April 24, 2006
Vishu has just come and gone. As always, Baisakhi is the day before Vishu; and I remember the massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh: almost a hundred years ago, on April 13, 1919. A walled garden with a single entrance and an unarmed crowd celebrating the arrival of Spring. 1,650 bullets expended, 1,579 casualties. The day on which imperialism bared its fangs for all to see.
And then there were the nationalists whose resolve was strengthened by Jallianwallah Bagh: the trio of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, hanged by the British for sedition exactly 75 years ago, on March 23, 1921. The Gadar Party of San Francisco, and young UC, Berkeley students Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingale, hanged by the British for sedition. The naïve innocents of the Komagata Maru, who returned from Canada and the US to help liberate India, and who were massacred at the ports.
Every nation needs its heroes; and the heroes are a reflection of what the nation is all about. I am disappointed, as I am with so much in modern India, with the quality of the heroes everyone looks up to. Ask any young Indian: chances are their heroes are mere movie stars and overpaid, underperforming cricketers. And perhaps some politicians. All of whom are creatures of propaganda and an easily-bought, pliant media. India has an abhorrent culture of hero-worship and a futile messiah syndrome.
But true heroes are ignored. For instance, this year, on the 75th anniversary of the hanging of Bhagat Singh and friends, practically no attention was paid to their memory. And where are the memorials? I was shocked to go to Colachel in Kanyakumari district, to the site of an emphatic victory by Marthanda Varma of Travancore over an invading Dutch fleet in 1741. There is nothing to mark the spot but a stinking, broken stone, overgrown with weeds and covered with cow patties.
There are real heroes amongst us, but their tales are never told and they are not glamorous. They do not necessarily look good on television, and they may not be 'people like us', either. I refer to people like Major Shaitan Singh of the C Company, 13th Kumaon: they who died to the last man in the snows of Ladakh repulsing Chinese hordes.
This year, fittingly on Jallianwallah Bagh day, martyrs' day, an unlikely hero passed away. This was Professor T V Eachara Warrier, who taught Hindi at university in Kerala. For thirty years, Professor Warrier fought the State and political bigwigs. He was a lone man, a wronged father, and all he was asking for was an honest accounting of what happened to his 'disappeared' son. So far as I can tell, Professor Warrier did not get much help from the human rights cottage industry either, which is more interested in glamorous 'causes'.
Professor Warrier's only son Rajan, a student at the Regional Engineering College, Calicut, disappeared from college during the Emergency in 1976. Circumstantial evidence, and testimony from other jailed students, points to the likelihood that Rajan was tortured to death in the frenzy of totalitarianism that marked the period. But the State stonewalled, and has never admitted culpability. All that is known is that the State police picked Rajan up; his body was never recovered.
Most men would have been defeated and broken by the repeated rebuffs from officialdom. But Professor Warrier persisted, and his habeas corpus petition asking the State to produce his son eventually led to K Karunakaran, home minister in Kerala during the Emergency, losing his post as chief minister. Ironically, the 87-year-old Karunakaran has outlived the 86-year-old Professor Warrier and is still a king-maker in Kerala politics.
Against all the odds, Professor Warrier fought on for thirty years. He followed Dylan Thomas' exhortation; and he went, not quietly:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage, against the fading of the light.
Professor Warrier went through the greatest agony a parent can conceive of -- the loss of a child, and that too, not even being able to see his son's body one last time. It is a universal sorrow, something that totalitarian governments (on the left or right) everywhere impose on their citizens: in Chile during Pinochet's rule, for instance. Professor Warrier wrote a book about his son: Memories of a Father, an elegy. Thanks to reader xmatrix for the pointer. Professor Warrier asks:
I hear his songs from a cassette on this rainy night. I am trying to retrieve a lost wave with this tape recorder. The good earth is getting filled with songs till now unheard by me, this crude man. My son is standing outside, drenched in rain.
I still have no answer to the question of whether or not I feel vengeance. But I leave a question to the world: Why are you making my innocent child stand in the rain even after his death?
Professor Warrier's story was the basis of the shatteringly powerful Malayalam film Piravi(The Birth), the extraordinary directorial debut of Shaji Karun. I am not ashamed to admit that this film brought tears to my eyes; I watched it in San Francisco with tears flowing down my cheeks, the only film that has ever moved me so much. I understood the father's pain; and I thought of my own father, ten thousand miles away.
Totalitarianism is not far beneath the surface in the modern State, and there are storm clouds a-gathering. Citizens need to be vigilant, for tyranny is not abstract, any one of us can be its victim at any time. We need to think: the disappeared Rajan could have been me, but for the grace of God. And it can still be any of us. Our comfortable middle-class existence can be shattered in an instant by Kafkaesque self-aggrandisement.
Professor Eachara Warrier was a hero: he showed that there is a kernel of dharma even in the corrupt modern Indian system, even though it may only shine weakly. But he also showed that a hero with nothing but moral force on his side plows a long and lonely furrow. Not too many stand with you in your sorrow.
Farewell, brave warrior! You were a true hero.