Father, husband, journalist, activist, friend and Truthout contributor J. Sri Raman died at 12:20 AM Tuesday, November 8, 2011, in Kochi, India, of heart and multiple organ failure. All of us who worked with Sri at Truthout were impressed by his dignity and seriousness of purpose, touched by his unfailing courtesy and kindness,and tickled by the gentle anxiety over his submissions he communicated until their publication.
He shared with us his excitement over his daughter Varna's wedding this spring, his pride in both Varna and her sister Taranga's accomplishments, his high hopes for the Occupy movement in the United States, his advice on submissions from other writers about India and Pakistan, so that we had the strongest sense of his presence – although we knew him from cyberspace only.
This charm and generosity of spirit ornamented a deeply principled and fiercely loyal life described below from accounts by his wife, Papri, his daughters, his colleagues at the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and his editor at Pakistan's “Daily Times,” Mehmal Sarfraz. Sri's career as a journalist, activist and orator is also movingly evoked by A.J. Philip in this week's issue of India Currents.
Born July 1, 1943, in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu in India, Sri was the youngest – with his twin sister – of five boys and two girls born to a traditional South Indian Brahmin family.
In the small town of his birth, when the doctors separated Sri from his twin sister where they were joined at the hand, his hand was twisted while his sister's remained intact. As a result, he was often teased in school as physically challenged, which hurt him very much. But at the same time, he was happy: his twin sister was okay, because in India, women have to be married, and a handicapped woman faces greater discrimination than a man.
Sri's family were Siva Bhaktas, but his mother was a Rama devotee, so she called him Sri Ram and taught him all the prayer songs, which he could recite by heart.
He disliked going to college, but his father, who was a lawyer and a Shakespeare fan, would recite Shakespeare to Sri, so Sri learned all the important passages and grew up with literature and music, although he studied only up to the Tamil medium level in school initially.
Sri went to Delhi when he was about 18. He had always wanted to be a journalist. In the beginning, he would sleep on park benches, read at the public libraries all day and often eat the free meals at the Gurudwaras (Sikh shrines), but he soon found a job and made Delhi his home for more than 30 years.
Sri was on the staff of “Patriot,” the “Hindustan Times” and later “The Indian Express” before becoming an independent journalist. He wrote extensively on world affairs, particularly nuclear issues. His work was published regularly by Truthout and the “Daily Times” of Lahore, Pakistan. He referred to himself as an “Indo-Pakistani.” Sarfraz described his relationship with that paper: “As for Sri, he was one of our best columnists. The insights that his columns gave on India were of immense importance. And the best thing was that he made everything sound so interesting. One could never get bored of reading his articles; each one of his pieces was written so well! He had a huge readership in Pakistan and we used to get a lot of feedback on his columns.”
Sri also regularly contributed book reviews in “The Hindu” and articles in “The Tribune.” His book, “Flashpoint: How the U.S., India, and Pakistan Brought the World to the Brink of Nuclear War” (Common Courage Press, 2003) won wide acclaim among global peace campaigners. He had published a chapbook of poems and left the manuscript of an unfinished novel. Sri had hoped to compile his Truthout articles on South Asia and the nuclear issue into a book.
He was very close to his daughters, nephews and nieces, sisters and in-laws.
He loved life. He watched and wrote about films, admired Sivaji Ganesan and Ingmar Bergman. He recited poetry – Bharati's as well as Iqbal's, Dickinson as well as Neruda. He sang songs: songs of passion by Kannadasan, and ones of romance by Mohammad Rafi and Talat Mehmud. He spoke several languages; he understood the proletarian as well as the plebian. Everything interested him: good food, great art and literature, Sufi music, the Great Wall of China as well as the Redwood forest, and of course, cricket.
The very young as well as the old could chat with him effortlessly. Women found in him understanding and sensitivity, while men found in him an intellectual challenge that they could not but respect. He rejected defeat and refused to surrender to adversity.
Sri was a founder-member of the CNDP from its inception in 2000 and remained a front-ranking antinuclear campaigner until the very end. A pre-eminent peace activist in the subcontinent, he viewed communal harmony at home as key to India-Pakistan friendship as well as to the elimination of the region's nuclear weapons.
He was international in his outlook. However, he always appreciated that it is the people in Chennai – fellow journalists, progressive writers, insurance workers, domestic workers' unions, construction labor, from every quarter and a wide spectrum – who supported his fight for peace. He believed peace was never going to be easy. One has to snatch it from bomb-makers and militarists, from loud, right-wing hawks and indifferent populations.
Sri was the moving spirit behind many campaigns against nuclear weapons and communalism at the grassroots. The earliest of them, Journalists Against Nuclear Weapons (JANW) in Chennai, protested the May 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear explosions against the background of the mainstream media portrayal of the tests as proclamation of India's nuclear superpower status.
The second, the Movement Against Nuclear Weapons (MANW), the umbrella body of antinuclear organizations, was begun the following year. While the massive public rally on the first anniversary of the tests brought together likeminded scientists (chiefly those in the atomic energy establishment), doctors, and trade unionists in the telecom and banking sectors, no less significant was Sri's determination to engage the very ordinary people on issues of communal harmony and peace – through public meetings on street corners, bus terminals and more remote areas.
The genetic rheumatoid factor in his blood affected Sri's lungs, and the smog and the winter in Delhi aggravated it. He and his family moved to Chennai in 1997 and Sri managed well with the condition, but in the last year, it seriously worsened. He and his wife had barely moved into a new house in Kochi, close to Papri's family and planned ayurveda treatment when he experienced the organ failures that resulted in his death.
It should come as no surprise that we cannot think of the author of “Beginning” as no more. The ideas he championed drive on.
This is how I should have begun –
head bowed, palms joined
in pagan prayer
before the idol in the soul
of the animal-man-god,
the mammoth in awe-held memory
(the long-remembering eyes,
the single tusk and the singular epic-engraver,
the curved conduit of a closed mystery),
the child, the sage
(the sensuous celibate?
the spouse of singlehood,
espousal the same as existence?
Of the bride seen but once,
seen but to smile self into a secret?),
the silent, still savourer,
the gross, the gluttonous,
the givers' delight,
the child of god, the child before the child,
the god of gods of man before man,
the one before all
(the dark deity in leaf-filtered half-light,
before the day and the night,
before the doubt,
the stone before the stumble),
the totem at the tribe's van,
the battle-winning banner,
the fossil a forest
of falling and flaming,
of strife and sylvan peace,
of crunched leaves under a green canopy,
the beginning before the beginning,
the beginning after beginning
after beginning after beginning,
where I must begin again
that remembrance may renew
in sacred rage, repose.
-J. Sri Raman