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The Dead Need No Reification: Vasanth Kannabiran

January 3, 2011


Kannabiran died on 30 December 2010. As per his wishes and ours, and based on previous discussions we declared that the last rites would be simple, speedy and secular. The secular part we ensured. There were no flowers, no lamps, no mantras, no ceremonies. But the clamour for progressive “traditions” was what I found troubling in the extreme. In doing away with religious orthodoxy, all we have done is replaced it with other orthodoxies.Last respects (in the form of flowers and slogans) must be paid. A “last look” at what? As his wife of 51 years I did not/could not relate to the mortal remains of Kannabiran. My grief was for that indomitable fighting, smiling, tender spirit that had left us. We had agreed long ago that if our only son was far away there would be no waiting for him. Kannabiran was a public figure. He belonged to the people who loved him. There is no disputing that. But did that mean that the public, or their self appointed representatives, which consists of so many conflicting groups should have the right to dismantle his body and take it in different directions?

We all need symbols and some reassurance. But the slogans we raise however loud and clear – can Kanna hear them? Will they, like the traditional mantras, take his soul to heaven? Who are we reassuring? Why are we afraid of silence? Why are we making our radical orthodoxies more rigid and meaningless than the reactionary ones? What is reactionary and what is radical? Why are we in such haste to raise monuments to the people we love? If Kannabiran cannot live in the hearts of people, are tributes and memorials going to bring him to life? To be loud in praise is easy. It dies out in a moment.

The truth is that the dead no longer matter. What matters is our own visibility, our public personae. We want not just to grieve, but to be seen grieving. We need those TV cameras to capture and convey our grief and compassion to our constituencies. And the media rules the day. Rather than digging out file shots and meaningful clips from their archives they would like to focus on the dead body, on the cotton in the nose, on the grief (loud or quiet) of the mourners and place it before the “public”. This is just another manifestation of the blurring of the boundary between public and private by reality shows on television.

Instead of recreating the dead man in imaginative ways that would bring him alive to the public that loved him, we would rather show the dreary details of his funeral. How many people? How many placards? How many organizations? VIPs came out of respect for the dead person. The first sign of respect is to leave your gunmen and security guards outside. To visit KGK with a gunman beside you is the ultimate insensitive insult to his spirit. We need to think afresh and we need to learn the value of silence. We need to stop thinking – what will I get and what will my organization get in all this. It is not enough to write obituary pieces and hold meetings without any reflection of our conduct and attitudes.

The dead need no reification. Kannabiran was the voice of the poor.  He never projected himself.  He never needed to.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Lalita Ramdas permalink
    January 3, 2011 7:40 PM

    Vasanth – your words resonate – your thoughts and reflections find an answering echo – I salute Kanna – and I salute you my friend . See you soon

  2. Kumarpushp permalink
    January 4, 2011 4:03 AM

    !60 million dalits lost their voice and Kannabiran was a father figure for them.we salute Kannabiran with borken heart,.Kannabiran was Buddha for dalits who stands for justice.When dalits will have their own county then Kannbiran name will be witten with gold .My hat off in memory of kannabiran.

  3. chari appaji permalink
    January 4, 2011 7:00 AM

    We have lost a fatherly figure in the death of Shri Kannabhiraman. Still remember him walking in front of my house daily at Marredpally. My heartfelt condolences to u and children.
    chari appaji
    Principal scientist, Centre on Rabi sorghum, NH 9, BY pass , Shelgi, Solapur.

  4. Khushi Kabir permalink
    January 4, 2011 12:55 PM

    Vasanth. Each time someone we respect greatly in Bangladesh dies, there is this so called secular ritual which is often just as you described so well, insensitive to the very ideals that the person stood for. Thank you so much for this piece. I too salute you and would not expect a lesser piece from you. Best to you and Kalpana.

  5. Kalpana Sharma permalink
    January 4, 2011 2:45 PM

    Thank you for what you’ve written, Vasanth. Kannabiran was such an inspirational figure for all of us. We have to find ways to love and respect those who pass on without making the kind of spectacle we see everyday.

  6. sujana permalink
    January 4, 2011 11:11 PM

    vasantha, everything you’ve said resonates with me except for the part where you said that you did/could not relate to the mortal remains of Kannibiran. when balagopal and later s.r.sankaran passed away, I went to see them. they didn’t know me and I know them only through their work and writings. it’s an experience I can’t quite explain. I felt grief, respect and a sort of urging, as if it were from them, to follow their example to the best of my ability. but, like you said, one does not have to see the body to feel these things. what’s more important is to try and retain the fervor with which one feels the determination to keep the person alive by following his/her example.

    I’m so glad that you said what you did and I hope all the progressive people will take note and do away with the flower throwing and other such rituals which the person dead would definitely not have endorsed. however, it is also a little unfair and insensitive to lump everyone together when you say that we want to be seen grieving. what the media does when a celebrity passes away and why people come to pay their respects (whatever that means) are not the same things to be talked about as if they were. when people lose a loved one and more than just loved, a person one looked up to, they might find solace in collective mourning and whatever is needed to strengthen their resolve in carrying forward the work of the person. that said, one has the right to decide how one chooses to leave this world and we respect that.

  7. Preeti permalink
    January 6, 2011 12:49 PM

    Vasanthaunty: just perfect what you have written about Kanna uncle and the entire context. I salute your courage and your ability to deal with these circumstances with such truth. love to all Preeti

  8. Mukul Dube permalink
    January 14, 2011 9:17 PM

    Good that you were able to write this despite your grief: it is a strong expression of disgust with what is called tokenism.

  9. Narendra Mohan permalink
    January 27, 2011 3:49 AM

    I knew Mr Kannibiran ”briefly” – I met him a few times over a period of twenty four years – I agree about the obscenity of the political establishment/media circus that tries to deny even a funeral its dignity, and even the unthinking ritualism of left practice in AP/India . On the other hand I often wished to see him when he was ill; kept away out of respect for his wishes, but was compelled to visit when I heard of his death. One can distinguish between an insolent, intrusive media spectacle and genuine human sentiment.

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