To Sir With Love, Celebrating Life in Death
Veteran journalist and teacher Vepa Rao leaves behind a legacy of empathy
He was no God. He was human with distinct qualities and also some flaws. His humane qualities were something that is most precious during a mortal existence on this earth. Prof. Vepa Rao, a journalist who had evolved as an academic expert and a teacher who had produced dozens of working and thinking journalists, passed away on October 31.
He belonged to a breed that has become rare today, as one hardly comes across good journalists, teachers and who are also good human beings. A chance visit to Himachal Pradesh way back in 1987 had resulted in Rao leaving his job and moving to the state.
He initially was a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS) in Shimla and then went on to make an invaluable contribution to the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the Himachal Pradesh University. A bachelor for whom his students were his immediate family, he went on to spend the rest of his days in Shimla.
Rao had preferred dying in Shimla, but that was not to be as he had to be moved to Hyderabad both for his annual winter sojourn and also because of his failing health. But as per his wishes, his ashes returned to Himachal Pradesh to be spread at his favourite destinations of Kamna Devi temple at Prospect Hill and Tara Devi.
"Why I chose to come to Himachal is a short, brisk story. The people here have hearts of gold. I will always be indebted to them," he used to tell me. He published two books, 'Liquid Folds' and 'Curve in The Hills'. The first one was a collection of poems and the second was the manuscript of his project at IIAS, for which I had assisted him.
It had been a very painful last visit with him as his deteriorating health made it difficult for him to recognise people, and also speak. For someone who was used to having some really hot discussions with him for hours on end, it was very extremely difficult to see him in that state. But life is cruel, as he used to acknowledge.
He wanted his students to celebrate his departure from this world, and had left a will wherein he asked them to gather at the Ashiana Restaurant run by Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC), on the Ridge in Shimla and have a party of pakoras, gulab jamuns and tea. He had loved the place and left a sum of Rs 20,000 with his students for the celebration. As sought by him, the waiters at the restaurant were honoured along with his house help, by the students.
The occasion saw an exhibition of his photographs laced with verses from 'Liquid Folds'. A couple of short films around him were also screened as the gathering of around 200 persons including his students and associates spoke about him. On one table lay some of his belongings that were to be taken by those attending the event as his memoir.
I was able to lay my hands on one of the books he had recommended and promised to lend me on a later day. It was 'The Moon and Sixpence' by Somerset Maugham. Philanthropist Sarabjeet Singh Bobby had organised a day-long langar at the Indira Gandhi Medical College as a tribute to him, where his students including those from the present ones pursuing journalism course at the University pitched in for Sewa (serving the meal).
Prayer meetings have also been held over these days by his students from Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) Dhenkanal, where he had worked as the director for a while along with those working in places like Mumbai, Chandigarh and elsewhere.
Rarely does one get to see a send off like this for a departed teacher and a journalist.