Saverikannu Prouchandy

'Chevalier' Saverikannu Prouchandy

Saverican or Saverikannu Prouchandy was the eldest son of Kannusamy Prouchandy who was a merchant in Pondicherry. His mother's name was Amurthammal, daughter of Deivasagayame. Saverikannu was born on 24 April 1870 in Bimalipatnam in British Andhra.

It seems that he was named as Saverikannu in honour of Saint Francis Xavier who was known as Saveriar in Tamil and who it is believed founded the Saveriar church which stands even today majestically in Nethaji Nagar. Incidentally Kannusamy possessed some properties and lands also in the area, probably inherited from Athisayanathan Prouchandy. This included a stone house with a large garden right in front of the Saveriar church. Saverikannu had a younger brother called Jean Prouchandy, who was born in the year 1873. He also had two sisters known as Gnanamurthammal and Uthiramary who were born in Pondicherry on 17 August 1872 and 22 July 1875.

Unlike his uncle Darmanathan Prouchandy who seems to have been fairly well-educated in French, Saverikannu Prouchandy seems to have dropped out from school at a young age. Actually Darmanathan had left for Indochina only after a few months after the birth of Saverikannu in April 1870. So Darmanathan must have seen Saverikannu when he was still in the cradle.

Kannusamy seems to have maintained some contact with his younger brother Darmanathan, settled in Saigon. He probably came to know that Darmanathan was prospering well in Indochina. According to family sources, this led him to think that if he sent Saverikannu to Saigon, he had a chance of com-ing up in life under the care of Darmanathan. So in the year 1886, at the early age of 16, Saverikannu Prouchandy made his way by sea to his uncle Darmanathan's residence in Saigon.

But Saverikannu being too young and hardly educated, Darmanathan seems to have simply made use of him and his services in his business activities. Saverikannu stayed in Darmanathan's house at No.35, Boulevard Bonnard in Saigon. It is quite possible that Saverikannu had to do some household work then. Several years passed by in this manner. But Darmanathan was so engrossed in his own business operations that he never cared to give an opportunity to Saverikannu to strike it on his own and come up in life. He was actually indifferent and unconcerned about the future of Saverikannu. It is quite possible that Darmanathan made use of Saverikannu in his shipping operations too as a helper or employee right from 1891.

But real trouble seems to have started for Saverikannu, when Darmanathan got married in 1895. Family sources maintain that Darmanathan's wife disliked Saverikannu. When Darmanathan started the soda manufacturing factory with the cooperation of his wife, Saverikannu was made to toil hard in the factory from morning till dusk. He used to even push heavy cart loads of soda bottles around Saigon and distribute them to the various retail shops, according to the instructions of Darrnanathan's wife.

Saverikannu was in his late 20s by then and his future was indeed very bleak, with no prospects for a better and prosperous life. By this time, Saverikannu had grown up to become a very tall, handsome and well-built man, towering above six feet. He could no longer put up with his condition in Darmanathan's house, especially when the latter's wife started ill-treating him. So it seems that he decided to abandon his uncle. He ran away from Darmanathan's residence and roamed about in the streets of Saigon, sleeping under the bridge and lament-ing at his misfortune.

It was in this miserable condition that he seems to have been spotted by the Cochinchina State authorities, who decided to repatriate him back to Pondicherry. Saverican Prouchandy's name is actually included in a list of people repatriated to Pondicherry during 1899. Saverikannu Prouchandy was declared as penniless at this time. The exact date of his repatriation from Saigon was 10 May 1899, that is thirteen years after his arrival there. The expenses for his repatriation were borne by the French Cochinchina budget.

Actually Cochinchina authorities complained during this period that repatriation was a heavy strain on the budget of Cochinchina. Since the 1890s at least, in the face of increasing competition from Frenchmen and the local Indochinese, Indians were not much wanted to fill up jobs in the French ad-ministration or indulge in business. Archival records show that many French Indians were without jobs either in the adminis-tration or in business which forced the Saigon administration to repatriate them back to French India. Saverikannu Prouchandy seems to have been one of them.

Saverikannu returned to Pondicherry in 1899. Family ac-counts do not shed any light on Saverikannu's life on his return. But very soon we find Saverikannu once again in Saigon on his own. This time he chose not to reside with his uncle, Darmanathan. He was around thirty years old by then and was still a bachelor. He seems to have started all over again from the scratch. It seems that he worked in the beginning as a clerk in a business concern. Very soon he worked as a sort of roving tax collector among the Vietnamese farmers and others, which as-sured him steady revenue on the basis of commission. He is believed to have toiled very hard, under rain and sun, to collect these taxes. He is believed to have also operated as a money-changer during this period. It seems that in 1909 his brother Jean Prouchandy was also in Saigon with him without a job.

Saverikannu Prouchandy
Medal awarded to Saverican Prouchandy on 4th March 1914 by the French Government along with the title of 'Chevalier'

Gradually Saverikannu seems to have invested the profits earned through such occupations in buying lands and properties in Saigon, in the heart of the city, in Cap St.Jacques, the famous holiday resort, down the Saigon River and elsewhere. Very soon, he seems to have also become proprietor of rubber plantations in Cochinchina. He even took to money-lending. Saverikannu possessed also a stud-farm and his horses ran in the Saigon race courses, winning several races and jackpots. Family sources maintain that he also indulged in real estate business. As a re-sult, Saverikannu emerged as one of the leading proprietors and landlords of Saigon, owning several houses and lands. He was very soon known popularly as 'the Owner of a Hundred Houses' (Nooru Veetukku Sonthakarar) among Tamil Indian circles in Indochina and Pondicherry. Recognising his contribution in the field of agriculture, the French government awarded him the prestigious colonial title of 'Chevalier du Write Agricole' by a decree dated 4th March 1914.

On the other hand, Darmanathan Prouchandy's fortunes took a turn for the worse during the beginning years of the twen-tieth century, due to the uncooperative and hostile attitude of the French colonial authorities which was ultimately detrimen-tal to his business. At the same time, family sources maintain that the spectacular rise of Saverikannu's fortunes drew the ire, hate and jealousy of Darmanathan. But the latter could do noth-ing about it. It seems that Darmanathan Prouchandy finally died during the second decade of the twentieth century as a heart-broken man, having incurred heavy losses in his business and completely ruined.

The Villa Aroume

Saverikannu Prouchandy
Old Photograph of Villa Aroumé, 1934 - when it was rented out to The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Saverican Prouchandy passed away in this Villa in October 1928

Having established himself as one of the richest Indians and Tamilians in Saigon within a short period, Saverikannu Prouchandy returned triumphantly to Pondicherry. Not- being content to stay in his ancestral home, he wanted to move to the White town of Pondicherry, where the French and other rich Indians lived or owned properties. Incidentally at this time, a sprawling double-storey villa, lying on the western side of the French Governor's house was being auctioned off, which stretched from the Ananda Ranga Pillai street in the south to Dupleix street in the north. Pondicherry's wealthy and influen-tial personalities, both Indians and French, were eyeing desper-ately to win the auction, as the villa was located not only just beside the Governor's House, but also almost right in front of the Place du Gouvernement. Winning the auction would add to the prestige and influence of whoever wins it due to the geographical location of the villa, which was bound by roads on four sides, almost exactly like the Governor's House.

Saverikannu Prouchandy got wind of the auction and de-cided to enter the fray against the wealthy and mighty of Pondicherry. He was a relatively unknown figure in Pondicherry at that time and nobody would have ever thought that he had the necessary wealth to win the auction. But Saverikannu had amassed immense wealth in Indochina and he was ready to make use of it in order to make his presence felt in Pondicherry. Among the contenders in the auction were rich and influential French industrialists, proprietors and Mayors like Henri Gaebele, Emile Gaudart, Cornet, Poulain and Gallois-Montbrun and Indian land-lords and dubashes like Sinniah Mudaliar (born in 1860) and Calve Sangara Chettiar, who wielded immense influence in French government circles. But Saverikannu Prouchandy was never deterred in his objective. He won the auction hands down. The other contenders however wealthy and influential were un-able to match the money power of Saverikannu. The buying of this villa near the Governor's Palace was an exploit of the first order by Saverikannu as it challenged not only the economic and financial might of not only French men but also the tradi-tional wealthy Indians of Pondicherry.

Family sources maintain that even after acquiring the villa, Sinniah Mudaliar used to approach Saverikannu through intermediaries and even directly, requesting the latter to exchange his villa with the former's bungalow called Mangalavasam, located at Karuvadikuppam, outside Pondicherry town. But Saverikannu consistently refused to part with his villa. Instead he was on the lookout for buying further properties in the White town and to increase his clout as landlord.

While he acquired the villa, Saverikannu Prouchandy married a Tamil girl called Aroume or Arournenayaguy (written as Arumainayagi in English). She belonged to the prosperous Arokianadin Xavier family, who lived in a big villa in the Whitetown towards the seashore, not far from the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo. Saverikannu loved Arumainayagi so much that he named the sprawling villa that he had acquired as 'Villa Aroume. Aroume or Arumai in Tamil signified 'beauty'.

The interest shown by Pondicherry's wealthy to acquire the villa was not only due to its geographical location, near the French Government House and the Place du Gouvernement, but also because it had a great historical value. Besides, the villa was flanked on its western side by another prestigious mansion, owned by the Gaebele family around this period. Henri Gaebele, (known as `Gaebele Dorai' to the Tamils) who was Mayor of Pondicherry from 1908 to 1928 and member of the Conseil General (General Council) since 1905 resided in this house. He was also one of the richest and leading industrialists of French India. Thus Saverikannu's Villa Aroume was flanked on the left by the French Governor's House and on the right by the mansion of the French Mayor of Pondicherry, the two most important personalities of Pondicherry of this period. At the rear side of the villa, across the Dupleix Street was the residence of the Frenchman `Durie Dorai' or rather Turn Dorai'.. On the same side of Durie's house, adjacent to the Pillaiyar temple was the mansion of Montbrun Dorai, who was former Mayor of Pondicherry. Surrounded by villas of top Frenchmen as well as the Governor's palace, added to the prestige and importance of Villa Aroume and Saverikannu Prouchandy and his family. Villa Aroume was more beautiful and more ideally located than the mansions of Gaebele's or Montbrun's.

It seems that Villa Aroume was first built during the first half of the eighteenth century. It was separated by a road from the Government House. It served as the residence of the French Governors. It seems that the founder of. modern Pondicherry and the first Governor of Pondicherry had chosen to reside in a building on the Villa Aroume site, after he left the Danish loge which stood at the site of the present Chamber of Commerce building and its dependencies. The most famous of the French governors who resided in the villa was of course Dupleix, who was Governor of French India from 1742 to 1754. A map drawn by R.F. Faucheux of Pondicherry in 1754 included in Marguer-ite Labernadie's Le Vieux Pondichery situates Maison Dupleix (House of Dupleix) exactly at the site of Villa Aroume.

Dupleix challenged English supremacy in the sub-conti-nent. In August 1760, the English entered Pondicherry. In order to punish the French, the English destroyed completely the White Town of Pondicherry. The French fort and its walls, the Governor's House, churches and even private houses were razed to the ground. However, it can be guessed from the succeeding account that the Villa Aroume might have survived this destruc-tion.

The White town was of course rebuilt from the year 1765. In a map of Pondicherry of 1776, the Villa Aroume is shown as part of the Government House. But in another map of 1885, once again the Villa Aroume is separated from the Government House in the east by a road known as Rue du Gouverneur (Governor's street, which was renamed later as rue Francois Martin), as it existed before 1760, and in the west it was bound by the rue de Berry (known later as Manakula Vinayagar street) and on the north by the rue de Valdaour (later called rue Dupleix). During this period, Villa Aroume seems to have been owned by a French widow called Moracin, who had other properties in the town, as shown in the plan of the northern area of Pondicherry.' She had inherited Villa Aroume from her mother Madame Barthelemy on 23 June 1766, who had acquired it from a certain Dauteuil on 23 December 1751 for 1600 rupees, who had bought it from Dupleix on 6 February 1751 for 4890 rupees. Before Dupleix, the building belonged to the French East India Company, who had actually acquired it from the French Gover-nor Dumas on 11 June 1737, who in his turn had bought it from governor Le Noir on 22 September 1735.8 Thus it is certain that the Villa Aroume was in the possession of the French governors, Le Noir, Dumas and Dupleix and his brother Barthelemy, before it was acquired by Madame Moracin. These governors had actually resided in the Villa Aroume. Since the villa was rebuilt after the sack of Pondicherry in 1761, it was in continuous possession of the French until Saverikannu Prouchandy acquired it in a public auction in the beginning of the twentieth century. He was actually the first Indian and Tamilian to buy this prime property.

It was in this villa of historical importance that Saverikannu settled down with his wife Aroume. He seems to have reno-vated the villa to some extent. The Villa Aroume was a magnifi-cent double-storied villa, built in French colonial style, supported in front by thick cylindrical white-washed pillars over which stood a triangular structure with a peacock engraved at its centre. Just above the peacock at the top, there was a flag-mast. There was a life-size statue in the centre of the garden which seems to have been brought over from Saigon. The main hall of the villa just behind the pillars had large wooden gates and the floor was inlaid with Italian marble. The rooms surrounding the hall and the rooms in the first floor were large, spacious and airy, with big wooden windows. The entire villa, which resembled somewhat the White House in Washington, was located in the midst of a large garden. (Cf. cliches of Villa Aroume)

There were three outhouses, two in the front and a larger one in the rear. As Saverikannu had always a sense of power and strength, he installed four majestic terra cotta lions in Villa Aroume. In the front, two lions were mounted on either side of the balustrade in the first floor, visible from outside. The other two lions were mounted on either side of the wooden gate in the rear, at the entrance of the building which is known today as Villa Selvom. These lions exist even today. He also installed two cherubim on either side of the iron-gated main entrance of the Villa, which portrayed his tender side. All these artefacts were imported from Indochina, along with several Chinese furniture which included a Chinese salon, with which he furnished the villa lavishly.

His was one of the first cars that circulated through the streets of Pondicherry. Apart from wearing western dresses, he used to wear costly silk attires of the Mughal type, of which he was very fond off. Given his height and massive structure, such attires added prestige and pride to his imposing personality. He used to organise lavish dinners and parties in the villa for his friends and relatives. He was at the same time extremely generous towards his relatives, friends and the poor. He used to offer one gold sovereign to all newly married couples known to him, who were poor or who worked for him, even though they might be his servants or gardeners or cooks. This showed that he had a generous side and a philanthropic streak in him.

One notable feature of Saverikannu Prouchandy is that he was a completely self-made man. He never owed anything to anyone. He never expected any favours from any French government authorities. He was a completely independent man, who stood on his own legs in every respect. This distinguished him radically from many prominent men from Pondicherry and Karaikal who prospered under the benevolent wings of the French colonial authorities. In this he was no doubt following the footsteps of his uncle Darmanathan Prouchandy, who had earlier struck it on his own, challenging even the mighty French-owned Compagnie de Messageries Fluviales in the process. But Saverikannu's happiness was not destined to last long. His wife did not bear him any child. This was a cause of great worry for him who was already in his late forties. At this time, Arumainayagi fell grievously sick and passed away all of a sudden at Villa Aroume, on the 16th of March 1918. This provided the opportunity for Saverikannu to think about remarriage very soon. Incidentally he took a liking to a young, fair and beautiful girl, known as Therese Selvom, of Mudaliar descent. She was in her early 20s then, while Saverikannu was nearing fifty. Nevertheless the marriage took place in Pondicherry. They registered a marriage contract with the notary, Raghunada Periassamy Poulle on 13th October 1919.

After the marriage Saverikannu left for Saigon with his young wife, leaving the Villa Aroume under the care of the relatives of his late wife, Aroume. In Saigon they resided in their large villa. It was a two floor Franco-Vietnamese colonial structure, made up of large and airy rooms, thick and circular white pillars, with a veranda in the first floor and a huge sprawling garden at the rear. It was located at 76, rue Paul Blanchy (presently Hai Bha Trung), a posh and verdant avenue, ambling past barracks and red-tiled public buildings, skirting past the Place de la Cathedrale to the lush and exhuberant green gardens as reported by Harry Hervey. At the back of the mansion, there was an octagonal spacious room with a cupola. All this was surrounded by a large garden. Two imposing terra cotta lions, which symbolised the power and prestige of Saverikannu, were placed on either side of the balustrade in the front, overlooking the road. There were two cherubim, the same as in Villa Aroume in Pondicherry, which mounted the iron-gated entrance of the villa on either side. It was in this villa that Saverikannu started a new page in his marital life.

Saverikannu Prouchandy
Saverikannu Prouchandy, holding his eldest daughter, Ellenamma in his arms. She was born on 17th August 1920 in Saigon

Very soon his wife gave birth to a girl child on 17th August 1920. She was named after the Greek goddess Helen (Helene). In Tamil, she was known as Elenamma. In order to express his joy at the birth of the first child, he named his residence as Villa Helene. The second child was a boy, born on 28 April 1922 in Saigon. He named him as Samson, after the biblical Samson who was known for his strength and power. The third was a girl, born on 25 December 1923 in Saigon, whom he named as Delphine, once again after the name of a Greek goddess. The fourth was a son, born on 10 March 1925 in Saigon, whom he named as Jacob, after the biblical Prophet Jacob.

The last son was born on 11 September 1926 at Cap Saint Jacques, a sea-side resort down the Saigon river (presently known as Vung Tau), where Saverican had vast landed properties in the old market area just in front of the magnificent beach. Saverikannu named him Goliath, after the giant warrior of the Philistines who confronted little David of the Jews. On the basis of the names that Saverikannu chose for his children, we could ascertain that Saverikannu had some knowledge of the Greek legends and the Old Testament. He particularly chose for his sons the names of biblical personalities known for their vigour and strength.

But the choice of the name Goliath for his last son was something unexpected and unusual, for Goliath is considered Tamil Heroes of French India 59 portance to the good and the bad, symbolised by the names in the Bible. For him what counted most were names that demonstrated strength and power. Goliath for him demonstrated that strength and power and therefore he did not see any reason why he should not name his son as Goliath. He even did not heed to the advice of close family members and even the French priests of the Catholic church of Saigon, not to name his son as Goliath, who was deemed ill-fated and evil by one and all. But Saverikannu had a mind of his own and was not of the superstitious type. He went ahead and named his son as Goliath.

Incidentally by a strange coincidence, that action proved to be his undoing. Goliath did not survive long and passed away a few months after his birth. Saverikannu could not bear the shock. Very soon his health deteriorated almost unexpectedly. He actually developed an incurable disease in the form of a boil or a malignant growth in his back. The French doctors of Saigon could do nothing to cure him of his boil. Even at this stage, he donated 10 piastres to the French War Victims Fund in Indochina, while his nephew who was under his benevolent care then do-nated 3 piastres.

When Saverikannu knew for sure that the disease was going to cost him his life, he seems to have made arrangements to safeguard his properties, due probably to the prodding of some of his well-wishers in Saigon like Durai Bangarayen, Manuel Rock and Emile Louis Gnanadicom. It is necessary to note at this juncture that apart from his four legitimate children, Saverican had a natural son, by the name of Emile Prouchandy whom he had earlier begotten through a Vietnamese lady.

Not wanting to die in an alien land, Saverikannu returned hastily to his motherland India, with his wife and the four children, leaving the vast landed properties in Saigon and Indochina under the care of his 27 year old nephew, Loon Prouchandy. This showed the love he had for his motherland. He retook possession of Villa Aroume and lived there with his family. But time was ticking away for him. The boil in the back was becoming unbearable and he was groaning in pain day and night.

Saverikannu Prouchandy
Savérican Prouchandy in his death-bed at the main hall of Villa Aroumé at No.4, Rangapillai street, near the Governor's House
(Presently Ashram Dining Hall)

The top doctors of Pondicherry at that time including French doctors were pressed in to see if they can do anything to save Saverikannu's life. Finally they decided to operate his back. Family sources maintain that the operation was carried out prematurely. Actually the operation back-fired and Saverikannu's death became imminent. It seems that before his death, he used to wail aloud in agony, from his bed in the main hall of Villa Aroume about the future of his four little children, the oldest i.e. my mother being only eight years old and his still very young, but not so well educated wife, who was destined to manage his vast landed properties and wealth, both in Indochina and Pondicherry, in the event of his death. It was in this state that Saverikannu breathed his last in the main Italian marbled hall of the Villa Aroume, on 12th October 1928. The family was in utter dismay and disarray due to the passing away of Saverikannu Prouchandy.

My mother who was just eight then was a witness to the agony, anguish and death of Saverikannu Prouchandy at Villa Aroume. One other thing that my mother remembered when Saverikannu was in his death-bed was that his debtors systematically avoided him, thinking he will pass away soon. My mother apprised me that among the debtors there was a certain `Thadi Bala' of Koothanallur who owed him a huge amount. She also told me that her father even when he was sick had opened negotiations in order to buy the house of Durie. Another thing that my mother remembered vividly was about half-drunk Pondicherrians who gathered in front of the neighbouring Gaebele's house raising the slogan in Tamil 'Gaebele Dorai Gelichiputan - Sarko! Sarko!' meaning 'Lord Gaebele has won - Beware, Beware.'