One Sunday evening in 2017, I met Tata Institute of Social Sciences Director S Parasuraman in his office on the campus in Mumbai’s Govandi neighbourhood, sitting in the same spot where I had first seen him in 2010. I asked him what drove him to work so passionately. His response was similar to a quote misattributed to poet Charles Bukowski, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
That memory came back to me on September 2, when I heard about Parasuraman’s passing at the age of 70. Even in his 60s, he often worked around 15 hours a day to ensure that the institute he headed for 14 years from 2004 could reinvent itself to ensure that its students would ably facilitate “access to justice, dignity and rights for all people…”
I had worked closely with Parasuraman for around eight years from 2010, initially as his doctoral student, and later as a colleague. In his last days at TISS, perhaps, I had known him the way fewer people might have had and I was in awe as I watched him go about his mission.
He expanded the institute’s teaching, research, infrastructure, and field action goals to address India’s new realities, all the while firmly rooted in TISS’s original ethos. As he urged graduating students in his first convocation address as director in May 2005, “Remember that it is not where you work but in whose interests you work that makes the difference.”
Refashioning South Asia’s first institution for professional social work education was no easy task. The institute had started life in 1936, when the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust established the Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work at the Nagpada Neighbourhood House in Mumbai with 20 students.
From the beginning, the school, born against the backdrop of the Great Depression, committed to building a just and humane society. Eight years later, the school was renamed the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
It was where Parasuraman, born in a family of marginal farmers in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, began his academic career in 1981. He trained as a demographer and anthropologist. In the mid-’90s, Parasuraman went on to work with international organisations such as Oxfam, the World Commission on Dams and ActionAid International.
When he came to TISS in August 2004 as director, the institute had only four master’s degree programmes and 264 new students that academic year, over half of whom were from Maharashtra and Delhi. Parasuraman increased the number of courses to start over 50 master’s programmes and wiped out elitism by opening it to all.
He started a pre-admission orientation programme to prepare students from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes for the TISS entrance exam. This immensely benefited scores of first-generation learners. Today, TISS has a total student strength of around 5,000, over half of whom are from marginalised groups.
By launching innovative interdisciplinary academic programmes, several of which were offered for the first time in the country, TISS soon transformed into a multifaceted public university reimagining social sciences education. Parasuraman opened two new off-campuses, Guwahati and Hyderabad, besides setting up centres in Port Blair, Ladakh, Nagaland, New Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, Patna, Chennai, Raipur and Ranchi.
This allowed TISS to reach out to India’s most vulnerable communities, including those in remote areas.
Parasuraman emphasised on using research as an advocacy tool to contribute to policy development. Under his leadership, the institute worked closely with the Union and state governments, people’s movements, institutions, industry, communities, and local and inter-governmental bodies to implement people-centered development initiatives and programmes.
TISS also forged collaborations with over 100 universities and institutions around the world and joined coveted university networks that helped it build the credibility and reputation it now enjoys.
‘Pro-poor, pro-people’ director
Parasuraman used higher education and research as a tool to fight inequality and deprivation. His commitment to the issues of social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion was unparalleled. “I am called anti-development,” he said emphatically. “No, I am not anti-development, I am pro-poor, pro-people.”
Working with Parasuraman was never about building one’s career or personal gain – it was about making a difference in society. Those he picked to work with him in the director’s office received no special privileges and often felt disadvantaged as he expected them to set the highest standards.
Parasuraman detested power hierarchies. The doors of his office and house were always open for everyone. Often, underprivileged students seeking scholarships to pay fees, travel grants to attend a conference or laptops for research projects, and employment opportunities would get their requests fulfilled by him.
Many of Parasuraman’s colleagues and students also imbibed his values. When the institute faced an acute financial crisis in 2015, many of us, including Parasuraman, happily decided to forgo some salaries. That’s what made TISS a unique institution under his leadership.
Winds of change
A year or so before he stepped down from the director’s position in 2018, Parasuraman seemed utterly helpless. Besides the changed political situation and TISS’s increasing financial woes, he felt that his long-time friends and colleagues at the institute and elsewhere had turned their back on him. People, sometimes, tend to feel lonely. But Parasuraman’s loneliness was profound.
TISS meant the world to Parasuraman, which, I believe, he never wanted to leave in his lifetime. At least, not the way he was made to. “Scholars like you can be warned of my experience,” he wrote to a former colleague after he retired. “Family and health are the most important aspects of one’s life. All else is temporary. At the end of the day it is the family and our health can be of support to you. All else go away (sic).”
In early 2018, when students and colleagues were bidding Parasuraman goodbye, little did they know that he would take away a part of TISS, its very best, with him forever. After his exit, TISS experienced unprecedented change, which a former member of the students’ union explained to me thus: “Back then, Parasuraman would go to the police station to bail out students detained for their activism. Today, five of us are fighting a court case filed against us by our own institute in March 2018 for leading a protest on the issue of withdrawal of financial aid to the underprivileged students.”
The student asked wistfully, “Would Parasuraman have tolerated this high-handedness of the institute?”
Both he and I knew the answer.
Ajay Saini teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. Formerly, he was an Assistant Professor at the Director’s office, TISS, Mumbai and the founding chairperson of an off-campus centre of the Institute in Chuchuyimlang, Nagaland. He can be reached at email@example.com.