||[Feb. 9th, 2009|04:35 am]
Dilip Veeraraghavan passed away earlier this week. He was one of the most remarkable people I knew.|
I first met him when I took his class on Indian history back in college. It might sound absurd if you didn't know him, but that history class had a profound effect on my life. I had given up my faith only two or three years ago, and I still had a ton of unresolved questions about the culture I was raised in. Somehow, every time Dilip talked about an obscure historical event that happened 1,200 years ago, it would turn out to be intricately connected to some contemporary aspect of Indian society. At the end of the class, magically, I understood India much better, and for the first time, I was completely comfortable with my rejection of religion. His class gave me closure and a sense of identity as a free-thinking adult.
The wonderful thing was that he did it without ever telling us anything. He merely asked questions—questions so compelling we had no choice but to seek and find answers. A different person might have found different answers, and that was the way Dilip wanted it. Apart from the whole "finding myself" aspect, I still maintain an avid interest in Indian (and World) history as a result of that course.
My best memories of him, though, are not from his class. We later became friends, and I was one of the dozens (hundreds?) of students at IIT who would stop by his office whenever we had a free hour. He was always completely down-to-earth, and had a peer relationship with every one of us, rather than a student-teacher one. Remember that this was India, where hierarchy and social order are very important.
He was a communist, I was a libertarian. I think there were only two things we agreed on: George W. Bush and open-source software, the former being bad and the latter good :-) Nevertheless, we got along really great. That's when I learned that you don't have to agree with someone to respect them or to have a good time with them, something that I'm reminded of when I see homophily all around me.
He was great at keeping in touch with students even after they graduated. When I was in his office, he would often be interrupted by a call from some kid who had moved on to graduate school in America. I told myself I'd do the same, but while I did visit him whenever I went back to Madras, I never made the time to call. Even when I heard a few months ago that he wasn't doing well, I assumed he would get better, and that he would be there in his office the next time I visited, just as he'd been for the last 20 years, cheerful and ever-ready to launch into an argument about the evils of capitalism.
Guilt, then, was right up there along with sadness and shock on the list of emotions I felt when I heard he'd died. I was surprised to find that I wasn't alone—others, too, had intended to spend more time with him, but kept putting it off until it was too late.
There are so many of us whose lives he touched. The least we can do is to remember him properly. I've set up a wiki page to collect people's memories of him. I urge you to go there and share whatever you feel. [Note: let me know if you know a wiki site that has fewer/less obtrusive ads than this one.]