Warren Buffet made big news in 2006 when he pledged to donate 99% of his wealth to his chosen five charities which also includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This can be touted as one of the most generous acts of philanthropy in history, that has also given momentum to “The Giving Pledge” wherein many billionaires across the globe, inspired by Buffet, have pledged to give away a certain portion of their wealth to charity.
As incredible this story is, there’s an obvious fact that we’ve all overlooked here – all of these billionaires have pledged to give away their wealth either during their lifetime or in their will i.e. the wealth will reach the needy after their demise. In fact, it has come under scrutiny in recent years that have raised doubts whether the pledge is more of a self-glorification activity than selfless charity.
I, of course, do not mean to raise questions on their generosity, integrity, or intention behind the pledge; but the charity just feels convenient, you know. I understand that they did not have to do it at all, and could keep all the wealth to themselves. Even then, when they’ve decided to engage in this nobility, it feels a little like a child who is not willing to give up on his favourite toy until it is practically of no use to him. I agree that most of these people are already actively or indirectly involved in many noble charitable works. However, the disparity between what they make and what they currently donate is capacious.
Amidst such glaucous charitable giants, can I bring to you an example of silent philanthropy by a common poor man that will redefine the way we’ve been looking at doing charity?
This is the story of Palam Kalyanasundaram who is probably the first in the world to donate his entire hard-earned income to the needy throughout his life. He has never kept a penny that he has earned for himself. While many may consider this as extreme, unfeasible or even impractical, the takeaway is the thought behind his benevolence; Giving first. We’ve been raised to believe that charity happens after our needs (or greed?) are sufficed. Charity is expected to be done from the spared income. Few accommodate it as a regular habit.
Perhaps, we need to take lessons on humanity from Palam Kalyanasundaram, a 78-year old retired librarian. He was born in Melakarivelamkulam in Tamil Nadu to modest parents. He lost his father when he was just a year old and was single-handedly raised by his mother who also sowed the values of charity in him from a young age. They were barely able to earn bread for themselves, but his mother taught him to share from whatever little bread they had with the needy. As he grew up, he became aware, and increasingly concerned about the gap between the wealthy and the impoverished. He realized that a good education was one way out of this adversity.
He grew up to be extremely fond of our rich Tamil culture, heritage, and history. So much so, that he was the only student to apply for a Masters in Tamil, and the college management refused to admit him since there was no other enrolment for that course. They offered him various other specializations, but he was adamant. His willingness impressed the founder of MTT college, who not only admitted him but also sponsored his education. He went on to become a gold medalist in Library Science and MA in Literature and History. While growing up, Palam Kalyanasundaram battled with Falsetto, a condition wherein an individual’s voice is usually higher than the average pitch range. He suffered from a major inferiority complex that drove him to the tipping point of thinking to attempt suicide. However, he happened to meet Thamizhvanan, a self-help author who encouraged Palam to look beyond his flaws and embrace life. Palam Kalyanasundaram swears by the advice he gave him during their brief meeting,
“Don’t bother about how you speak. Strive to make others speak well about you”
A climacteric moment in his life happened while listening to the speech of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru on a radio program where he was appealing to the nation to donate to the defence fund after the Indo-China war, 1962. As quoted by The Hindu,
“I was listening to Nehru on the radio requesting us to contribute to the defence fund. Immediately, I went to Chief Minister Kamaraj and gave him my gold chain. I was probably the first student to have done such a thing,”
Kamraj was so moved by the generosity of this young lad that he felicitated him during a function held on May Day in 1963. He continued to pursue his education, and later joined the Kumarkarupa Arts College in Tuticorin, where he served as a Librarian for 35 years. Throughout his tenure, he did not retain a single rupee from his salary as a librarian for himself. To sustain himself, he did odd part-time jobs.
“I am a bachelor and my personal needs are meagre. I am able to manage doing odd jobs in a hotel or a laundry. I simply do not wish to own anything.
The money he received from the sale of an ancestral property was promptly donated to the district collector for the education of orphans. His salary arrears of Rs. 1 lakh were also used for the same purpose. A sub-editor of Ananda Vikatan suggested Paalam that he should be a full-time social worker cum speaker.
“It was he who told me that I would do well as a social worker while engaging in some plain speaking on public service… But I decided I needed no publicity.”
Kalyanasundaram’s sole purpose of earning was to donate. To continue his minimalist lifestyle, he refused to get married. He actively donates and works for various child welfare causes.
“I have slept on pavements and railway platforms to find out what it is like to be poor, without a roof over your head,” he says.
After 45 years of work-life, he retired. The first thing he did was to set up his Paalam foundation that acts as a connection between donors and beneficiaries, who wish to contribute in cash and kind. He utilized his entire retirement benefits fund of Rs. 10 lakhs for his foundation. His work majorly involves providing support for education, organizing free healthcare camps, blood donation drives, services to hospitals during emergencies, groundwork during disasters all-over India, rehabilitation of homeless, sick, elderly, and handicapped, as well as free counselling.
“We work on the principle of gaining everybody’s support. That is the reason why membership costs just a rupee a month (life membership is Rs.100). We take about anything used or unused – old newspapers, clothes and utensils – and reach these to people in need. We are sort of a bridge between donors and beneficiaries,” he exclaims.
A noteworthy fact is that he was adopted as a father by megastar Rajinikanth in 2012. However, he refuses to accept anything but the love of a son from him. He won’t even agree to stay with him even though the star is said to have persuaded him multiple times. Such is his detachment from materialism that when he was acknowledged as “The Man of the Millenium” by an American organization and awarded a whopping sum of Rs. 30 Crores, he donated every single rupee of it. If this does not pop your eyes out, I don’t know what will!
A person of Palam Kalyansundaram’s stature is truly born just once in a millennium. To follow him would be an impossible feat to accomplish for most of us. However, even if we emulate 1% of his nobility, ours would be considered a life well-lived. If nothing, the least we can do is rise above our endless materialistic attitude, to think, speak, and act kindly with those around us. In his own sermonic words,
“We cannot sustain ourselves unless we contribute to society in some way or the other. I strongly feel if even one person does his bit towards social good, there will be some change. Everything is a state of mind. Finally, what do we take with us when we leave planet earth?”
Note: You can visit the website of Paalam foundation to know about their work and support them.