Over the last fourteen years I had the opportunity to know T.K. Ramasamy, as an editor, a person, a friend and even as ‘a spinner of yarns’- all at the same time. As I attempt to write about him I can only hope that my perspectives will help to construct or conjure at least a part of the person himself.
Let me begin by admitting that my experience with TKR was above all, highly educative- he instigated one to write but also plodded, corrected and showed the way forward.
As an editor, TKR worked hard on some of the articles and book reviews that he received. In my case, my very first one was substantially changed- for good reasons, for after he had read my review he asked me (rather maliciously as I imagined it then): is it a book review, an article or an essay? I didn’t know the answer. However, I more than understood when I saw the review in print. That was my first lesson in writing.
Subsequently, my relations ship with him was more like an Urdu poet of yore sending his couplets to his ustad, who would bring about corrections here and there and for which one would wait impatiently. Over the years these corrections became less frequent and increasingly nuanced. Once he told me that he had to work very hard on a review that I wrote on a book on Indian nationalism. On reading my published review, I commented that I saw no change to what I had written. He only smiled.
Later when I compared my original review with the published one, I realized that he had indeed modified it: he had cut off its rough edges, chiseled it with an adroitness that smoothed out the words and brought it to an even tenor. Subsequently, it forced me to look for every tittle that he changed- it was an education that one started taking for granted. It upsets me today to think that what I write will not pass through the clinical gaze of TKR. It feels as if a pillar that one had got accustomed to lean on has disappeared.
TKR was a teacher in another way. Having studied engineering at college my forays into social science and literature was mostly by self- learning- an unstructured learning guided by the study of Marxist classics in the company of equally amateurish activist students. It was the Marxist ideologue Mohit Sen, and next only to him, TKR who provided a more mature appreciation of theory. Both, however, were contrasting in their methods. While the former provided, as he continues to provide, broad sweeps and direction, TKR was concerned more with the nuts and bolts. While the former was always convinced about his formulations, allowing little space for disagreement, TKR always retained a streak for skepticism.
TKR’s criticism of a point that I would make was in pointing out small, dark recesses of the argument- rarely a direct or frontal attack. Instead, he would make a statement of fact or offer an opinion countering a seemingly irrelevant point in the case that I would have built. He left extending the argument to its logical conclusion open. In other words, he would leave its generalizations and theorization to me.
Slowly, as I began to understand his method, it often shook me as the flaws in my argument dawned on me. Sometimes, it was overwhelming- because I thought that by making a minor criticism and not questioning my broader argument, he had conceded my main point. Little did I realize that his seeming surrender had been, in fact, a conquest.
Going over to Ramasamy’s house on the weekends that I was in Chandigarh, especially the last few years, had taken on something of a ritualistic rendezvous. I often found him with his regular set of friends, and there would be discussions on everything under the sun, always illuminating.
On less crowded days, he would quiz me about computer viruses or how the Internet worked. I tried to explain the more intricate technologies involved, rather clumsily I suppose. I would get my own back, quite gainfully, when he explained terms and processes in economics, a subject of which I was completely ignorant.
Sometimes the topic would span different terrains- I particularly remember once when he discussed how change in technology affects journalism, in fact, the thought process of the journalist and therefore the content itself. Journalists of his age, he remarked, usually thought out everything in their mind, revised and altered it a number of times in their minds before sitting down behind a typewriter to put them on paper in a single shot- a process that took only the time that depended on the typing speed of the person behind the typewriter.
Not having known many journalists of his times, I am not sure if this applies to everyone, but it surely did for him. The actual time that he took to churn out an editorial was a few minutes- for he had composed and refined it over and over again in his mind.
His own initial opposition to computers melted into a grudging learning of the technology and later to a comfortable co- existence as he tried to learn new features and use the computer for his daily work.
He had his idiosyncrasies. He would insist on using my full name in the byline, while I preferred only the first name. I could never decide what I could buy for him as I scoured the malls and specialty stores abroad. His needs were few, and gifting him something that went beyond those would have offended him. I always came back empty handed.
He would also dislike certain traits in people but suffered them in silence. He would take his drink slowly and avoided eating much, even as he relished talking about delicacies and intricacies of recipes.
What, however, appeared as idiosyncrasies were mostly a manifestation of the world outlook of the man, which was a confluence of many streams- customs of his native South Indian upbringing, his ideological moorings and his liberal dispensation. The last two were especially important, and interesting because while he remained on what he considered to be the more radical version of Marxism, and therefore should have been, I felt, to be more sectarian and less accommodative of contrary opinions, he was quite the opposite.
As I moved quickly in the four years at college from fringe versions of Naxalism to Soviet Marxism and still later to what TKR generously termed as the liberal left, I realize that it was actually TKR who assisted with the transition and made me question a number of my premises. I feel that he never renounced the core of his beliefs as much out of conviction as because of loyalty even as he refused to force others to kowtow his line of thought.
For TKR, like for many others of his generation, Marxism was the contemporary face of humanism. Their embracing of Marxism had involved among other things, a deep commitment to its ideals and a substantive break with the past.
He saw himself as part of a larger army that comprised some of the finest minds of his generation. They felt that not only the future was bright, not only that they had deciphered the genetic code of history and hence mastered the future but also they were its harbingers- the future belonged to them! Only the details had to be worked out. They had a role in shaping this future.
However, unlike many others who aspired or placed themselves at the head of this movement, TKR was content to be a foot soldier. His area of operation remained at the molecular level.
As the years went by to give way to doubts and eventually the smothering of their dreams as fort after fort of ‘existing’ socialism collapsed like a house of cards and their Indian vision began to give way to popular neo- liberal propagandists, it was clear that the dream had soured. The general optimism was giving place to a pessimism- but TKR did not let pessimism lead him into the labyrinth of cynicism.
It did not mean an abandonment of his core beliefs- for him Marxism combined intellectual rigour with an abiding ethical appeal for the underdog. For those like TKR, as he once wrote about himself, who wore their heart firmly on the left, it took on the form a religion in the affirmative sense- a religion for the modern world, a religion whose belief rested in iconoclasm. ‘De omnibus dubitandum’ (‘Doubt everything’), as Marx had put it.
In addition, it imposed a code of personal conduct, Stalin himself had firmly instructed the then Indian communist leadership of Sripad Dange, Rajeshwar Rao and B.T. Ranadive when they went to see him: above all, renounce your personal interests.
TKR’s formative years also coincided with the emergence of the newly independent country. A general optimism suffused the air.
The more impatient ones opted for Marxism as frustration with the relatively bland flavour offered by Nehru-ism became evident. The historic split in the Indian communist movement found TKR on the more radical wing. This was surprising and somewhat contradictory for in his writings he was always balanced and mild. One exception was a eulogy that he wrote on the death of B.T. Ranadive, whom he admired.
At the risk of a hyperbole and over- stretching a historical analogy, one cannot help feeling that while his age produced its fair share of Bazarovs and Rudins, it is yet to produce its Turgenevs.
TKR worked all his life with small newspapers, and before he joined the Tribune, with ideologically left of center papers.
His professional life was guided by ideas and his ideas were moulded in the fire of Marxism, his puritanism a part of not only his moorings in the Old Left but also his Brahmanical upbringing in a South Indian family- a legacy whose living content he continued to uphold and, mediating through his new glasses, channel them in new directions. As a small aside, one can remark that his knowledge of classical music, for example, helped him savour the Punjabi Sufiana qalam of a Puran Shahkoti or the Wadali brothers in whose singing he found a confluence of the classical with the folk, though he did not fully know the language.
To Chandigarh, a city devoid of history and traditions in a country where time is measured not in centuries but in millenniums, TKR brought a part of that history, traces of that tradition and inklings of the social and political struggles that had raged there. He adapted himself and them into the local conditions. Without him, the city is devoid of a piece of architecture that Le Corbusier forgot to design- an edifice of the mindscape.
TKR changed in certain respects over the years, at least with me. The early years (in late 1980s and early 1990s) of debate and verbal criticism gave way when he would recount his days in Nagpur- as a child and as a student. His escapades conjured up images of a little Swamy, not in Malgudi, but in Nagpur as he waded with his listeners through the lanes and by lanes of Nagpur with flourishing portraits of the people he had known.
My last meeting with him was three weeks before his death. I was meeting him after nearly five months and I felt a substantial change in him. He was much weaker physically and somewhat incoherent.
I had noticed, for the past few weeks, small spelling mistakes or a stray typographical error on the book review page- these should have been an indicator enough of his health, so immaculately was this page normally done, which he insisted on doing all by himself. But that winter evening, as we clinked our glasses, my eyes briefly met his- and in that moment I discerned a softness that betrayed resignation. The final news came as a vindication of that momentary encounter when one had desperately hoped for a refutation.
But then death and tragedy had stalked Ramasamy’s home for the last few years of his life. Illness and fatal accidents claimed, first his nephew, then his youngest brother and then the disappearance and presumed death of his remaining younger brother two years ago- all making for a gory sequence that would have made any other person of his age turn to superstition and mysticism. TKR felt emotionally depleted but tried to make as little of this as possible. ‘My grief is my personal grief’, he remarked to a friend, ‘No one can share it.’