The Bravest Man

Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird says, “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man whoever lived.”  My father is the bravest man I know. On July 21st, 1994 a gang of thugs assaulted my father outside our home, when he was about to leave for Delhi to argue his petition against the Tamil Nadu government’s 69% reservation policy at the Supreme Court. The assault was close to murderous and left him with multiple fractures; his survival was nothing less than miraculous. He underwent major surgeries and another year’s worth of recovery.*

An old newspaper article called him a “lone crusader” against a State that was willing to use its power to strike down a questioning voice, others would call it the beginning of the reign of utter irreverence to the rule of law. However, he never saw himself as a crusader; he had simply done what was required of him. He believed in challenging the inherent unconstitutionality of the State levied law. In the years that followed he never complained, lamented or wished ill against anyone.  But he continued to question and argue.

What made a man so composed in the face of death? What was the ontology fear? Or in more Shakespearean lament, for who would bear the whips and scorns of time? What are the patient merits of the unworthy takes? Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

I had asked him once, and he nonchalantly replied, “Am not afraid to die.” In a more eloquent response fashioned by Mark Twain, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” I would never know if my father was fully prepared, but he had committed himself to a principal, an idea and made choices based on those convictions and faced its consequences — that was the truest form of courage. You can pontificate on the virtues of moral courage, to teach it, you simply had to lead by example.

Socratic dialogue

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we transitioned into a friendship – one based on conversations. In those conversations, he laid the foundations for the person I would become. While he drove me to school every morning, we would talk. Sometimes we discussed the days Op-ed and at other times, a conversation would spark an impromptu lecture. Once he spoke about the nature of colonial architecture in Madras, the buildings built around the marina and the Madras High Court building. I was introduced to the idea of architecture as an extension of state policy. Years later I would listen to Charles Hill, lecture a small class at Yale about Philip II, nature of statecraft and architecture – but the foundation for that understanding was laid a good decade before.

While discussing Kushwanth Singh’s, Train to Pakistan, he remarked that he had referenced the book in his law school examination.  I was schooled in an educational system that valued recantation to thinking, equated an individual capacity for remembrance and repetition to intelligence. Anything beyond the subscribed textbook was seen as unnecessary. The idea of referencing a book of fiction to answer a legal question seemed, for the lack of better words “cool”. He taught me an alternative way of thinking, understanding and responding. Literature that was the reflection of the society can also be the realm where issues of law, society and human nature can be debated. But it was also a lesson in subversion,  the values and the principles of a system can be contradicted and perhaps even reversed by the very fact of ideas or actions.

By degrees afterwards, ideas come

When I was fourteen, he gave me his copy of Glimpses of World History. Nehru wrote Glimpses for his daughter Indira — a narrative history told through personal style by a father who becomes his daughter’s historical interpreter. It contains 196 letters, written mostly from Naini prison. It was my introduction to the past, human destiny, historical process, the empire and the common man. It was past narrated through a great distance that encompassed both Genghis Khan and Lenin. I learnt that ideas and people contaminate and cross-fertilize each other; history could be a story, it was not boring facts and dates that had to be remembered and regurgitated, that prose could be eloquent and full of vitality. I would go on to disagree with much of Nehru’s strategies, his Fabian socialism and policies, with my father in the years to come, but would always be grateful for that book.

A few years later he handed Lord Denning’s, The Discipline of Law and pointed to the following line,  “Obscurity in thought inexorably leads to obscurity in language.” I had never correlated thought with language, before. Clarity was not a given, and poor language was profoundly symptomatic of a larger thought problem.  Another time he read an article from The Hindu that said, “It is the givers and not the takers, who inherit this world”, which I copied in a book I had reserved for quotes.  “To inherit this world”, what grand ambition to be sown into a child whose sense of the world, was still the four corner of her home?

To understand how a society treats its women, you first have to understand how and why they are raised, and what roles society envisions for them. It is the unspoken rituals and conventions, upheld, performed and repeated that informs everyday behaviour, habits and symbols. These symbols are benchmarks that children learn growing up, and this is how the cycle of outdated social mores and inequality is inherited and perpetuated.  In a world that is still struggling to come to terms with the role of women in intellectual, public and private spaces – I was raised an individual first and women next. I had a rare rearing of having, books and ideas constantly thrown at me. My curiosities were nurtured and given appetite; my dreams, whims and even mistakes were treated as precious commodities. My inheritance then is to argue with this world.

As my father steps into his sixties, assess his life, questions his mortality and legacy, I increasingly question time’s malleability. In his novel “A Way in the World,” Naipaul observed, “We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.” I remain a stranger to myself.  But, I was taught early on that words are our redemption. That written words are immediate beings, and the locus of innumerable relationships that we have with ideas, people and the wider world. Hence, I wrote this, as a letter intended for myself, to tell myself the story of who I am and where I came from.

Suchitra Vijayan

June 2013

*Eighteen years after Senior Advocate K M Vijayan was attacked outside his residence, the Madras High Court acquitted all the twelve accused, of all charges.