about 2 years ago
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By Ruma Dubey

On 1st November, the ugly spat in the Chettinad group came to the fore, once again. The Madras High Court ordered maintenance of status quo regarding the Chettinad Palace claimed to be in possession of industrialist M A M R Muthiah, the adopted and then disowned son of late Mr.Ramaswamy.

The battle had become so bitter that Ramaswamy filed affidavits stating that Muthiah was the natural son of R M Sekappa Chettiar and that his adoption was invalid because it was contrary to the customs of Nattukottai Nagarathar community, to which he belonged.

Does the story of the embittered father and his ambitious adopted son prove once again that blood is thicker than water?

That is the one thought which comes to mind when we read this ugly but sad story of the Raja of Chettinad. With a Rs.10,000 crore business empire, where money is abundant, it is such a telling tale of how wealth can neither buy you peace nor happiness.

The story is a sure shot plot for a movie in the future. M A M Ramaswamy, who passed on in 2015, was the chairman emeritus of Chettinad Group of Companies did not have a biological child. So he and his wife decided to legally adopt S.Ayyappan in 1995. He was 20 years of age then and came from a poor background. Now “poor” can be a very relative term when compared to Rs.10,000 crore. His name was changed to Muthiah and they started living and working together like one small but very rich happy family, living life on the 125 acres Chettinad Palace in Chennai.  The son, on his part, did work very hard, helped take the flagship company’s market cap from Rs.60 crore to Rs.4000 crore. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Muthiah was the son and the rightful heir to the Chettinad empire.

But trouble started brewing in paradise by 2002-03 with differences emerging between the father and son over the way in which business was run – Ramaswamy was more conservative while Muthiah was a go-getter and wanted a free hand to run the empire as he thought was fit. After all, he was the son, right?

When Ramaswamy’s wife passed away in 2006, things started going downhill and relation between the two only soured further. Many say that Ramaswamy, who till then used to keep himself busy running the Annamalai University, was left with nothing to do when the University was taken over by the Tamil Nadu Govt. Thus with nothing to divert him, he started paying more attention to the business run by Muthiah and that became the root cause of this ugly battle.

Differences in the way in which the business is run; now that is not a problem faced by Chettinad group alone. It is like a generation gap; there are bound to be differences but sometimes, it is better for the older generation to allow the newer generation to run the empire as they are infused with more vigour and new ideas. Yes, the elder are there to guide, bring in the maturity and wisdom of age. And differences can be resolved when amicably talked, discussed and debated.

Surely, the son has proved his mettle by taking the group from a fledgling and floundering legacy of the past to a dynamic and growing conglomerate.  And what seems unfair here is that way in which Ramaswamy could one day adopt and another day declare Muthiah as no longer “his son”. How can you disown after legally adopting, giving him an identity? Yes, Muthiah might have been disrespectful or harsh in his behavior towards Ramaswamy and that could be at the crux of this ugly public spat. But isn’t this also an issue in many households today? And does that mean that every father starts disowning the son? Because he is not biological and adopted, does it give anyone the right to disown? This battle of Chettinad makes one also question whether the entire process of adoption has no iota of emotion. Is it all out of convenience for protecting the wealth only?

What is ironical is that India could soon hold the mantle of being the most populous country on earth. Yet, some of the biggest and richest business empires like even the Tata’s and more recently the Maharaja of Mysore, had to scout around for a legitimate heir.

There is no doubt here that Muthiah has proven his mettle and earned his name too; at the same time it is undeniable that it is only thanks to Ramaswamy that he got this opportunity in life. Both needed each other and now, they don’t.  

Yes, there is nothing more heart breaking than the sound of a relationship cracking into pieces.


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