Best Deepavali gift – my priceless hour with Prof Suresh Narayanan

Just as we entered his office at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang, Prof Dr Suresh Narayanan apologised for the musty-like odour that hung in the air.

“This is what happens when you have papers and books lying around everywhere and the room is kept closed for a long time,” said Suresh, when met at Room 004, Block C13.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the teaching staff taught remotely. Although the professor of economics has “retired” and is now supervising PhD students, he admitted that teaching online wasn’t his thing. Being affiliated with USM opens consultancy opportunities for him and he also assists with research and publications with other lecturers at the university.

At 72, Suresh has done, and seen it all. His colleagues have high regard for him and assured me that meeting him would be “interesting”.

An astonishing fact: Suresh leads a perfectly normal and happy life without a mobile phone!

“I got on fine with life without the need for one… I just don’t see why I had to carry one,” said Suresh.

“Although this may change soon, as I have to show my vaccination card, and some places insist that I have a phone. Just for those reasons, not for phone calls. If you want to get in touch with me, call my office or house number, or email me.”

There were moments when he lit the conversation with interesting insights and anecdotes. There were also light moments, although unintended.

The soft-spoken academic has a picture of his late father, renowned trade unionist P.P. Narayanan, hanging in his room.

“I didn’t put his picture there to tell people that he is my father. His picture is there because he is my inspiration.”

Narayanan was a voice for the workers as he helped set up, and later became the founding president of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress in 1950.

His work was widely acknowledged, and a road in Petaling Jaya – Jalan P.P. Narayanan – was named in his honour. The family lived in Petaling Jaya before Suresh moved to Penang in the early 70s.

“My dad didn’t spend much time with the family. His work kept him busy. So, I have to thank my mum for our emotional development.

“Dad never slept beyond 5am, and he made sure all of us woke up, too. He would take us for morning walks, and it was during these walks that he would tell us about life and the importance of principles.”

Suresh said his father never imposed his views on his siblings and didn’t stop them from pursuing their dreams.

“He didn’t force us to become doctors or lawyers. He just wanted us to be the best in whatever we did.

“I remember an incident where a young man came to our house and sought my dad’s help. He wanted to read law, but his father discouraged him from doing so, saying there were already too many lawyers.

“My father told the young man that while his father was right, there were quite a number of lawyers who never made it to the top. In short, he always believed in doing the best, and aiming for the sky.”

Suresh also recalled the moment when his father was invited to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Being a teetotaller, his father toasted with water, instead of wine. That caught the attention of certain quarters, including the British press.

“Some criticised him. Others praised him for sticking to his principles.

“He told us that the minute you are in the public eye, you cannot escape criticism.”

Suresh recalled conversations between his father and mother about their family.

“My mum once told my dad, ‘You are busy caring for other people’s children. When will you care for your own children?’ My dad didn’t miss a beat and replied: ‘God will take care of my children’.”

God has certainly taken care of Narayanan’s five children.

It is thanks to Narayanan’s principles and values that Suresh and his four siblings have made a name for themselves.

“I’m a Hindu. In my house, we never had pictures of family members. Instead, we had pictures of Buddha, Jesus, Guru Nanak, Mahatma Gandhi, and several others. My dad believed in putting up pictures of inspiring individuals, and that somewhat rubbed off with the children.

“My brother (Dr Sivadas) owns Nagoke Clinic in Tanjung Tualang. Nagoke is a village in Punjab, India, and my brother has a picture of Guru Gobind Singh, in his clinic. He sports a beard like me, so most often, people would mistake him for a Sikh man.

“Long lines form in front of the clinic as he is well-known among the locals and those in nearby villages. There are days that my brother would give out free service to those in need. That’s how we were brought up.

“My sister (Dr Sujatha) is a surgeon at KPJ Selangor Specialist Hospital, and her colleagues tell me she’s the best in her field. That’s what dad taught us; you can do anything you want, but strive to do your best.”

The appointment with Suresh was primarily to get his views on the economic spillover effects of the rapid development in the northern states of Malaysia. Yet, it was the small talk in between, that put a smile on my face.

The inspiring tales he shared within that one hour – and the fact that he said many eateries in Penang are “overrated” – made me smile.

“It’s always about inspiring and teaching others so that they become better,” were his parting words to me.

Thank you, sir. Meeting you was the best Deepavali gift this year.