About a year ago, 30 October, 2015, to be exact, I lost my brother, Dwijen D Rangnekar. Those moments of the last day or two were a reminder of how uncertain life can be and what it is not to see or hear someone ever so special, ever again.
The 29 of October began with him still very aware of the day, planning for an evening Skype call with a special friend using a new powerful headset that he hoped would compensate for his dimming voice. He needed this not just for this friend but also for his students who had not given up on him, just as he had not given up on them. That morning he asked me to pick up his medical reports and change two outfits from Fabindia as he did not like the design and colours. "Not Indian enough," he frowned.
Diwali is a reminder of the light that my brother showed me, illuminating a world that could be limitless if I was free from the cudgels of the daily grind.
A few hours later, though, things changed. The world around him slipped away and I saw my brother get more and more distant from the reality of my life. By the next day, he was gone. I haven't ever missed someone as much as him, not even my late father who I loved and only grew to respect as an economist and editor when I entered journalism and started to comprehend his brilliance. Yet, I didn't know him like I knew my brother.
To me, 30 October, the day of Diwali this year, is a reminder of the light that my brother showed me, illuminating many paths and a world that could be limitless if I was free from the cudgels of the daily grind. He showed me the meaning of music and the arts, of empowering words, the follow through of action and most importantly, the sharing of knowledge with the same emotion as we desire love.
Today, I recall a lot of the "lessons" I got from him not through his teachings or some talk-down sessions but by his actions and questions he often left with me when we argued, agreed and disagreed. I still feel his loss and absence, but I am lucky to have gained from him.
He was a liberal in the true sense—he had not become intolerant of right-wing views or judged that I worked in the corporate world where people get away with far worse crimes than what petty thieves are regularly locked up for. He believed in placing his own contentions while listening to those who disagreed. He may have wanted to end a discussion with the last word but that last word would often be a question, leaving most with more to think about and no one knowing who won!
Knowledge, as he said, had to be shared. Yet, he was an expert in intellectual property (IP) which meant (to many) that he should have supported the patent regime or exclusivity over research and knowledge. But he did not. Even last summer when the state government of Goa referred to his work on feni and was quoted saying they would seek his permission to use it, he said, "What permission?" he said, "Don't they know it is all for free?"
We knew and so did he that millions could have been made from the report and many other areas he had worked on or planned to work on. Many would have trodden almost instinctively on the path of commercializing every word, hour and insight into money, in accordance with the normative idea of success and development. But there was always a larger purpose in life, according to him.
Many would have trodden almost instinctively on the path of commercializing every word, hour and insight into money... But there was always a larger purpose in life, according to him.
Still, he was not averse to material. Material goods should be of utility and not merely to acquire endlessly to fill up every inch of a home. Sure, if the material includes books, art, music and food, that was fine. That is not indulgence. Too many pairs of shoes are, he would quip, staring at the unnecessary collection I had acquired. "Fill your soul," he had once said.
As an IP expert, he believed strongly in the place of origin and the respect to communities that were either involved in creating, growing, nurturing plant varieties, foods, culture and folklore. He always connected these factors and added geography (geographical indications) where necessary, underlining what "authentic" is. This meant, he clearly could not support business exploitation which led to mass production that often killed authenticity with the livelihoods of communities. So it was almost impossible to find him eating at an American fast food chain (for example) selling "original" Italian pizzas. He would rather travel the extra mile to reach a stand-alone niche-in-the-wall eatery run by a handful of Italians, thus supporting an enterprise, however small, which had a connection with the place of origin.
At times, his commitment frustrated many who wanted a quick coffee at a Starbucks but were forced to walk an extra 10-15 minutes before reaching a place that you had never heard of. He would smile and anyone would give in when he talked of the larger purpose in life.
He never looked down on the capitalist world but never looked up to it either. He found humour in what certain corporations would claim and how policymakers rallied around them. He used his strength in research and academics to build strong counter-arguments. Yet, he knew, the cost of living in most parts of the world was squeezing people into the same race that no one actually won.
"We can etch out our own niches and spaces if we so wish, love it, nurture it and share it," he had said. He believed that the sharing of our own little worlds that challenge the idea of capitalism, consumerism and materialism were the way to go. Maybe someone might see how different it is and follow a similar path. Change doesn't come through talk but through action and activating beliefs, he underlined. After all, knowledge of an alternative way of living, with a different set of purposes, could inspire change or at least get people to re-think.
He was so full of guts that soon after a five-week run of chemotherapy and radiology, he was out at Trafalgar Square at an anti-war protest. As my family in London and the US questioned him he told me, "There is more to do. How can I just sit at home? The medicines ought to their job while I do mine," he told me knowing that maybe I was the only one who would understand that. I was worried but bloody hell, how else could my brother have been?
Soon after a five-week run of chemotherapy and radiology, he was out at Trafalgar Square at an anti-war protest. "The medicines ought to their job while I do mine..."
To him, while a protest march was a tiny tool in the idea of creating alternative voices or expressing a view, he felt it was effective as it had its own levels of disruption. Nothing changes without disruption. He would rather support labour unions than the management of a company. How often would you find the rich and powerful taking to the streets when they can lobby in the corridors of power, he would remind me. "Social justice is rarely something they argue for," he pointed out.
If you have to fight powerful governments and their cronies, you can rarely use the tools they use. They made it. They refined it and will keep building on it much ahead of what you think. You are bound to lose. So think and create tools that are your own. The terrible arms race is an example of why you need different tools, he would say in disgust. Yet, he was not extreme and believed that the same system can be used if you are smart enough, but was not fully convinced that a long-term solution lay in that as the system itself needed to change.
His belief in the contrary made him question several things that many of us would ignore. It turned his academic work into a pursuit that went beyond himself. He looked at IP from varied dimensions of cultures, food, music and human rights. It was not just his love for coffee that drove him to Ethiopia. He could have bought that coffee from any boutique cafe in London. His purpose was to address the exploitation of the farmers by a large coffee chain that "not only commoditised coffee but also the lives of coffee growers," he had said.
His vastness of life was such that even at the University of Warwick he made friends far beyond the law school that he belonged to. To celebrate him or his presence meant music from different parts of the world, food from places many had never been to and cocktails that were his own creations or rarely found on the menu of even the most gorgeously seedy bar in the world.
"No one has tied your hands or mind, only you have," he said. Maybe it's time for many to free their souls and not wait for death to do that!
To satisfy an open mind such as his meant he had to travel to places many would term exotic while he would say "rich in culture and heritage." He listened, absorbed, watched, argued, learnt, expressed and lived every bit of what he believed in. He was an ardent supporter of technology and how it could disrupt. He, no doubt, was against the violent arguments and lies sold through morphed images and fudged data but believed that just like water, even this will find a level.
A professional academic, he had the knack of applying his work and studies to the real world. He lived that connection and I guess, believed his room at university was mainly a place to collate his thoughts, plan his days of teaching and keep the outside world away from his mind full of ideas. That room was so him—full of stickers and posters questioning the norm, reflecting his "larger purpose" and diversity of culture that he so loved and embraced.
Unlike him, I am a mere BA pass. Don't dismiss that, he would say, just keep your mind open, observe and keep learning. Make learning such a habit that you don't notice it. It will always come back when you need it or when you need to share it, he had said and possibly that's why he respected my days as a journalist—I could report with a purpose then.
If he was alive, we would most likely have created a think-tank. Both of us may have taken to the streets during the JNU crisis and for other protests on human rights giving me that chance every now and then to be part of a "larger purpose", engaging with a diverse set of people including many of his friends.
The light he shone on me still shines when I recall what he and I discussed, what I should be doing and where I should be headed. He knew my heart and soul in the deepest way anyone could have. It is a "symbiotic" relationship my eldest brother said. This Diwali, as bright as it might be for many, is a stark reminder of the cross-roads that I and perhaps many others are at. What I know from him is that the larger purpose in life can be met only if we free ourselves from the knots of the mundane and typical, include others in the self and keep giving whenever we can. "No one has tied your hands or mind, only you have," he once said. Maybe it is time for many to free their souls and not wait for death to do that!