I was covering a cacophonous Kali Puja immersion procession in the outskirts of Calcutta for a story on the night of Saturday November 6, when the editor of a local newspaper called me. I couldn’t hear a word that he was saying. There was a deafening silence on the other end that was as black as the deathly visage of the larger than life idols staring down at me.
There was something about the moment. The sun had just set over the vast expanse of the dark waters of the winter Ganges. It was the moment of transition from day into night. It was the moment of transition that is supposed to remind us, everyday, of the inevitable transition of life into death.
Then came the short text message. “Manu da is no more.”
Those words weren’t really supposed to have a numbing effect on me at all. I was just a journalist covering Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s role in the Emergency for one of our special issues last October when I first met him. I had cornered him about the excesses committed during that blackest period in Indian democracy and subsequently we wrote a critical account of it.
It was supposed to end at that.
But what I didn’t know then was that this man, whose name was inextricably intertwined with two of the most notorious instances of flagrant human rights violations in the history of the country – the excesses of the Emergency of the 1970s and the crushing of the Naxal movement of the 1960s – was a human being who felt as wronged by history as the wrongs that he himself has been blamed of committing.
He confided in me about feeling misunderstood but said that he had given up trying to be understood.
One day later he called me. He said he had something to tell me. When I went to his house he handed me a handwritten note in an unsealed envelope, the gist of which was “Would you write my biography?”
It was an onerous task. But he said the only qualification he was looking for was the willingness to question pre-conceived notions. I told him I had strong, negative pre-conceived notions about him. He said that he understood that. He said go ahead, investigate the facts objectively, don’t spare me, but if you find me innocent, please tell the world. Vindicate my name.
He pleaded innocent and said he believed in God and that before his death he would find a way to express to the world that whatever else he may take with him to the other world it would not be guilt.
He was deeply disturbed at each mention of the innocent boys killed by police during the Naxal period and the excesses of the Emergency. He implored that as we investigate, his intentions and integrity be used as yardsticks for judging him.
The task remained incomplete but Ray started to discuss death. “My time has come,” he told me when I last spoke to him about a week ago.
I didn’t want to believe it.
Anyone who knew him personally could go beyond the political and grow attached to him. Expecting a diehard, hardcore politician with Machiavellian scruples, in the last one year, I made a serendipitous discovery of a man who was emotional, gentle, kind, loving, polite warm and intensely spiritual.
Ray read all that was written about him with interest. As I write this, I wish I could run it by him….
But evening was already descending over Keoratala Maha Shoshan - where Ray was cremated - and the flames of the funeral pyre nearly extinguished.
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