Book review: Memories of a father

Bijo Francis, Advocate, Kerala, India

 

Varier, T V Eachara, Memories of a father, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, China, May 2004, ISBN 962-8314-23-8, 116pp.

Torture and disappearances have occurred in many places and at many times. They have happened before, are happening now, and will happen in the future. What makesMemories of a father by Professor T V Eachara Varier such a valuable book is that in narrating the struggle and agony of his family after the arrest and disappearance of his son, it captures the universality of these events with uncommon beauty and openness. This book explores the tragedy of every disappearance through the deeply personal loss of one family, giving it a purpose and relevance that goes far beyond the specific events it describes some 28 years ago, in Kerala, southern India.

Professor Varier’s son was arrested on 29 February 1976, and was later tortured to death in police custody, although his body was never recovered. He was just one of many young men who disappeared during a period of dark repression in India, a time when emergency regulations permitted state security agents a free hand to kidnap, torture and kill. Professor Varier paints a dreadful picture of this time, revealing the total failure of the rule of law, and how the ‘elected’ representatives of the largest democracy in the world used their authority to commit gross atrocities. He describes the brutal torture practiced by the police, and tells the stories of some survivors of the camp from which his son did not emerge. He relates his own visit to the camp, and offers a bleak insight into how the police conducted their dark operations outside the law. He relates the torturous and ultimately futile route he followed through India’s government offices and courts in his attempts to obtain the truth. The Supreme Court ruling on the case is contained as an appendix.

Feelings of agony, sorrow, confusion and helplessness permeate the pages. Reading the book, one senses the emotional roller-coaster ride still being experienced by this father, questioning what was done to his son and justifying his surges of anger towards certain persons, particularly among the police, and the system as a whole. This emotional experience, as a father, husband, teacher, and ultimately destitute victim of torture, is the backbone of the book. The lingering expectations of the family and uncertainty associated with the never-ending search for the disappeared is also successfully communicated. At some points, Professor Varier expresses appreciation for the political opposition in Kerala during the emergency period. It is only natural for someone to be thankful to those who offer some small support or word of concern during a time of loneliness and desperation. History proved, however, that those persons with whom the author sympathises were capable of the same kind of atrocities when they gained power later.

The importance of this book lies not in its description of a single disappearance and murder in a small state of India almost three decades ago; it is rather in its capturing of an unending social crisis that others fail to voice. Public language today denies the emotions and thoughts of victims and their families. As a result, most persons suffering serious human rights violations fail to speak out. Instead, they carry their pain to the grave. With this book, Professor Varier is breaking the silence. No matter how many years have passed, his wounds are as deep and as fresh as on that terrible day in 1976. Memories of a father challenges the deliberate silence and ignorance that cloak mass disappearances, torture and murder. By publishing the English translation, the Asian Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong) and Jananeethi (Kerala) have done a great service. The work of the translator, Neelan, is truly remarkable in communicating the meaning of phrases and idioms from the original Malayalam without awkwardness or loss of clarity. All in all,Memories of a father is a rich and deeply meaningful book that should be read by anyone trying to grasp the experience of torture and disappearance, whether as a direct victim, a relative or friend, or simply a fellow human being.

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