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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

Saluting Offbeat Journalist J. Sri Raman

Sunday 27 November 2011, by S.K. Pande



I would like to believe in something,
Something beyond the death that undid you.
I would like to describe the intensity
With which, already overwhelmed,
We longed in those days to be able
To walk together once again
Free beneath the sun.
—Primo Levi, Collected Poems

At the roof-top, open air auditorium of the Delhi Union of Journalists, on November 19, 2011, while a gentle breeze blew, an inner circle of friends—writers, publishers, reporters, press workers, peace activists, and leaders from journalist unions—all shared some moments and memories, remembering the late J. Sri Raman who left us on November 8, 2011. The meeting, organised by the Delhi Union Journalists, was less of a condolence meeting. It was an exchange between friends, admirers, colleagues, and some family members of fond memories and moments that had made sixtyeight-year-old Raman, the grassroots journalist that he was. There was poetry, a dash of music inter-sprinkled with some humour, in the backdrop of a picture of a smiling Raman and a few roses in a vase...

Flashback into the seventies. Four friends huddled together in an atmosphere after the deadlines were over, close to the Italian Cultural Centre, then in Lajpat Nagar, at my small rented residence. It was four musketeers plus, yours truly, veteran journalist Modhumita Majumdar, then an assistant editor, cub reporter Papri, J. Sri, and the host Ruby. Giving us company was Modhumita’s daughter, little Aunohita. From Faiz to Iqbal, Sudhin Datta, Jibanananda Das to Pablo Neruda and of course a chorus of none other than Rafi Saheb and the bolt from the blue—Primo Levi.

On another occasion JSR and myself took the painful decision to close down the paper we worked for, for a day, at the call of our union, as a mark of respect for trade unionist H.L. Parwana on the day of his death—along with other papers. For Parwana was for a while the guiding spirit in the newspaper movement. If JSR played the dove, I played the hawk in forcing a decision that cost some of us dearly. No regrets. We were not jellyfish.

ON November 19, speaker after speaker in Delhi remembered their friend, guide, father, uncle, colleague together with affection and great regard, paid heartfelt tributes to a man who was first and foremost a good human being, apart from being a good husband, father, a brilliant writer and journalist and a dedicated social activist.

Academician and columnist Badri Raina recalled his wonderful friendship with a man who was admirable in the quality of the relationships he cultivated. He was also a most competent journalist who wrote on a wide range of subjects. He said it would be a tribute to him to collect his writings and have them published as a book.

John Dayal observed that Raman covered everything from politics to potatoes—and wrote poetry about them too! He appeared so frail, so loose-jointed—but when he wrote it was in flawless English. In Patriot, Raman had had the opportunity to voice his opinions and write as he liked. He also referred to Raman’s opposition to India’s explosion of a nuclear device and his formation of the group, ‘Journalists against Nuclear Weapons’. Raman had done so at a time when it was very difficult to voice such dissenting opinions as the mainstream media was celebra-ting the bomb and dubbed all opposition as anti-national.

Sumit Chakravartty, editor of Mainstream, recalled that J. Sri Raman, despite being an extremely competent journalist, was surpri-singly self-effacing. He was also transparently honest, said Chakravartty. Another colleague, Dr Satish Mishra, recollected the many heated discussions with his former colleague at the Patriot who was argumentative but never took difference of opinion personally. He said Raman was always willing to stand by the common people and their struggles, both in his life and his writings. He said that this kind of journalism is missing today.

A former worker of the Patriot paid tribute to the trade unionist who supported and streng-thened their long battle for reclaiming their dues, after the arbitrary shutdown of the newspaper. Achin Vanaik of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) read out the organisation’s tribute to this remarkable peace activist and front-ranking anti-nuclear writer who waged many battles for peace. He said the group, Journalists Against the Bomb, had been an audacious protest against the Pokhran explosion in 1974 when there was little public opposition to it. Praful Bidwai of the CNDP pointed out that Raman played a special role as a public intellectual, a peace activist of great courage and a journalist with a superb turn of phrase whose writings made difficult concepts accessible to people. People like Raman, he said, had laid the ground for social dialogue between the organised Left and civil society. He lauded Raman’s moral clarity on the issue of the bomb.

Publisher and journalist Renu Kaul Varma considered Raman to be from that rare breed of writers who never missed a deadline. Raman’s nephew and son-in-law spoke with affection and regret at the passing away of their dear one. His nephew recounted that Raman and his sister were conjoined twins separated at birth. The separation resulted in Raman losing the use of his left hand but he never regretted it, dealing with this handicap and general ill health with fortitude.

On behalf of the DUJ its General Secretary called for a movement of journalists for humanism, dignity and scientific temper as a befitting tribute to him. The DUJ Executive’s resolution stated;
The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) expresses deep anguish and grief at the untimely death of J. Sri Raman on November 8.
Sri Raman was a distinguished member of the DUJ for over three decades who was in the forefront of many struggles led by the DUJ in the cause of the working journalists and press workers.

J. Sri Raman worked with the Patriot, the Hindustan Times and later on with The Indian Express before becoming an independent journalist. He wrote extensively on world affairs. He contributed regularly to the Truthout and Daily Times of Lahore. His writings were always educative and effective in exposing the jingoism and ultra-nationalism within the mainstream media.

A journalist who identified himself with the people and was one with them in their sufferings, Sri Raman will always be remembered for his prolific writings, taking up issues affecting the common people. Sri Raman was deeply committed to the working class. His writings reflected the angst of the people against the current order. These apart, he was an ardent campaigner for peace, for nuclear disarmament and against nuclear proliferation. Sri Raman was above all a human being who cherished values of brother-hood and was a zealous votary of communal harmony. He determinedly campaigned among the people for communal harmony and peace participating in public meetings. The Delhi Union of Journalists pays tributes to his memory. It conveys its heartfelt condolences to his wife Papri and daughters Taranga and Varna.

TARANGA SRI RAMAN, in an eloquent tribute, said that with the death of her father she and her younger sister had lost their best friend and teacher, the man who had taught them the use of their minds. He had taught them a smattering of several languages. He had taught them the songs of Rafi and Talat Mahmood and many Tamil singers. A man who never lost touch with the ground, he had used wit and wisdom to inculcate progressive values in his children.

As she added: “He was a truly different sort of person—humane and brave and an intellec-tual force—in both his personal and public life. …. Parents give us our bodies, hearts and minds. Appa taught us the use of our minds, a love of learning and thinking for ourselves. He also taught to distinguish between right and wrong and to live honestly and without fear. In the last week of his life and thereafter, I realised that the two most critical things we have are strength from our mother, and fierce pride from our father.

“He never liked to talk about his health problems to anybody, not even friends. But I would like everyone to know how courageous he was—having battled a partial physical handicap since childhood, and then spondilosis through his youth and finally, ILD and rheumatoid arthritis for the last 18.5 years. As my cousin put it, he believed that life was worth living—and he was in a hurry, always hungry to do more, read and write more, speak more, mobilise people more.

“Despite his tremendous achievements in writing and peace activism across the world, he always had time for others, for their much less urgent pursuits and far more ordinary lives. As a father, he was always introducing us to new kinds of books, films, art, games and sports, and, most significantly, to the beauty of poetry, language and music. He had a near-photo-graphic memory that allowed him to quote often and impromptu Bharatiyar, progressive Urdu poetry and Shakespeare, as much as to burst into song—especially old Hindi and Tamil film songs, Old Man River and Ganga Tumi Boichho Keno, Joan Baez and Carnatic music renditions.

“I miss my father deeply, and I am so thankful for the comprehensive social and political education he gave us from a very young age. Who else would write a note to his daughter’s school saying she will be on leave to help organise a national anti-nukes conference or to take part in street-corner meetings? I am just lucky I was born first and got his company non-stop from the age of one to seven. I am proud and blessed to be your daughter, Appa. I refuse to only mourn your going. Let us instead celebrate the life and times.”

The second daughter Varna says…….

“Of many bits of paper...
Newsprint old and new
Spiderwebs and a rosewood table
No spectacles and some brandy everyday.
Of fearlessness, humour and all things political...
Languages, passion, food and travels...
The little odds and ends of a full life,
A painful life, a principled life...”

From the Truthout, to which he was a contributor, there were warm memories read out. “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.”

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 for the disability. But true to his character, he was happy that his twin sister was okay. In India, the discrimination faced by a disabled woman is greater.

AND it would not be an exaggeration to state a fact that the then historic report of the Status of Women in India was scooped by me and released, laced with comments by J. Sri Raman and Modhumita for Patriot newspaper and Link magazine. Similarly, a magazine report, To Guruji with love’, which exposed the curious deeds of a self-styled godman, including the goodies seized at the airport, was then a quite an expose that led to demonstrations against us and others. A series of pieces on foreign foundations in India, again, were touched by J. Sri though written by me. But the touches made all the difference with his craftsmanship. It is not quite well known that the book on the life and times of the late Edatata Narayanan, the founder editor of Patriot and Link, had the Raman effect of super selection of articles by Mr Narayanan for he had to choose from the articles which had no byline but were written by either the doyen of journalism, Chelapathi Rao, or by Narayanan under pseudo-names (at times the same).

Today many of us will be sadder for our personal loss. It is difficult to find a journalist who struggled the way he did and continued to struggle throughout his life in his good times, bad times and sad times.

In one of our numerous get-togethers, today, I recall, in an atmosphere of sing-song chorus JSR in a ghazal mood once sang with feeling a Rafi piece, and followed it by a few lines of Paul Robeson as Papri sitting on the floor watched affectionately. It was a well deserved dinner-after a hard day’s work. A poignant reminder on how we slogged and celebrated with all our usual gusto.

Recall the words of Primo Levi:

…. Singing

….But when we started singing
Those good foolish songs of ours,
Then everything was again
As it always had been.
A day was just a day,
And seven make a week.
Killing seemed an evil thing to us;
Dying—something remote.
The months pass rather quickly,
But there are still so many left!
Once more we were just young men:
Not martyrs, not infamous, not saints.
This and other things came into our minds
While we kept singing.
But they were cloudlike things,
Hard to explain.

Goodbye Raman, I salute and celebrate you…

A senior journalist who worked for several years in Patriot and Frontline, the author is the General Secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalists.

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