A native who did not return

Upham is a small village in the south of England. The church of Blessed Mary is on a hilltop. We set out one late afternoon to visit the church. Our hostess, Gaye, pointed out distinct landmarks like Fishers Pond, Alma Inn and the post office before she pulled up in front of the church.

“Let me show you the churchyard before it turns dark,” she said. Gray’s famous elegy came alive as we entered that still place with its tall trees and white tombstones. I walked around, reading the names of unknown people, until I saw the inscription,
“Seetharam Sarma, Kunchavaram, India” 1923–2000

Here was one native who never returned to the land of his birth. What had lured him from his village in Andhra to live and die in an alien ambience? Did the land of his forefathers never beckon to him to come back? We will never know.

I met Ram for the first time in 1993. At the office of ‘The Times’ in London. “Newspapers are good to wrap fish and chips!” he laughed. I knew I would like him. We went to see the Tower of London. Ram settled down on a bench and told me: “You go and see that house of horrors where kings beheaded their wives and murdered their children. I will wait here.”

He added for good measure: The British not only have a gory history. They seem proud of it and want to sell it too!” “The crown jewels?” I asked. “Stolen from India, no doubt,” came the swift answer. Ram was a fierce nationalist. As a student of Loyola College in Madras, he distributed incendiary pamphlets against British rule. Fr Jerome D’Souza warned him.

When he joined the Quit India movement, he was expelled. Packed off to his village, he distributed pamplets on the great freedom struggle to his fellow passengers on the train, which finally landed him in jail. Srangely, it was an Englishman who invited him to apprentice in his factory in England. Ram accepted the offer and never returned to the country for which he was ready to die.

I met him again in 1996 in a retirement home, fighting a deadly form of cancer. He remembered how his grandfather, a Sanskrit pundit, sang ‘harikathas’ on the banks of the  river. He reminisced about the agraharam of his ancestors, where men toiled in the rice fields while the women gathered to pickle mangoes every summer. The idyllic life of an Indian village unfolded itself as he described his ancestral home, his extended family and their simple lives in such poignant detail.

I realised then that Ram had never left India. His body may be lying in some remote country churchyard in England. But, until the end, his heart was in that far off agraharam in Kunchavaram where the Krishna river flows quietly among green paddy fields.

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