he takes me to the lab, he always told me that none in the family followed his footsteps and his research and he complaints that he wanted Ashok to study back biology or chemistry but Ashok never listened to him.
    It was the most loving wonderful little time I spent with mama, that I ll always cherish.
    Ashok always used to tell me, he is not just his periappa but also his guide and mentor who guided him with his pg research. I always regret that Ashok should have spent more research time with mama and kept telling him what mama told me about him.
    There is not a day gone without we receiving advice from Sathiyamoorthy mama saying, ” enga Annan solliruku……”
    I used to pull him for that but only when he has gone, I wish I had more time spent with him.
    The bestest part of him was he remained Annan, periappa and periamama to any of us with his childish smile and love for authentic home food and not a world renowned scientists who walked an unimaginable path of success and in my point of view the worst part is we never looked him beyond Annan, periappa or periamama or thatha and followed his science.

    Love u mama for all the love u gave me, for all the smiles v shared, for that little beautiful time I’m gifted with u for all the humbleness u’ve taught us. U r such a beautiful child always whatsoever ur age may be.

  2. Dear Pari,
    I enjoyed working with your dad as a colleague for abou 14 years. I admired his simplicity despite his achievenents. It is unfortunate that I did not have an opportunity to meet you but heard so much about you from your proud father. He was a respected guru, friendly colleague and a loving dad to you, Mani and Selvi. I can not foeget his advise when I was struggling to decide about the higher studiesof my son. It is his advise that made my son as a Scientist. I am happy that as a family we were close to him, your mom, Mani and Selvi. It was a sda day for us when the sad demise of your father was posted on FB by Mani. It is unfortunate that he became the victim of medical neglegence. I am sure he lives for ever in the heart of his students. Please recover from the loss and tread the path shown by your dad.
    With best wishes,
    JM

  3. Dear Pari and Mani,

    I have no courage to meet you to convey my condolence. Actually I tried to meet my SIR (GS) in the Vadamalayan Hospital to to share a good news to which he would have definitely felt happy. But the hospital attendents refused my request. The next day I heared the news. Till now I have no courage to see Mani and Amma. According to me he is still alive with Mani in Bangalore. If I see Mani I will break down.

  4. Amazing blog, a fitting tribute to a great man!

  5. I have known G.S Sir very well even though I haven’t done research in his lab. We lived close to his home after our marriage (I was working in Dr.Dharmalingam’s Lab for a while before coming to US). and used to see him a lot during his mornings walks! He was a wonderful person, humble to the core…
    I know how hard it is to dwell over the fact that he could have lived for many more years – given his active lifestyle. I have known Mani and Selvi and staying in touch with them. One can never get over the memories and the moments with their Dad for sure, especially they way they hold their child’s hand so firmly as opposed to their mother…Please stay strong since your mom will need it the most at this time.
    I read through the entire blog and it is a true tribute to a wonderful person whom I have known…
    Banu.

  6. my deepest condolences

  7. I am really sad to hear about GS’s passing. I was at MKU-SBT for a couple of years, moved to the campus the year he retired. He was great scientist, teacher and mentor, and went to on show how you can be a legend and still stay humble. Your father was a leading light, and will continue to shine upon all of you.I wish you all peace and healing

  8. Dear Pari,

    My heart felt condolences.

    Over years I have met Professor Shanmugam several times at the annual meetings of the Indian Academy of Sciences. I remember distinctly his soft spoken nature and a kind smile.

    When I learned that he is out of dialysis through ginger treatment, from a former student at Chennai, I was excited and called him over phone. Also talked to him on couple of occasions after the recovery. His testimonies in the you-tube is remarkable.

    I also should congratulate your commendable efforts to get your dear father out of dialysis and lead a healthy life for several years. Hope your suggestion of ginger treatment spreads and help more people in the world. Thanks for bringing out the greatness of your dad through this blog.

    My brother G. Ravindran, who lives in Madurai knew your dad.

    Condolences on behalf of my brother and myself.

    g baskaran
    Institute of Mathematical Sciencess
    Chennai

  9. I am unable to control my tears on going through the profile of this NOBLE PERSONA.
    our country is very proud of having such a great personality with true humbleness.
    THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I HAPPEN TO HEAR OF SHANMUGAM FOUNDATION AND THANKS TO THE
    WEBSITE FOR THROWING SO MUCH ABOUT THIIS GREAT PERSONALITY.

    i am very confident that the almighty will place him in a similar position wherever he is.

    i tip my hat to the super personality sir.

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