A Tribute to an Inspiration
PK Murthy—From Puducherry to Chindwara and Back
He would walk briskly with a bamboo pole hung on his shoulder with two vessels on both sides containing water supported by ropes to his hutment located about a half a kilometre from the source. After reaching home he would rush through all the daily chores and get ready to pedal on his bicycle to report for work in the mine where he was working as a contract worker. This was part of a routine of our friend,Murthy in the mines area in Chhindwara (Madhya Pradesh) in the winter of 1972 when I had gone there to meet him. Together with his partner,Neeta the process of organizing the mining workers had begun by then. Murthy was 31 years old then, a well built, strong personality.
When on 22-03-2020 some of us went to see him in a hospital in Puducherry it was a frail,shrunk body on the bed hardly able to open his eyes and mouth.He could recognize us. He was struggling to talk to us, to say something but lifting his hand helplessly and placing it on his mouth. The desperation of his helplessness was discernible. It reminded of a line in Victor Jara’s last poem smuggled out of jail and sung,recited by Pete Seeger, “Oh song I cannot sing you when I must sing”. It was clear that the suffering,despite the best efforts by his doctor friend to mitigate it, was soon to end.He was gone the next day. He was 80 years old.
In September 2018, some of us tried to contact Murthy on his mobile but he did not respond.In the meantime, a comrade from Chhindwara called up to enquire if Murthy was in Hyderabad.Once a year Murthy used to visit his cardiologist in Hyderabad, but then he was not in Hyderabad. Neither was he in the place of his activity. He was not responding to our calls. Sometime in mid-September we received a mail from him informing us that he had been hospitalized in Puducherry due to a malignant tumor in the urinary bladder.He further informed that he would be undergoing a delicate surgery that was risky. Hence, he had decided to bid goodbye to his friends. But he stayed on struggling against a fourth grade cancer for almost eighteen months. The doctor said if it were someone else that person would not have survived this long.
Edmond Rathiney, known to us as PK Murthy, was born in Saigon,Vietnam in 1941 to Valentine and Leon Rathiney when the latter was an official in the French colonial police establishment in Indo-China.TheRathineys, a traditional catholic Christian family, had two daughters and the family moved to Puducherry in 1954,the year when it got incorporated into India as a union territory, where Murthy did his schooling and graduation from the French Lycee.The eight years he lived in Puducherry were important in shaping his ideas.As a student,according to his doctor friend,he was stubborn and short-tempered, ready to get into fights. He was a fighter alright, not to be easily bullied. It was the anti-caste,self-respect movement against Brahminism led by Periyar that influenced him a lot and shaped his future political ideas.He was an ardent opponent of Brahminism and many a time would become very emotional in discussions on caste oppression. He moved to Paris in 1962 and while doing his engineering was conscripted into the French sArmy. Murthy became a refusenik, when he refused to be a part of the war in Algeria that won independence from French colonialism in the same year. He was jailed for six months as a result and later discharged from the army.He was confronted with issues of racism and colonialism and was influenced by the works of Frantz Fanon and Mao and by the time the Paris uprising in May 1968 took place he was a Marxist. As a research scholar in the Sorbonne,thecentre of the student protest, he was active there in the tumultuous days of May1968. He returned to India the same year.He was asked once why he came back to India to which he replied that it was the Spring Thunder of 1967 that brought him back.
It was sometime in 1970 that he came to Hyderabad for the first time.He was my sister’s friend in the Sorbonne and he along with Neeta, left Paris in 1968 and stayed in Mumbai.It was during his visit to Hyderabad in 1970 that I first met him in our residence.He stayed in Hyderabad and left for Bombay only to come back with Neeta. In 1971 they rented a room in Himayatnagar and in order to earn a livelihood, he took up a job as a worker in a small industrial unit making wooden products. Around this time, George Reddy was organizing the students in the Osmania University and Murthy was interested in meeting George. If my memory serves right there were four or five sittings in which issues ranging from guerilla warfare to the experiences of the Cuban,Chinese and Russian revolutions were discussed.Murthy and Neeta were already committed to the Marxist-Leninist movement and obviously, their effort was to convince George. This was a period when George’s political ideas were taking concrete shape.
Murthy and Neeta left Hyderabad in March 1972 to the coal belt area in Chhindwaraand the gruesome killing of George happened on 14thApril.While leaving Hyderabad Murthy left some postal address with us for future contact.He was informed through a letter about the murder of George and the situation thereafter. A reply came after a month.On his suggestion I went to meet him in Chhindwara sometime in September,1972. Murthy by then had joined as a worker in one of the mines.
This was the time when the nationalization process of coal mines in the country had begun and in May,1973, the Nationalization Act came into effect. Murthy had joined as a loader on the surface and later as a worker in the mines. He began to organize the mine workers and this prompted the authorities to transfer him to the Accounts Department in order to isolate him from the workers.But Murthy began to expose the irregularities even there, and incurred the wrath of the Mafiadom that prevailed in most coal fields.An incident in which Murthy thrashed up a Mafia member made him an adored figure among the mine workers.He dared to question and fight, and that made him a leader.With the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975,Murthy and Neeta had to go underground but were arrested and detained under MISA.He was subsequently discharged from work and became a whole timer.Infact he was a whole-time activist but inorder to organize the mine workers, that too in an entirely new area and being unknown,had to work as a miner. He was already a functionary of the CPI-ML, though all the while he was working within an existing union affiliated to the AITUC.In his 48 years of life in the coal belt area in Chhindwara he led many struggles of the miners and was always in the forefront. He built the Lal Jhanda Coal Mines Mazdoor Union, then affiliated to IFTU.He was Vice-President of IFTU and later President of AIFTU.While he lived and organized in the mines area,he also took active part in some of the international platforms.He was a member of the World Forum for Alternatives founded and led by Samir Amin.He was active in the organization of the International Mining Workers Conference in Telangana in 2017. Murthy also took part in the Social Forum meetings. He narrated to us one incident during the meeting of the European Social Forum in Paris in 2004. He was distributing some pamphlets and another guy younger to him was also doing the same.Since this person looked Indian, Murthy asked him his name.That person replied that his name was Prakash Rathiney. On further enquiry he found out that he was his cousin and that his sister lived in one of the suburbs of Paris. But Murthy did not reveal his identity.His mother and elder sister had already died by then. He figured out where his younger sister was and went to meet her. It was a reunion after 36 years.
A visit to his small office cum residence will show that here was a person who laboured to keep the place clean and in order. Everything should go where it belongs. He would fold his garments with such meticulousness that they appeared to have been ironed. Was this some kind of a fetish? No, he learnt to be tidy and keep his surroundings in order from his mother. Murthy was a wonderful cook and loved cooking. He was a very bad singer but would not hesitate a bit to sing and dance. He was a stubborn guy.After returning from Paris in 1968, he along with Neeta went to his family home in Puducherry and decided there,for whatever reasons,never to return to that place again. He visited Puducherry a couple of times in the last decade, but never went home.Even while in Puducherry under treatment, he refused to visit his old home.
The little story of our comrade cannot end without the mention of a person who was his school and college mate and his best friend in Puducherry.This friend had no contact with Murthy after 1968 till 2008. It was after forty years they met but their friendship was not lost and the bond revived. It was this doctor friend who looked after him during the last eighteen months of Murthy’s life. We should salute him for all the care and affection that he showered on Murthy.
We have lost a good comrade and friend in Murthy’s death.He was a wonderful,remarkable person full of strength in the struggle for a revolutionary change in the existing unequal,oppressive socio-economic system. He loved this struggle.
As one friend put it, a life well lived with his heart in the right place. The caption should then read, Back to Chhindwara.
“Kuchnahinthokam se kamkhwab-e sahardekhathohai
jistarafdekhanatha ab tak, udhardekha to hai- Majaz
If nothing else,we have atleast dared to dream of dawn
that which we had never glimpsed,to that place our gaze has gone