This Article is From Jun 08, 2018

The Gauri Lankesh I Knew And Was Married To - By Chidanand Rajghatta

By the time I returned to Bangalore to attend a memorial meeting for Gauri at the Central College grounds, several friends, including some in the publishing industry who knew both Gauri and me, were urging me to write on the woman I knew. But how well did I know her? After all, we had been separated for a long time, and she had grown and evolved in her political beliefs, as had I. Although we had remained in touch and spoke often (or at least more frequently than divorced couples do), I did not have a complete awareness of her recent life. I was full of self-doubt, particularly after seeing the outpouring of emotion after her death.

The memorial itself was a curious event: part political tamasha, part intelligentsia fretting, part media circus evocative of the movie Peepli Live, a terrific takedown of Indian television journalism. As Mary and I stood near the pavilion where Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Graham McKenzie and other bowling greats had marked their run-up, and Gary Sobers, the legend went, had hit a six into the Central Jail opposite, more memories coursed through my head.

Gauri herself was an undergrad in journalism and history at Central College. Her father P Lankesh had taught English Literature there in the '70s. And most of all, it was the alma mater of - hold your breath! - four Bharat Ratnas. Four: CV Raman, Rajaji, Sir M Visvesvaraya and CNR Rao. A record unlikely to be surpassed in our lifetime.

Now, in her death, Gauri had become a folk heroine of the college and beyond, our own Bharat Ratna, a proposition she would have laughed at considering how much she despised mythologising public figures. Amid slogans and speeches, everyone wanted a piece of her, and a piece of history. Young college students stood in front of her posters, taking selfies; old ladies from the boonies trundled in on buses carrying a bindle for an overnight stay; everywhere, there were posters and t-shirts and headbands announcing 'Naanu Gauru' - I Am Gauri. Songs and poems were being written for her, and documentaries and film projects were already underway. Journalists set aside their own emotions to chronicle one of their own, some of them breathlessly reprising said Peepli Live. And of course, there were the ubiquitous netas, promptly arriving to feast on the mourning.

This 'legend' was hardly the Gauri I knew. My memories were personal, of a private person; I had little idea of her public persona. But I certainly knew how she developed in the most formative years of her life probably better than anyone else. And I knew her before she became larger than life following her death.

In part, this is that story. It is the story of two young people growing up and becoming politically aware in a turbulent India of hope and optimism. This is also the post-Emergency journey of India as we saw it after having met in 1978-79 when the country emerged from a brief stint of authoritarianism. And most of all, this is the narrative of the syncretic sagas we grew up with - The Sword of Tipu Sultan, the shrine at Baba Budan Giri, the songs of Shishunala Sharif - each of which became her touchstone in the fight to preserve the India we knew and loved.

It is the story of our times.

Those who did not know us well cautioned me about even the few Facebook blogs I posted that led to the writing of this book. "You should be careful. You may be hurting sentiments all around," warned one friend. Others spoke of security risks, of danger to my young globalist Indian-American family already at odds with the nativism sweeping countries separated by thousands of miles. In fact, my wife, American to the core but also Indian in spirit, once remarked in a quiet, reflective moment after Gauri's death that she never expected to get away from gun-wielding whackos in the US only to run into their counterparts in India. We had always regarded both India and the US as two of the most liberal countries on the planet. In 2017, we had our moments of doubt.

Back in 2005, the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen's book The Argumentative Indian focused on the traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism that characterises Indian society. But a decade later, the argumentative Indian is degenerating into an intolerant and illiberal Indian: the worst primitive and medieval instincts of India are on display across the country every single day. From vigilantes killing people who eat or speak or dress differently to taking offence at a movie based on a mythical poem to challenging Darwin's theory of evolution, India is now a boiling vat of outrage, an outpouring that led me to write an op-ed in The Times of India about what I jocularly called the Republic of Outrage-stan.

The India that Gauri and I knew and grew up in is changing rapidly, and it eventually claimed my dear friend's life.

(Chidanand Rajghatta is a columnist based in Washington, D.C.)

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