Journalist, writer Gnani passes away: Tamil Nadu will miss his fiercely independent voice
Gnani’s contribution to the Tamil political and socio-cultural landscape spans over four decades.
I last met Gnani (real name: V Sankaran) a few weeks ago, at a wedding in Chennai. There was nothing about the journalist-writer that even remotely suggested he would pass away within days, even though he had been undergoing treatment for kidney-related ailments for a while. Friends who met him on Sunday, 14 January 2018 — just a day before his demise — express this same sentiment.
Before retiring to bed on Sunday night, after a particularly long and tiring day tailing activist Medha Patkar for an interview to be broadcast on his newly launched YouTube channel, Gnani told his colleagues it felt like the "good old journalism days". “After so many years, I once again felt like a young reporter on the road,” his friends report Gnani as saying. On Monday, 15 January, he had an interview scheduled with Jignesh Mewani and had agreed to translate activist Teesta Setalvad's speech at a meeting in the evening; instead, he passed away in the wee hours of the morning at his KK Nagar residence. He was 64.
His jam-packed schedule offers an indication of Gnani's personality, and his insatiable zest for life. His death has indeed come as a rude shock; because, even though Gnani had been undergoing dialysis, it never stopped him from being socially active. He made stringent lifestyle changes including avoiding salt in his diet entirely, just so he could keep up to his former levels of activity. He also adopted a very clinical, matter-of-fact approach to his ailment. When he spoke to his friends and colleagues about his ailment, he did so with neither bitterness nor sorrow and always exuded positivity.
Gnani’s contribution to the Tamil political and socio-cultural landscape spans over four decades. At various times, he straddled the roles of journalist, columnist, political commentator, filmmaker and theatre personality; in all his facets, what Gnani essentially wanted to do, was resist and oppose fascist forces. Gnani’s positions on various political issues had earned him the wrath of many quarters, but he remained fearlessly uncompromising to the last.
His Oh Pakkangal — a serial published in Ananda Vikatan magazine several years ago, in which Gnani made stinging remarks on contemporary political events — made him a celebrated political commentator. Under the aegis of 'Pareeksha', a theatre group he founded, Gnani had staged a play in the week before his death in Madurai; he had elaborate plans for more productions. When he launched Theemtharikida, a magazine, in the 1980s, Gnani had hoped he could sustain it through subscriptions: he steadfastly refused any corporate advertisements and even the publication's failure did not make him bitter. He continued to remain positive and hopeful, continued to work towards that which he believed in. Above all, he surrounded himself with young minds and believed in nurturing them.
Friends remember him for his feisty, democratic spirit — Gnani always encouraged free exchange of opinions. In an atmosphere where merely holding divergent viewpoints is grounds enough for bitter animosity, Gnani was different. He believed in continuing dialogue with those whose opinions differed from his — no matter how vehemently.
Unlike many veterans, Gnani adapted himself to the changing times. He relaunched Oh Pakkangal as a YouTube channel early this month and recorded video commentary on various issues, including the transport strike and actor Rajinikanth’s 'spiritual politics'. His social media handles were abuzz with posts about the Chennai Book Fair, where Gnani’s publication (house) Gnanabanu has a stall.
His close friends say Gnani had hoped to live for at least another few years and was full of plans for the future. It was the lack of time to finish all his projects that probably worried him more than the possibility of death itself. He often spoke about his death and the need to continue his work but, as one close aide reported: "He couldn't imagine what would happen if he didn’t exist".
Voices like Gnani’s — so fiercely independent and so steadfastly uncompromising — are rare indeed in the Tamil milieu. His loss will be deeply felt, and won't be easy to overcome.
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