A humble man in a white kurta paired with a ready smile, laidback attitude and unlimited knowledge. That is how students remember Shankar Devarajan, founder and CEO of Shankar IAS Academy, a popular civil services coaching institute in Tamil Nadu.
"He would always walk into class 15 minutes late with a loud 'Friendsss...' everyday! He would then wrap up the session early and tell us to discuss amongst ourselves. But we just wouldn't want him to stop teaching," says 28-year-old Soodhan Kannan, a student from the 2016 batch who is now working in the postal department. "Shankar sir taught us geography and once he starts teaching, you were just completely mesmerised," he adds.
Thousands of grieving students like Soodhan had gathered outside the Academy's first ever centre in Anna Nagar on Friday, and the crowds were only growing as the shocking news of 45-year-old Shankar’s suicide spread through messages, emails and through social media.
The story of Shankar IAS Academy
Until Thursday, Shankar was training close to 300 students a year to pursue civil services. His academy, according to former IAS and IPS officers, was one of the finest institutions in south India. He began with a small group of 35 students in 2004 in Anna Nagar and in the 14 years that followed, he had expanded to Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, Salem and Madurai. People all over India aspiring to become Indian Administrative Services, Indian Police Services and other elite bureaucratic service officers, were making a beeline to his academy for coaching.
But Shankar himself never cracked the IAS examinations. In fact he exhausted all his attempts.
In a column he wrote for Vikatan eight years ago, Shankar explains that he came from an impoverished home in Krishnagiri district. His father worked in a wine shop and while he managed to finish his masters, pressure to earn for the family grew as he attempted the civil services examination. He wrote the exam four times – in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004.
"I failed every time. And when the situation came to take a job, I decide I will use the experience I got from these failures to teach aspiring students. That is how it began," he wrote.
As the academy grew, word of its students’ success stories were everywhere and he brought in some of the best staff and guest lecturers to teach and motivate aspirants.
"He was more than a teacher to those students. He was a guide whom they could freely approach and talk to," says MLA Natraj, former IPS officer and DGP of prisons. "I used to address students there and have interacted with Shankar. He was a soft spoken and knowledgeable man," he said.
According to Balaji Manohar, Assistant commissioner in the GST department and a former student of the academy, the entire country waited for Shankar to release his answer key after the IAS prelims every year.
"All aspirants will check it to see how much they are likely to score. He would even predict the cut off," says the officer, who says he owes his entire success to Shankar.
Balaji was already 31, when he left America to settle back in India. He went to Shankar in 2012 and requested to be coached by him.
"Perhaps he saw himself in me. I had very few chances left but he always gave me hope. During the prelims, he told me to study the basics and be strong with that and told me to leave the current affairs part for the mains. He was absolutely spot on. The pattern of both papers was just as he predicted," says Balaji.
Former diplomat TP Sreenivasan who took classes at the academy tells TNM, "I have known him for over four years and he was so reserved. I used to teach international relations and I have seen him giving personal attention to every student there. His strength was that he did a lot of research. We used to use his notes to teach students.”
And despite all the work he put in, students say that he never forced them to study all the time.
"In fact, he would tell us that we should have a passion too, one that we follow outside of the IAS preparation," he explains.
And what was Shankar's passion? Cinema. A path he could never follow.
Love for acting
27-year-old Preethi Yogasundaram, an IT employee who is preparing for the civil service examinations, says that Shankar could mimic actors well.
"It was the last day of class for the 2015 batch and sir wanted to keep it light. He began to mimic actors," she recalls with delight. "This quiet man suddenly became so different. He acted out Sivaji Ganesan and other actors. But what I remember the most is his Jim Carrey impression. He acted like him from The Mask. The way he contorted his face, his walk and how he spoke. It was all perfect. I think he really wanted to be an actor," she says.
Preethi's guess is not far off. After completing his masters in Agriculture, Shankar came to Chennai to enter the cinema field. He spent a year and a half attempting to follow his passion but a chance in movies never came.
But Shankar doesn't mention any regrets about his decision in his column in Vikatan. In fact, he talks about his wife (girlfriend then), Vaishnavi, who supported him financially through his struggle.
"At home, the poverty was crushing. My family said, 'At least join a job where you get Rs 1000.' On the other side, Vaishnavi wanted to get married. I couldn't do both. Vaishnavi, who understood my problem, came to Delhi with me, took up a job and helped me study," he says in the column.
Later on, as Shankar's academy grew, it was his turn to support his wife as she pursued a PhD in IIT.
More than a teacher
Aspirants, alumni and officers who have emerged from Shankar's academy term his death a huge loss.
"His patience, how he treated all his students and readiness to clear doubts at any time. Nobody else can be that way,” Soodhan says.
MLA Natraj points out that every batch had a diverse bunch of students. "So many of them were from the backward communities and Shankar really helped them reach their potential," he recalls.
For Balaji, it was the way Shankar bounced out from failures that will remain inspiring.
"He turned his failures into a success story. He struggled a lot to get where he was and nothing could stop him. He never showed or told us about any problems. He was always smiling," he says.
Eight years ago, talking about his own failures, Shankar had said, "So many people who studied with me and studied under me, have become big officials now. When I see them, I feel pride and a tinge of jealousy. But if I had succeeded, I would have just become an IAS officer. It is because I failed that I am able to create so many IAS and IPS officers. It’s on the stairs of my failure, that so many climb to success."