It is the late 1970s, the end of a tumultuous decade. CV Radhakrishnan is a young man of 25 or 26 who has just given up a promising job in Delhi and come back home to Kanyakumari. His parents do not believe it is because of an illness that he said he has. He looks fine to them. He does, but Radhakrishnan’s knees had begun weakening even then. The doctors in Delhi gave him five years.
After a year of roaming around the country, when he realises that there are more years to live, Radhakrishnan decides to settle down, find a job. He gets three – two central government jobs and a state government job in Kerala University. He chooses the last, it’d give him more time and freedom. It would also give him the friendship of Professor KSS Nambooripad, who would change the direction of his life altogether.
Forty-two years after the diagnosis of his disease – a neurological disorder called perennial muscular dystrophy – Radhakrishnan is very much alive, running a software service company in a campus that is filled with nature. Green, full of bamboos, a pond and a few cows. Nearly 140 people work there.
“That was always in my head, a green campus. But the bigger dream was to make it a community living space. That unfortunately didn’t happen,” Radhakrishnan turns away from his computer, moves a joystick on his wheelchair and begins to talk. It is a Sunday and he is alone in the office with an old friend. The campus is tucked away in Malayinkeezhu, free of the city noises of Thiruvananthapuram.
Reading an email in 1984
As Radhakrishnan’s words jumps between the years – the 1980s when it all began for him and the present – he reminisces about the ‘old days’ with his friend. Like when he became one of the first people in Thiruvananthapuram to read an email on a Unix server (using Unix-to-Unix Copy or UUCP). Or when he got a 20 MB hard disk in the early 1990s and thought it was such a big deal.
“Today a photo would be that size,” he laughs. He is 67, and obviously one of the pioneers of computing in Kerala. He was 31 when he was introduced to the idea of computers, working at the University. Staying at the university hostel in Karyavattom, he’d see Professor Nambooripad coming to play badminton and the two began talking technology. Nambooripad introduced Radhakrishnan to computing, to Tex the typesetting tool whose manual and software came to him in two floppy disks (for kids today – yes, there was such a thing).
“My love for technology and gadgets in general helped,” Radhakrishnan says. He began helping students and teachers with typesetting work. When he was in need of money, Radhakrishnan began doing it as a business. “But it wasn’t right to keep a University job and run a business. So I quit the job and began a small unit at the Software Technology Park in Bakery Junction. It was called River Valley Technologies.”
Business picked up. He opened two more units – one above St Joseph’s Press in Vazhuthacaud, another above Modern Book Centre in Pulimood. “But the workflow could not be controlled when we were all scattered like that. Thus came the idea of having a campus and bringing everyone together in one place.”
Plan for a commune
When he looked for land, Radhakrishnan had in his mind the idea of a commune, where all the employees could live together and share some common resources. It would save them money and offer them the advantages of living as a community.
“New couples wishing to build a house may not be able to afford it. But if they are in a community, they could get it done cheaper and share some common utilities such as kitchen, water facility, waste management and so on. Old parents needn’t feel abandoned, they could form a community of their own,” Radhakrishnan shares his original thought behind the campus.
Farms in the campus
After he did his research, he became sceptical – would the community turn into a cult? He had seen enough of the world to know that there was no escaping certain realities such as caste and religion and varied forms of discrimination. “Even now, 70 and more years after India’s Independence, it is sad to see young people holding on to such concepts as caste.”
In his younger days, Radhakrishnan was a sort of a rebel. He dropped out of his master’s course and had fights in college. “That’s the reason my parents wouldn’t believe me when I left my job at the Shipping Ministry in Delhi and came back home. They thought I had landed in some trouble again.”
The illness could not be cured but he could keep it in control by exercising and following a diet. And in his mind, by distracting himself with computers. “Another reason I was attracted to computing was because I needed a way to communicate in case I fell too ill,” he says candidly.
Free software, then and now
It’s always been free software for him, accidentally or not. Tex is free software but he had not thought of free software as a philosophy even as he switched from DOS to Unix. But in 1995, the year that people were flocking towards Windows 95, Radhakrishnan was introduced to Linux by a vendor who gave it to him in a CD and let him know it’s free.
“Only, it was the source code and we had to build the operating system from it. It took me a week then. Those were really early days,” he recalls.
Two years later, the first Tex Users Group meeting in India was organised, in which Radhakrishnan played a key part. In one such TUG meeting, he met a man from the UK who wanted to collaborate with his company. In 1999, Radhakrishnan’s company began doing the typesetting work for the UK man’s journals. Ten years later, in October 2009, the company moved into the green campus in Malayinkeezhu. It changed its name to STM DOCS.
It is disabled-friendly. Radhakrishnan can roll his wheelchair into all corners of the building and most of the campus, which is thick with greenery. Some of it is a farm – growing vegetables needed for the canteen. The cows give all the milk they need and more. There are chickens too, Radhakrishnan informs me, laughing. He laughs ever so often – he is as funny as he is well-informed. And terribly modest. When you credit him with being open to new ideas at all stages of his life, he brushes it off as ‘something inevitable’.
Cows give all the milk needed in the campus and more
It wasn’t. He chose all of it. Receiving the worst news in his 20s about a possible death, Radhakrishnan has risen so far, perhaps wanting to make every second count. He’s beaten death for decades. “In a way I am a lot like two great men. Stephen Hawking had a condition like me, and Gandhiji married a young girl like me,” he jokes. Radhakrishnan married at 50 when his bride was 30. His wife helps at the office too.
Today, STM DOCS does the typesetting for two publishers – Elsevier and PeerJ.
For Radhakrishnan, the Sayahna initiative is his way of giving back, of personal and corporate social responsibility.
“To explain what Sayahna does, we have to understand how public data is stored by the government. A lot of it is in formats that are not readable anymore. The documents used earlier versions of software that are not backward compatible. Data archival is very important. So what Sayahna has done is store the data of 200 books in a format that can be accessed any time – 200 or 300 years from now, and anywhere. It is not dependent on machinery, operating system or device. It is very important that the government protects its data in this way.”