One recent memory: Our car turned left into the shabby village of Ponnapalli, just past the Krishna River, on our way to Guntur. After we went past the village, he said, “come, I have something to show you”. He was showing me the grave of Dorothy Ross, the young daughter of Sir Ronald Ross. In 1897 Ronald Ross was working in Madras, and was transferred to Secunderabad which is where he did his Nobel-prize winning research on the life cycle of the malarial parasite in the Anopheles mosquito.
It was on his way to Secunderabad that Ross stopped at the bungalow in this village, and sadly, this was where he lost his daughter to an unknown disease. The heart-broken parents buried the child there, where the grave still stands, but in great neglect. “Can you imagine what made this man go through such hardship, and become one of the world’s greatest scientists?” Sri Murahari Rao wondered aloud, paying tribute to the great man. ”He must have travelled on horseback in this wild land, it may have taken them 2 days for the journey. What gave these people the energy to work in our country, coming from a distant land and culture?”
Another memory: Walking on a bridge over the Thames in London, he said in wonderment “Look at these immense buildings – how long did it take, and how many people would have been needed to build these great structures? And what must all these thousands of people be doing in those offices – because there is no industry left in England!”
One more memory: He once took me to his ancestral village of Gudavalli near Tenali, which is where my own family origins lie from my father’s side. “Your forefathers were the founders of Chennapatnam and their pictures are still in Madras Town Hall as the City Fathers; they owned ships and did big business with Burma. But I really want you to see the visionary foundation your grandfather Gogineni Ramanadham laid in our village by establishing the Gudavalli High School along with his colleagues. That is what elevated our entire village and those surrounding villages. So many hundreds went on to become big people in India and abroad because of that school. You probably think that his generation did not fight the caste system, but by simply making it possible for the untouchables to attend the school, he and his colleagues eliminated the practice of untouchability without much fuss. Caste is seen by many as kinship, and society can be changed in many ways, not only by picking up open fights and by confrontational campaigning. Think about it”.
Yet another memory: We were in Chirala, walking outside Viveka Vidyalayam, when we came across a man herding ducks – there were thousands of them. Sri Murahari Rao garu stopped the man, asked him about his profession and life and told us about this fast disappearing occupation. “Take a picture” he urged me, and we used it on the cover of International Humanist News.
There are hundreds of recollections, in London and in Paris, in Tenali and in Hyderabad, of an association where, for well over twenty years, Sri Murahari Rao showered his immense affection on me, but also on all those he thought were, or could be, playing a positive role for society. One thing that was striking was the unending curiosity and interest that he showed in human life, trying to figure out what made people behave the way they did, and appreciating the way people lived. Behind that smiling face was a sharp brain and perspective, but always expressed in soft words. There was indeed something special about Sri Murahari Rao garu – he never said much about himself, but had so much to say about the others, and always positive. He was always collecting information and sharing it with others. How else would we have learnt about the affluent Telugu who, unhappy about the White, English Overlords, employed an English man as his butler! Or about the Dutch Missionary who came to Andhra Pradesh, learnt Telugu and changed his name to Subba Rao to get greater acceptability from the community. And it was from him that I learnt of the origins of Telugu expressions Gadida Guddu (a satirical parody of God the Good!) and Kankara Peechu (again a satirical parody of the Biblical Conquer with Peace!), or that the first Telugu Dictionary by a European was not by Brown but by a Frenchman. Buddhism, and the life and thoughts of those who lived on the shores of the river Krishna were of special interest to him. And that was the subject of the masterly speech he spontaneously made in Guntur at the inauguration of the 200 women women’s hostel he generously funded in his, and Mrs. Sarojini’s, name.
I do not know how many remember the important novel Regadi Vittulu that his daughter Chandra Latha wrote – it was really a novel inspired by her father’s own life. Like Sri Murahari Rao, the hero in the novel too grows from the owner of 2 acres of land to one who became considerably wealthy, but who did not lose his roots or his human touch.
I was privileged to know so closely one who attempted to make a positive change to society through establishing educational institutions, and with so much selflessness. He established CEASE Child labour, and through this organisation helped hundred of poor and destitute children go to school. He went to Delhi to quarrel with the UN officers, convinced them of the soundness of his own approach, following which they produced a positive report of his work. He instituted rationalist awards at the Telugu university, patronized the arts, and even arranged for a grand function to honour his favourite contemporary rationalist Sri Ravipudi Venkatadri through the hands of the Vice President of India. As a progressive agriculturist, as an entrepreneur who funded research and collaboration with Indian and international institutions like ICRISAT (he once told me with great pride about their advances in producing hybrid varieties of ‘kandi pappu’), he helped bring about improved seed varieties and yet, at the same time, fought along side Dr. P.M. Bhargava, the business practices of Monsanto seeds in India. To do this, he broke up his association with that company at considerable personal financial disadvantage. He was an advocate of modern technology, but not of ancient exploitation. He was concerned about changing norms in society, but not many remember that he even produced a feature film on the theme of youngsters and their development, but this film failed as a commercial venture.
He created wealth in his life time, but it would be a poorer world for his absence. It would be wrong to consider Sri Murahari Rao garu a business man alone – he was primarily a rationalist - not much in the organisational frame despite his positions in organisations, so he could tolerate the orthodoxy of those around him. He was perhaps softer than he should have been as regards caste which he understood as kinship; and he certainly was ‘devoted’ to the rationalist ideas and literature of Tripuraneni Ramaswamy, but he did not compromise on his rationalism in his own life.
He and Smt. Sarojini garu had a rationalist wedding, and having lived the full life of a Humanist, he died as one at the age of 79, with his eyes being donated to L.V. Prasad Eye Hospital (the doctors were unable to accept any other part of his body because of medical reasons), and with a Humanist funeral.
When my own mother died suddenly, and very young, he was next to me with a hand on my shoulder to console me. And today, it breaks my heart that the last important thing he did in his life was 3 days before his death, when he went to Gudavalli where he signed formal agreements to take the Gudavalli institution (that my grandfather and his colleagues founded) to yet greater heights, after nurturing it for the last 20 years
Humanists pay their homage to a great life of purpose, and offer their condolences to the immediate family of 4 children and Mrs. Sarojini who was the silent strength in his life.
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