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The call came through about 2 a.m. Maharaj knew the work habits of his friends. “Do you think you can come to the U.S. and do a few talks on the 50th year of Indian Independence? There are a lot of nonsensical celebrations coming up around it here. And a generation that has little idea of what that struggle was like or about. Now that you’re a freelancer, ” he decided, “you have the time. Maybe a couple of weeks or so?” That was 1997.
The ‘few talks’ remain the largest speaking schedule I’ve ever had overseas and lasted a month, sometimes with more than one talk the same day. Maharaj had contacted scores of Indian groups across the United States and finally had to end up leaving out several from the tour. It was hardly the first time I was doing something set up by him, but it was the time I understood just how extraordinary an organizer he was. How he knew more groups, more people, than most of the rest of us put together. And what a standing and respect he enjoyed amongst them! The schedule I was given seemed a logistical nightmare, but not a thing went wrong as I switched from small towns in Iowa I never heard of, to more in the East Coast and, of course, all over the West Coast. Catching more flights than I ever had, before or since. Later, I was to learn that several of the tickets had come out of his own pocket and by exhausting his own miles. It was just very important to him that the story of India’s freedom struggle and its character be rescued from the fraudulent tellings crowding the country’s 50th year of Independence from British imperialism.
That was Maharaj, the greatest of the left-wing organizers amongst Indians on the West Coast that people like me ever knew. For the two decades I knew him and for probably twice that time, the home of Maharaj Kaul in Fremont, CA, was sanctuary point for every (mostly broke) progressive author, scholar, poet, journalist, film maker or political activist from India visiting the United States. Those who weren’t visiting the West Coast were persuaded to. Together with the wonderful Ved Vatuk and other friends, he gave them journeys and experiences they could never afford and exposure to audiences they could never have reached on their own, always at great expense to himself. I should know. I was one of them. How many film screenings, plays, talks, discussions, events he organized for progressive groups and individuals, we shall never fully count.
The man from Kashmir who took a PhD in civil engineering from Berkeley in 1972 (after being on that campus through historic times), was one of the most indefatigable political activists the Indian community in the United States has ever thrown up. At Berkeley, he helped found the South Asian Students Association and co-edited its monthly publication Spark. From his time in Berkeley till last September 30, there was no major political activity, agitation or movement that he did not engage with, or participate in, or fight for – or against. How he managed, alongside all this, to prepare multiple computer programs, turn out highly technical papers for international journals, write journalistic pieces in community papers, and publish political books, booklets and pamphlets is beyond me. But he did.
Maharaj had a soft heart, a strong mind and could really dig his heels in on an issue. But he was open to learning something new. He also had a temper. “What do you mean you want to look at caste animosity and practice here in the States, Sainath? Yes, of course the hangovers from the homeland are there and it reflects in marriage and things like that. But what beyond?” That was in year 2000. Typically, after remonstrating with me on it, it was Maharaj who drove me around Gurdwaras and temples in Yuba City, Sacramento, Pittsburgh CA, and innumerable other little places. Typically, he knew some group in every town. And typically, his mind furiously processed the new things he discovered. At one meeting in a Gurdwara, organized by the dominant caste group on that town, it was all good natured bonhomie - for the first half hour. The next two hours were something else. Maharaj sat silent, his face getting redder by the minute as ancient prejudices oozed out in a new location.
Back in the car, on the road, he exploded in Hindi: “Damn! I didn’t think it was anywhere this bad. Imagine, these guys are thousands of miles away from their homeland. Hindustani log! (roughly, in this context, people from India) Put them on the moon and they’ll carefully and lovingly pack their caste and take it with them.” Maharaj was quite shaken and took a few more days off to drive me around more places meeting Dalit groups and their places of worship in California. He would sit quietly through the conversations, not wanting to interrupt the hack at work, and then let go in the car. “You know, I never thought such things still went on here. I tell you, this caste mindset is insane.” Injustice, oppression and inequality infuriated Maharaj.
It was also Maharaj who introduced me to some of the great and unique figures amongst Indians in America. The wonderful Kartar Singh Dhillon, for instance. Born in 1915 to Sikh farmers in Simi Valley California, Kartar was a passionate supporter of the romantic Gadar rebellion in India against the British — most of whose leaders came from amongst Sikhs in the United States. It was Maharaj who, along with Ved Vatuk and others kept the memory of that rebellion alive amongst generations, taking around that beautiful exhibition of the Gadar revolt. Some of the Gadar rebels were students at Berkeley. Three Gadarites were hanged in California as the United States collaborated with the British Raj - creating a curious situation where those charged with ‘treason’ in India against the British Empire (against which America had revolted and declared independence) were tried and hanged for the ‘crime’ on American soil. Several of the leaders of the great revolt were in their 20s. One, in his teens.
Maharaj, Vatuk, Amrik and their other friends rescued the Gadar Memorial Hall in San Francisco and kept it going, all the while fighting and negotiating with Indian officialdom that this place be open and permanently accessible to the public. It is impossible to engage with the collections of pictures, poems, pamphlets and political literature from the young Punjabi ;lads of the 1910s; from one of the most romantic uprisings against imperialism the world has known – without crying. Particularly with their wonderful little manifesto: one written by young Indians suffering vicious racism in the United States, yet trying to derive their best from that country. The manifesto ends with a call for a “Casteless, Classless, United States of India.”
It was Maharaj and his friends who would year after year organize meetings to commemorate the Gadar rebellion. Perhaps far more regularly and sincerely than the memory of that great revolt is observed in major cities in India. Yet, when asking me to speak at that meeting in 1997, he insisted I brought in at least four other great anti-imperialist uprisings in Indian history. “We don’t want people to think this was just a Punjabi show. They must know about the sacrifices of revolutionaries all over.” The result was a talk on five great revolts that originated from little villages in very different parts of rural India. In late 2008, while teaching a semester at Berkeley, Maharaj drove me down to Sunnyvale where he had set up the Gadar exhibition - perhaps for the last time on his own initiative. It’s at the Sunnyvale Community Centre (Recreation Centre Building) that his memorial service will be held this Jan. 30th.
I never figured out how many times a month his house simply turned into a meeting hall for visiting activists to interact with local groups which ranged from radical students to charity-minded, or the not-so-political ’development’ groups. Some of the views of the last did his BP no good. But everyone was welcomed and fed by the fantastic Kashmiri cook that Maharaj was. My last meeting at his place was with such a well-meaning, terribly earnest and particularly trying group. (These interactions could start around lunch and go past dinner). As expected, every possible NGO and development cliché came up. But Maharaj appeared to bear up with great good humor and his unvarying smile. “I thought you’d kill someone when we came to that last issue,” I said to him later. “What? Oh, that’s okay. My hearing aid was switched off and I didn’t follow a word,” he said.
Whether it was in education, peasant agitations, anti-communal movements, whatever in India - Maharaj was there, engaged, involved, acting. Self-effacing, always humorous, generous, gentle but decisive. Anything that came up, even the tsunami, and he would call wanting to know which groups he, his friends Romi Mahajan and others, needed to be helping in India. For nearly four decades, Maharaj was a unifying figure amongst progressive Indians in the United States and Canada, and within India too.
I’m lucky I saw so much of him in Fall 2008 while teaching at Berkeley. But it was typical of him that when he knew for months that he was seriously unwell, he would tell no one. Scores of Indian and South Asian organizations, communities and groups in the U.S. and countless individuals in India will miss him sorely. A gentle radical to the last.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.