Some time in 1955, M Subbalakshmi, a Tamil housewife in her 20s, had spent long hours on a cyclostyle machine at her rented house in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, helping her husband make numerous copies of notes he had prepared for departmental tests. She did not know the importance of what she was doing; only that the copies were to be distributed among his colleagues who were preparing for the same tests.
So she could never imagine that this would eventually turn out to become the country’s popular database of rules and norms of bureaucracy. Neither could she imagine that it would eventually lead her husband, P Muthuswamy, an accountant in the post and telegraph department, to establish Swamy Publishers, which would grow into a brand name in the years to come.
“It was my grandmother’s greatest dream to get her son a government job. She sold all her jewellery and shifted to Trichy for his education. Once he got a government job, he started writing more departmental tests for promotion, and that was how it all began. Notes he used to prepare for his exams became popular among his colleagues and my mother used to help him prepare copies to distribute among his friends. Then others he had never met heard of the notes and asked him for them and he began charging a nominal amount for them,” she says.
In 1957, Muthuswamy published the first book, Pension Rules Made Easy, a small handbook that sold for Rs 3. “Initially, the entire family was involved in the publishing process, from preparation to packaging to sending them by Value Payable Posts (VPP),” says Chennai-based Brinda Venkataramanan, eldest daughter of Muthuswamy and the managing director of Swamy Publishers, who vividly remembers those days when her mother would sit and count the VPP receipts, struggling to tally them with the days’ accounts. “Agents finally stepped in when they became aware of its growing popularity. By the time my father was transferred to Kolkata in 1965, Swamy Publishers had become a well-known enterprise,” says Venkataramanan. Her younger sister, Uma Balasubramaniam, is in charge of their Delhi office.
Muthuswamy, who was from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, completed his education from Ranganathapuram village and moved to the University of Madras. After he graduated in BA Economics, he joined the postal department as a clerk in 1941. After the success of the first book, he went on to publish three more books by 1958, each immensely popular. “Appa was a workaholic and he would sometimes work through the night. His other passion involved cycles. Before his publishing work became popular, he would buy old cycles, repair them and sell them,” she says. After working in Kolkata for three years, Muthuswamy was posted back to Chennai in 1968. It was only in 1992 that Swamy Publishers opened their Delhi office.
Interestingly, the man who popularised the rules and norms of central government employees, found himself at the centre of a controversy when his seniors found out that he was running a publishing house alongside. It was in violation of the code of conduct for government servants, which does not allow them to be involved in any other business enterprise. “He stood by his stand that he was serving others and making governance easy by reducing misinterpretation of rules.
Considering the fact that even government departments officially subscribed to his books, the ministry of home affairs and finance finally issued a special permission for him to retain the business,” says Venkataramanan. The ministry had also exempted him from paying any part of his income to the government.
Swamy Publishers now publishes at least 75 titles; their first book is in its 37th edition. Sixty years later, its rule books have found their way into most government offices. More titles such as Swamy’s Leave Rules Made Easy, Swamy’s Pay Rules Made Easy and Swamy’s Income Tax on Salaries are being added to the list, besides handbooks on anti-corruption rules, RTIs and other relevant issues. While the printing has now been outsourced, Venkataramanan heads the editorial team of 10. Their best advertisement is still word of mouth. “We have never been into aggressive business tactics. After all, this is a service, though we have to run it in a sustainable manner,” she says.
Rulebooks apart, Muthuswamy’s other legacy is the higher secondary school he started in Porur near Chennai, five years before his death in February 2000. He had always been inspired by PS Sivaswamy Iyer, a prominent lawyer in British India and the advocate general of Madras presidency, who had donated his wealth to start a school in his village. It was where Muthuswamy had studied. “Iyer was always in his mind. Appa asked me if I would be able to run a school if he opens one,” Venkataramanan says. The school now has over 2,200 students and 80 teachers.
The story appeared in print with the headline Playing by the Rule