AG PERARIVALAN, 41, convicted in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, seems to have taken Mahatma Gandhi’s words to heart. Having spent most of his youth in a solitary prison cell in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, Perarivalan was in the news recently, when he topped a correspondence course in publishing offered by an open university in Tamil Nadu.
Perarivalan was sentenced to death in 1998 with 25 others. The sentences for all but four were subsequently commuted. Perarivalan was convicted for supplying the batteries to Rajiv’s assassins, which triggered the bomb that killed the former prime minister on 21 May 1991.
At the Vellore prison, he has been living in the shadow of a death sentence that can be carried out any day. Awaiting death may be the most unbearable situation in one’s life, and Perarivalan has every reason to be depressed. But he has retained his optimism while facing the imminence of death every moment of his life. He teaches in the prison school run for inmates and is also learning Carnatic music.
Perarivalan has also penned a book on his role in the Rajiv assassination, An Appeal from the Death Row (Rajiv Murder Case: The Truth Speaks), which was published in 2011 in English, Hindi and Tamil. “My parents believed that education alone was the only wealth they could give me and they made me study. I lived up to their expectations and studied with real interest,” he wrote in the book.
Over the years in prison, he has appeared for several examinations and done well in them. Last year, he topped the list of prisoners who took the higher secondary examination in Tamil Nadu. Perarivalan’s mother Arputhammal, 66, had then told the media, “Perarivalan wanted to clear Plus Two (the higher secondary exam) because it is a prerequisite to register for PhD.” She had said her son wanted to pursue research in a subject related to life in prison.
Perarivalan was a diploma holder in electronics and communications engineering when he was arrested. He later completed his Bachelor of Computer Applications (BCA) and Master of Computer Applications (MCA) from the New Delhi-based Indira Gandhi National Open University while still in jail. His MCA project was on the use of e-governance in prison management. “I am trying to enrol for my doctoral studies in computer science. I always believe there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
“One should try all means to change one’s destiny.” TEHELKA managed to get answers to queries through Perarivalan’s friends who visited him in prision recently.
“Everybody treats him as if he is going to be hanged the next day,” says a friend. But Perarivalan never shows distress or tension. According to Arputhammal, he has never cursed fate or cried before her. “He always tells me, ‘Amma, I’m fine’ and asks me to take care of my health,” she says. “He even cracks jokes and talks about politics whenever I visit him. I never bring up the topic of the death sentence with him.”
Perarivalan’s friends are also struck by his stoic acceptance of life in prison. They visit him in jail with fruits and books. “More than talking about himself, he asks questions about my family and my business,” says S Rameshkumar, director and CEO of Averz Technologies, a Chennai-based IT company, who has been visiting the prison regularly since 2011.
Praghadish, a Chennai-based filmmaker, has met Perarivalan several times in jail to make a documentary on the convict’s life. “He suggested several corrections in the script. I was surprised that a person facing death could think like a filmmaker and discuss details with us like a professional,” he says.
Perarivalan’s story also inspired PK Ponnappan, a 41- year-old labourer, to start the Perarivalan Educational Centre, a remedial school for poor children in Kancheepuram town of Tamil Nadu. Set up in 2005, today it has 352 children on its rolls.
Even though Perarivalan may never actually get to do a PhD, his aspiration shows unusual optimism. “I have to be optimistic to survive the darkest period of my life,” he says.