Periappa Remembered


A combination of busyness and inefficiency accounts for why I can say with a straight face, “Time flies.”  This piece was due about a year ago. But then, time flies. In my defense, I am glad I am not writing this piece a year from now. Even in my life, inefficiency and procrastination take a break every once in a while.

It is a year since my Ramamoorthy Periappa passed away. His was a life novels are made of if good writers become aware of the details. Even though I think I know a lot about his life I am not sure all of it is true. He didn’t formally complete a college program but was a Renaissance Man – a successful industrialist, brilliant artist and an amazing photographer, politically kind of active RSS man, all round handyman, avid card player, foodie…  Most importantly he was a good and generous man, a proxy parent for many a person.

It is that final aspect about the man that I will remember forever. His house in Madras was an open house for many a person in need. I can remember many of my friends who were beneficiaries of his and Periamma’s generosity and openness. Ajay stayed with them when he had to write some medical entrance exams. Dimpy stayed with them for an extended period of time as she was finding her feet becoming an artist – in fact I think she used their address to establish residency! Subha stayed with them when she was working at the Spastic Society and needed a place to stay. Periappa and Periamma conducted Kamala’s wedding under circumstance we no longer talk about. These are just connections personally close to me. Their generosity extended to countless others.

We had the joy of spending many vacations in Periappa/Periamma’s house in Madras – first in Tondiarpet and then in different locations in Annanagar. My fondest memory of him is when he used to take us kids for ice cream to a place whose name I cannot remember, but I am sure one of my cousins or siblings will recall. At times it was only a couple of people who could go along with him on his ‘mobike’. Ah! What a treat it was. Right up there with the ice cream treat was going with him to see Walt Disney movies. He enjoyed them far more than we kids did. And we kids enjoyed them a lot.

I also recall once when he dropped me from the frying pan into the fire. To cut a long story short, I had got myself into a situation where I needed to see the college principal with my father before I could be given a hall ticket to write the centralized university exam. My father who had asked me not to do the thing that got me into trouble, but who was asked to not interfere in a not so polite way, refused to accompany me to the principal’s office. Periappa was my proxy father. He was well coached on what the problem was and how he was only coming along as a seat warmer and should say little. At that young age I did not understand the unpredictable nature of Renaissance men. Periappa not only spoke, but agreed with the principal that my indiscretions were a part of the nature of the younger generation, and said that he was grateful I was being held to account.  I probably would have held it against him if the final outcome of a vindictive principal really harmed me. It didn’t. But I always knew I had a proxy father.

There is much more I can say about Periappa, about things he did which were ahead of his time and indicative of his courage and decency. Some of it, I will not, because it is of a personal nature unfit to blog. The trouble with the other stuff is that there are so many stories that if I carry on I can never stop. What I do know is that he has left behind a caring, loving family, all of whom miss him, and most of whom want to emulate him.  That is a good thing.

Hopefully there will be a novel in the not too distant future by someone who knew him well. I have a working title – The Man Who Would Be Good!


Thank You Christopher Hitchens

This piece is also available at

I’m sad that Christopher Hitchens has passed away. I’ve never seen the man in person. I’ve seen him on TV, heard him over the radio, and most importantly read him. I will miss never again reading him or listening to him on events that are still to happen.

We all hopefully have role models – people who we look up to and hope we can emulate in some small way. I do not mean in a fantasize sort of way – as in “I hope I can sing like Sanjay Subramaniam.” I know I never can – I don’t sing. But in a much more real sense – in a, “Given what I do, I hope I can do it more at the standards she has done it sort of way.” I think I am in the same professional ball park as Hitchens was – peddling ideas. He was just so much better at it. Note, not just more successful, not just better paid, not just better known, just better.

His brilliance can be wrapped up in three words – thoughtful, courageous, and eloquent. Seldom does the world see this combination.

It was clear that he thought and wrote in a way that was a tribute to logic and clarity. No babble where you had to wonder what he thought. Pascal is attributed as having said, “There are times the heart knows reason that reason will never know.” Keeping figures like Hitchens in mind I have stood that quote on its head to say, “There are times the head knows compassion that the heart will never know.”

He feared nobody and wrote scathingly of people as beloved or powerful as Mother Teresa and Henry Kissingner (no points for figuring out who the beloved is there, or who the powerful), or as fictional in his perspective as God. It seems like he took positions that made it hard to put him into a box. Given the American political lexicon, he was a flaming liberal on social issues, and a neo-conservative when it came to the Iraq war and the ‘war on terror’. While he didn’t fit convenient political and social pigeon holes, he most certainly was in the box which read, ‘Courageous and Says It As He Sees It’.

There are some people who think well and write badly – many an academic journal will give you examples of this – though be warned most of what you will find there is ‘thought badly and written badly’ pieces. Some people think badly and write beautifully – V.S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy fall into this category in my book. And then there are the few gems who think brilliantly and write eloquently – and Hitchens was one of them.

I’ll end this tribute to Hitchens with a personal note. Last week one of my students walked into my office hours and our conversation on population and poverty led to a discussion of women’s rights and abortion. My student was clear that his to be wife will never have an abortion and he will see to that. The reason was simple – his God dictated that. I offered to get the student my copy of Hitchens’ ‘God in Not Great’ as part of his winter break readings. (I also suggested he read Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’) and then have a conversation about God on our return to campus. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my copy of ‘God is Not Great’ – I’ve lent it to someone else, and I don’t know who. Given this turn of events I’ll probably get the student a copy of the book. Thinking about it, a good collection of Christopher Hitchens’ books is as good a Christmas gift as any other for many a person. If interested here is a link to Amazon’s Christopher Hitchens page.

Note, I haven’t mentioned the religion of the student above. Something tells me Hitchens would not have been so politically correct.

Steve and Fred

Many people died on October 5, 2011. Two of them did amazing things. We’ve heard so much about one of them – Steve Jobs. The other was Fred Shuttlesworth.

This piece is not to praise Fred and minimize Steve. It is to have us reflect on the things that we value, celebrate, and remember when push comes to shove, when death visits us.

By 8.45 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 evening a number of my Facebook Friends had posted touching and evocative messages about Steve Jobs (this was about an hour after he passed away). One of my friends posted the following message on Facebook on Thursday, October 6, at about 11 p.m. – “Jesus, FRED SHUTTLESWORTH passed on Wednesday? I love my Macbook, but I REALLY love my civil rights! RIP. Get it together, news media.”  This was the only message about Rev. Shuttlesworth that any of my FB friends posted. Below is a copy of the comments that followed – I’ve only taken people’s responses without their names for obvious reasons.

I mean, have coverage for both of them. ♥ Steve Jobs. Very, very thankful for Rev. Shuttlesworth.

  • I posted about both to my FB page and no one commented on Rev. Shuttlesworth passing. It bummed me out.
  • He was ill for so long but gotta say, he lived an amazing life.
  • I KNOW. I was home listening to NPR all day on Wednesday, and they were talking about Rev. Shuttlesworth until the minute Steve Jobs died. Then nothing. In today’s paper, Jobs was huge front page, and the Rev. got a tiny little paragraph.
  • Man, welcome to my world. I work in a Human Rights Division that sits in a Human Services Dept…lets just say I get real frustrated with some of the ppls views on life.
  • For those who are wondering what the Rev. Shuttlesworth did, simply Google his name on your iPad and read about him. Then ask yourself: 1. Which is more important – what you are reading with, or what you are reading about?
    2. Who should we have been celebrating when they passed away – the person responsible for what you are reading with, or the person you are reading about?

    I’ll give you my answer to Question 2. Both.

    The tragedy is on this sad day when we lost many people, at least two of whom did amazing things, and one of whom did really life changing stuff, we seem to have, kind of, forgotten the person who did the really life changing stuff. We seem to have, kind of, forgotten Fred.

    Thank you Fred for all you did. It matters even if we don’t remember and celebrate you with all the glory you deserve.