Taken From Life
(A New Mukto-Mona Series on Real Life Experiences with People)
We are proud to announce that we shall be putting together a collection of the personal experiences of members involving other people focusing on humanists, freethinkers etc in their day to day lives. Articles will be accepted in English and Bangla and we shall have one article featured every week. Members are invited to send in their experiences for publication in this section. We're inaugurating the series first with an article by MM co-moderator Mr. Mehul Kamdar.
-M-M Moderation Team]
M D Gopalakrishnan--late Chairman of Emerald Publishers and Editor of The Modern Rationalist
Published on February 13, 2007
The first time I met the late Mr M D Gopalakrishnan it was at his office which shared a Publishing office and a book shop two doors away from my father's clinic on Anna Salai in Chennai, more popularly known as Mount Road. He was a well known atheist and had even been written about by V S Naipaul in one of his travelogues through India. It was late December and as the Pongal festival was imminent, there were a number of religious Hindus preparing to go on a pilgrimage to the Kerala shrine of Sabarimalai. You could see about one in ten people wearing black dhotis and the telltale beads that signified the fact that they were involved in a 30 day penance before the trip.
Women who could menstruate were strictly prohibited from going to the temple and only girls upto 8 years of age or very old women were allowed and the crowds grew every year because of the system designating devotees who went there. Someone who went three times became a "Guru Swamy" and he would then have the responsibility of taking eight new people every year. Needless to say, the temple and transport operators loved this, as did clothing merchants who sold black dhoties because it meant additional business every year and vastly increased revenues. While pyramid business schemes were illegal overall, the temple authorities had managed to create the ultimate pyramid scheme, one to beat frauds like Amway, Herbalife and all others by a magnitude that could not be comprehended by anyone who did not know the intricacies of this particular system. And, it meant that poor families would end up begging for money to go - nopt going there after someone had been there once was a sin and the gullible would either borrow money or beg from others to manage to make the trip.
One such family came to the office and asked MDG as he was popularly known, for money. He did not chase them away - he asked them to sit down and slowly analysed the entire fraud committed by the Sabarimalai system on it's devotees to them. He also asked them how long they would be away - it turned out that the man had two sons who would have missed fifteen days of school in making this pilgrimage as they were going to walk a considerable portion of the way to make it even more difficult for themselves. Suffering was supposed to bring some kind of divine gains on this trip. MDG convinced them in his own way and then asked what the boys' school fees were. He gave them money to cover three months' school fees and sent them away. We would not know whether the man used the money for the pilgrimage or whether he stayed away and his boys went to school with the money. But this was what symbolized the man and the way he worked. It was an example that I would never forget.
Sabarimalai had it's devotees even from the wealthier sections - one of MDG's neighbours who is a good friend of mine as well, is a gentleman who works as an officer at the Food Corporation of India in Chennai. A perennially happy and helpful man who is ever eager to help anyone requiring assistance, his wife is a very religious Hindu lady while he is an agnostic. They have two children - a daughter, who has taken after her father and is probably a step ahead of him in being an atheist and a son who was religious at the time, influenced by his mother. The boy wore a thread charm on his wrist, and as he played cricket every evening at the grounds in Lakshmi Nagar, a wealthy suburb North of Chennai, sweat would go into the thread and get absorbed by it, irritating his skin and causing rashes. MDG took it on himself to talk to the boy about this and convinced him to get the charm off - he did not bring religiosity itself up - but pointed out the health issue. When the boy removed the charm and threw it away, he held a party for several families to celebrate this success.
Emerald Publishers was a highly profitable company. MDG had been a researcher in Economics and Anthropology at the Madras University and had then left active academics to work in the publishing division at S Chand and Co before leaving it to start publishing textbooks. As a commitment to the Rationalist cause, he would spend a considerable share of his profits on promoting rationalist literature. I doubt that he ever made money on the sale of the rationalist books, but it was a passion with him that would stay until the end of his life. A passion that kept him from selling any astrology or similar pseudo-scientific or religious book in his shop, though he could have made millions if not more by selling that kind of material from the prime location where his shop stood.
After that day, I would spend many months over the subsequent four years of his life with him and his wife Prof Thavamani, currently Principal of the Ethiraj College for Women, one of India's most prestigious colleges at their home working on various campaigns and assisting on editing the Modern Rationalist, the English language monthly published by the Dravidar Kazhagam. Theirs was a marriage made under an atheist commitment - MDG's first wife was no more and Prof Thavamani took it to look after him in his ailing days. He had suffered three heart attacks and was physically weak though he did not hesitate to push himself as much as he could especially as far as his atheism was concerned. India was slowly falling to the Hindu fundamentalist BJP at the time and he would often be critical of the country for "losing it" and voting the Hindutvaites to power. And, to balance this, he would publish an English translation of his good friend K A Francis' "Bibliya Ayyangal" which he renamed as "The Bible, A Great Farce" pointing out the various discrepancies in it to people who read it. We would laugh over the fact that Hindu fundamentalists would often quote from the KA Francis book as it was serialized in MR telling their audiences that "even an atheist organization" condemned the Christian scriptures, when, in fact, we were doing nothing of the sort. The fact was that the Editor in Chief of the Dravidar Kazhagam, MR K Veeramani was in the process of writing "Githaiyin Marupakkam" at the time, a masterpiece on the Bhagavad Gita and it's casteist principles which were to anger those who selectively quoted from MR to criticise Christianity. MDG would take the unpopular decision to call for a revocation of the ban on the Satanic Verses as well and even while he criticized India would enthusiastically celebrate the national festivals of Republic Day and Independence Day with family and friends.
He was an enthusiastic Rotarian and would encourage me to speak at various Rotary clubs on highly controversial issues, setting up debates with astrologers, numerologists and spokespeople for different religious groups to convey the atheist viewpoint. And this was where, when I met my wife, he would suggest that I think about marrying her in the future. I had come through a badly mangled relationship at the time with an Indian American daughter of a friend of the family, and my wife was a student at the Rotary School of Nursing. As a class topper and a Secretary of the statewide Student Nurses Union, she would be present at Rotary meetings as well as at the hospital where he would be frequently admitted when his health slipped. Sadly, he did not survive to attend our wedding though Prof Thavamani would proudly tell the guests present that it was a wedding in her family.
He did not, though, go gentle into the good night. The IHEU would hold it's first convention in Mumbai and he would ask me to go there knowing that he was slipping away, telling me that he was going to join halfway through. But before I left, I would get to see a dose of his soft sense of humour - his doctor told him while he was in the Intermediate Care Unit that he would do his best and let god do the rest. MDG called the doctor close - he did not have the energy to speak loudly - and then asked him if, indeed, god was handling his treatment, the doctor would still charge him his fees? As his doctor left shocked, he laughed and laid back in bed, slowly falling asleep. Two days later, halfway through the convention, we received the news that he was no more. In death as in life, he broke convention - his children tried to donate his body to medical research but there was no hospital geared for this. And the, in a final, defiant farewell, his daughter Mrs Ponni Selvi would light the cremation pyre, contrary to Hindu custom. His son Mr G Olivannan runs Emerald Publishers these days, continuing his father's business though the retail business has been reduced and the stress is on publishing more than on sales. This is my tribute to a man who influenced my career as an atheist columnist and whom I shall always remember. What was most noteworthy was his affection for people, an affection that I am convinced - as was everyone who knew him - was born out of his atheist principles.
Mehul Kamdar from Chicago is currently moderating Mukto-Mona forum. He was the editor of The Modern Rationalist under late M D Gopalakrishnan and associated with various rationalist movements. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org