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The Rediff Special/rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa
Goodbye, Mr P!
November 10, 2005
When Mrs Anantha Lakshmi Parasuram, wife of Mr T V Parasuram -- longtime Washington correspondent for the Press Trust of India and the dean of the South Asian media fraternity in the nation's capital — asked me a few weeks back to speak on behalf of our journalistic family at her husband's retirement and farewell party October 22, I told her I would be delighted.
But I knew then, that when I said my piece at the Bombay Tandoor Restaurant in Vienna, Virginia, which on the occasion was packed to capacity with nearly 200 friends, family, Indian embassy officials and of course, the entire Indian media fraternity in Washington, it would be a bittersweet experience.
Though none of us could ever grudge him his richly deserving retirement, by the same token none of us could really imagine life without Mr Parasuram, all 82 years of him -- a veritable institution in Washington media circles and the only Harvard Niemen Fellow in journalism amongst us, and his signature opener at press conferences 'I am Parasuram from the Press Trust of India and my question to you is …..'
To us Parasu, as we called him when he was out of earshot (it was always Mr Parasuram, when he was within earshot) was – as Chidhanand Rajghatta of The Times of India captioned the photo album he sent out to those who attended the farewell dinner, our colleague, guide, friend, philosopher and guru.
In the two decades I've been covering the Washington beat, he has for me been all this and a reservoir of information, especially when it came to providing historical perspective to current events. But he has been more, for he is someone whom I respected and admired for simply being such a decent human being with a dedication, commitment and passion that was hard to comprehend. My awe of him has grown exponentially in the past four to five years, when after knee surgery -- and given he was almost twice the age of the rest of us -- he would still keep us on our toes.
Of course, this is not to say that some of us didn't curse him occasionally, or find him incorrigible, particularly in his yen in wanting to file even the most mundane of stories almost as it happened (he takes shorthand at a record 170 words per minute, and types almost as fast), ignoring the pleas of others who would rather go home and file at leisure a more analytical piece after talking to experts on the issue at hand.
A few days before his scheduled retirement -- which he made clear was voluntary and not under any compulsion -- when he was fondly admiring a Blackberry and its e-mail capabilities, the rest of us, especially the agency guys, feared he was maybe rethinking his retirement. This group greeted with a sigh of relief the announcement by his wife that there was no turning back on their decision to return to New Delhi after 46 years in the US to smell the coffee and the roses and, when in the mood, to pen his experiences which will surely be a fascinating chronicle of US-India relations in the nearly five decades he spent here.
His son Ashok expressed all of our sentiments when he said, 'This is not a retirement party -- my parents are coming back and they will very soon'; but daughter Anita was much more emotional, obviously finding it difficult to reconcile with the fact that her 'Appa' was returning to India, and would no longer be within a plane-hop of Chicago, where she is based and from where she would come to DC whenever she wanted to be with him.
She spoke of her Appa, in all of his years of being a journalist, as never having missed a deadline -- in fact 'You've always been ahead of your deadline!' But she drew the line in the sand saying, 'Even though you are retiring, you and Amma have one important deadline to meet -- and that's been set by all of us -- and that's your return to Washington.'
Ashok reminisced about 'always remembering my dad in his early days in the press corps, when he was in Delhi and when he moved to New York and then to Washington. He always made sure of his 4 P's -- not the Parasurams -- but (press) pass, purse, pen and pencil.
'But besides the 4 P's, what really defines my dad was passion. He is really passionate about his work, passionate about his family, passionate about life -- not necessarily in that order by the way. So really I was always envious of my dad because I don't know how many people can really say that they unconditionally love what they are doing and have done that throughout their life. And he is one of those people.'
He spoke of his dad in the early days, hammering away at the teletype machine -- which was before his IBM Selectric, which succeeded his manual typewriter.
To much laughter, because all of us in the media could relate to it, and the joke among us was that Parasu (with his family, right) could type and fire off his stories faster than CNN anchors could announce it, Ashok recalled how in the 1950s 'he won the Gold Medal for the fastest typing in India or something like that.'
Ramu Potarazu, the chief operating officer at Intelsat, speaking on behalf of the second generation on what 'great role models' the Parasurams were, challenged anyone to recall ever seeing Mr Parasuram mad at anyone or anything.
'I have never seen uncle ever mad, not even with a son like Ashok,' he said to peals of laughter. 'As I've grown up, I've watched aunty and uncle and their friendship, kindness and great strength to all of us. In fact, aunty has really been to myself and my brothers a second mom, because my mom passed away several years ago. My mom's birthday and aunty's birthday are on the same day, July 12.'
Sridhar Krishnaswami, erstwhile correspondent for The Hindu in Washington, who will be taking over from Parasuram as PTI's man in Washington, came back to the reluctance of Ashok and Anita to acknowledge that their dad was retiring. 'I don't like this word retirement at all,' Sridhar said, 'because knowing Mr Parasuram, the day he finds something wrong with PTI in Washington, he is going to come back.'
Sridhar, who was among those who suffered from Mr Parasuram's zeal, being awoken at all hours of the morning by a call from his newsdesk saying, 'PTI has filed a story….', joked of how 'We were always trying to keep some of the latest gadgets away from Mr Parasuram, and the biggest culprit was his cell phone. We always thought he was reporting back to Mrs Parasuram -- how his day went and other things, but lo and behold, after 15 minutes, our cell phones would ring, saying PTI has filed an item, what are you guys doing?'
I just couldn't resist pointing out that the burly Sridhar, who like me could -- if we could only run -- be linebackers in any American football team, had already lost 10 pounds simply from the thought of taking over from Mr Parasuram!
I also recalled how during my former agency days of filing for the India Abroad News Service, myself and Arul Louis, then editor of India Abroad and IANS, and now news editor of the New York Daily News, while sitting in the UN press office late at night, would conspire to beat Parasuram.
We knew that his greatest source, The New York Times, would be dumped by the trucks into the vending machines around midnight, and Parasuram would awake only around 4 am; around 5 or 6 am he would read the paper and fire off his first copy for the day.
Arul and I therefore would go down to the vending machines around earlier than that, pick up a copy of the Times and file our stories, beating the heck out of Mr P. Trouble was, we couldn't sustain the energy this involved for more than a week -- and had to abdicate the field to Mr Parasuram.
Mr Parasuram was clearly moved and emotional after all of the speeches, the levity, the mirth, but the permeating theme throughout of how much we loved him.
'All I have to say, is thank you very much,' he said. 'One thing that is really much more important than anything else in the world is the love and affection which I now see in this room from so many of my friends.'
When our American friends and fellow professionals ask us how long we have been in Washington, we say some of came along with the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower, but Mr Parasuram, our dean, came even before the Mayflower.
Recalling this, Mr Parasuram said 'Going back to India after 46 years, I tell my American friends that my one regret is that we did not come in the Mayflower, over which we have no control.
'But all I can say is, we will always cherish the love and affection and friendship of so many of you, wherever we are.'
Ditto, Mr Parasuram.
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