Swati Parashar pays tribute to her mentor B Raman, who passed into the ages on Sunday.
On May 20, B Raman tweeted, “Hanumanji willing, shd be back home coming Saturday.” Instead, he left for his heavenly abode, on June 16 in the evening. He had shared every detail of his illness on his blog and also on Twitter, including the fact that it was terminal cancer he was dealing with and he didn’t have much time.
I am not on Twitter and missed his updates. My grief is profound: had I known, I would have spoken to him, even gone to India to see him. I was unaware of his hospital stay, of the end that was near and I am left now with deep regrets and a profound sense of personal loss.
I couldn’t read the ominous signs of things to come. I am now only left with memories, of the most extraordinary person with whom I worked so closely and who in so many ways was the perfect ‘guru’, the best teacher.
Bahukutumbi Raman (1936-2013) was an IPS officer of 1961 Madhya Pradesh cadre who later joined the Research and Analysis Wing, of the Intelligence Bureau. He served in the R&AW for 26 years, heading the counter-terrorism unit from 1988 until his retirement in 1994 as additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat.
He spent his post retirement years as a prolific commentator and analyst on terrorism and strategic issues and was a regular media presence. He churned articles on a daily basis! He also had brief stints with various research organisations and think tanks. With his death, an era of strategic thinking in India has ended; he was a walking-talking data base of terrorism and counter terrorism; a recognised expert all over the world.
Between September 2003 and November 2005, I worked with him at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in Delhi. He was head of the International Terrorism Watch Programme which he had set up at ORF and also served as director of ORF’s Chennai Chapter. I had completed my masters degree in international relations at JNU and was hired to coordinate the terrorism programme at the ORF.
When I first met Raman Sir at ORF’s Delhi office, he asked me a few questions about why I wanted to work on terrorism, what I thought were the terrorism issues, what my plans were etc. and then after his return to Chennai sent me a long list of things to do. That was his style. Everything was well compartmentalised and every detail was mapped and that helped enormously in implementation. He sent regular instructions on emails and I reported to him on a daily basis. It was a wonderful working relationship and I don’t recall having worked harder in my life before or after that period.
The good thing about Raman Sir, contrary to popular view, is that he never actually imposed his views. With his junior colleagues and beginners like me, he had all the patience and always ensured that we expressed ourselves even if we disagreed with him. This was special, because in India, kowtowing to the bosses is common and contrary opinion is never tolerated by those in authority.
He did have issues with his contemporaries and former intelligence colleagues (although he always extended professional courtesy to everyone, including those whom he disliked) but he was kind and extremely generous towards those whom he mentored. I don’t recall one harsh word that he ever spoke to me, going out of the way to write references and supporting my career aspirations in so many ways. He knew I wanted to train in academia and pursue a PhD in gender and terrorism studies.
I was not going to be a regular mainstream terrorism analyst and he always supported my decisions. From the moment I met him, I only had respect, admiration and affection for the man who has had a very big role in my career. Although I am now quite well published and in some internationally acclaimed journals, my proudest moment was when South Asia Analysis website carried my article next to his!
The first conference we organised at ORF brought in experts from South and South East Asia together to talk about the regional impact of terrorism. I had just started working and was not even proficient in handling computers those days! After the conference programme was drawn up, I noted that one of the panels had no chair and another had a missing paper presenter. I pointed it out to him and to my utter shock, he calmly said that I was going to be chairing that session and would also present a paper! I had only 24 hours to think and my affirmative decision then put me on a career path that has never let me look back.
After the conference, it was my turn to invite one of our organisers to offer the vote of thanks. Raman Sir asked me to wait as he had something to say. He was most generous in his appreciation of my efforts and lavished so much praise that only left me humbled and tearful. It was as if our mutual faith had been vindicated. I still have the transcript of that speech he made and in moments of self doubt, it gives me inspiration and motivation. It was his confidence that he allowed me to co-edit the proceedings of that conference with another colleague and it was finally published as a book. He organised a massive book release function at IIC and made sure I was given credit for every bit of hard work I had put in. He ensured that there were ample opportunities for everyone who worked with him to realise their potential. His faith in the young and the untrained was remarkable.
While at ORF, I had started looking for PhD opportunities and I was uneasy telling him I wanted to leave. The intelligence man that he was, he was good at keeping some secrets. He resigned from ORF without discussing or deliberating with anyone; we had no clue this was coming. One morning he sent an email saying he had dissociated himself from ORF and after returning the few things at their Chennai office.
He appeared whimsical at times like these and those of us who worked with him were very upset. Within moments of his resignation, I found another long email from him explaining (in bullet points which was always his style) why he had dissociated from ORF. He ensured that he played by the rules of the democratic and transparent work culture which he had created for all of us at ORF. He didn’t care about seniority or hierarchy and worked very hard to build a team in which the junior most members were also respected and valued.
As someone who was such a big mentor and teacher to all of us, it was amusing when we met his elder brother. B. Raghavan at a conference in Chennai. Raman Sir was visibly embarrassed as his older brother addressed him as ‘Ramu’ and chided him in front of all his staff. We giggled as we witnessed the great and proper Raman Sir, endearingly addressed as Ramu by his elder brother.
Most people say, he showed no emotions or sentimentality. I disagree, for, I saw Raman Sir extremely angry at times, also disappointed, tired, happy and always curious. I remember his laughter was uncontrollable and long after those around him stopped laughing and sat sombrely (waiting for the next instructions) he would keep chuckling at a joke only he understood.
He deeply mourned the death of his friends K Subrahmanyam and R Swaminathan (as I remember) and he was devastated by the untimely demise of his young and dynamic friend, Shakti Bhatt. We talked for a long time on the phone that day. He never seemed like a loner to me and knew how to communicate with himself.
His single status and not having a family used to be a joke at work and most people found him socially awkward. I recall the two large pegs of whisky he relished at all social events and since his cancer diagnosis he really missed drinking, he told me. After his set quota of two drinks, he would leave immediately afterwards, often unnoticed and quietly without a fuss. I often wondered (if I hadn’t asked him earlier) if he had had dinner. It was impossible to not feel affection for him and care about his well-being.
I remember at one such post conference event, he turned up in a bright yellow printed Hawaiian kind of shirt! For someone who always wore dull safari suits, this was bound to attract gossip and attention. I finally dared and complimented him as he shyly replied, ‘it was a gift from a Malaysian friend!’
He always travelled and walked into the office with his old briefcase. When in Delhi he would reach office before any of the regulars would. He would always thank me profusely for that hot coffee I would make him in a proper cup, whenever I found that he was there. I remember a colleague once admonished that I was being servile to my ‘boss’. He was more than a ‘boss’ to me; a father figure, a mentor, an inspiration, always a good listener, a very humble man with impeccable manners and work ethics. I last met him in 2008 at Chennai where he invited Ravi (my husband) and I to a five star restaurant for dinner. He ate only curd rice and laughed heartily over his own jokes.
I kept in touch over phone and email and he was always keen to know about my career, new projects and publications. If he was disappointed that I didn’t become a mainstream terrorism analyst, or if he thought my work on gender and political violence was not important, he never showed it.
He was always so curious, so pragmatic and yet positive. I see that he endorsed Narendra Modi as prime minister a few weeks ago on Twitter. I am convinced that it must be a frustrating moment for him because he had all along disliked the Sangh Parivar’s brand of Hindutva politics. He had no patience for right wingers who harassed him continuously in the cyber space.
For a man who had dutifully served in India’s spy agency, he lived a remarkably public and transparent life. Every detail of his cancer was there on his blog and other web spaces (to the annoyance of some and curiosity of others). Although he was not active on Facebook, I noticed that on Twitter he expressed himself all the time, sharing his feelings. He posted a picture of himself after he was diagnosed with terminal liver secondary cancer; he also posted pictures of his parents and the music he liked.
He wrote a remarkable number of posts about personal aspects of his life. He also expressed concern at how the poor would afford cancer care in India. To possibly family members, he admonished on Twitter, “I can eat only what my tummy can tolerate. I can't eat what others want me to eat. Affection for terminal cancer patients shd be simple and normal, not instructive.”
He called cancer, the ‘terrorist’ he would not be defeated by and always wished to avoid radiation therapy. The ironies were plenty, as he reminded his readers after his May 11 cancer update on his blog that he would be 77 in August this year. For the last 8 years, I have never forgotten to wish him on his birthday which falls on August 14 (Pakistan’s Independence Day!).
I am absolutely gutted that I couldn’t get to speak to him one last time. But there is a comforting thought, that he lived and died like true ‘karmayogis’ do. In our country when corruption is the norm these days and public servants amass wealth, the spartan and inspirational life of Raman Sir will keep reminding us that there once was an India, where government officials cared for their jobs, their country and their people.
After he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and told me he had five years or so in this biggest fight against ‘terrorism’, I always dreaded writing this obituary. His presence was comforting and although we lived continents apart, I always know his blessings have stood me in good stead. His phone ring tone was A. R Rehman’s Jai Ho (from Slumdog Millionaire), and in many ways captures what Raman Sir lived by and believed in.
I have been extraordinarily fortunate in having had the best mentors in my life and B Raman was the most special of them. I dedicated my PhD thesis to him and it will be my eternal sorrow that I will not be able to hand over a copy of my book personally to him, when it is out. Rest in Peace, Sir. There will never ever be another like you and may Hanumanji take care of you in the heavens above.