21st September 1997


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Tarzie: everything is about something else

September 17, marked the fourth death anniversary and
September 23 marks the birth anniversary of one of Sri Lanka’s
best known and internationally respected journalists, Varindra
Tarzie Vittachi. While much has been written and said about his
immense contribution to mass communication and human
development, the writer here reveals an inner spiritual dimension
that gave Tarzie Vittachi a global vision and a deep commitment
to bring about a just and fair order in the world.
By Mathew Barry Sullivan

Varindra Tarzie Vittachi was by nature a communicator. He was more than just that. He was a compelling talker and an inimitable raconteur who always laced his words with humour.

He was born the eldest of thirteen children, on September 23rd 1921 in Pillikiathuwa near the town Gampaha, north of Colombo. His father, who was the village schoolmaster, gave him the name Aleya (fearless) Gamini. Soon however his agility among the trees in the garden and the adjoining forest earned him the nickname, Tarzan, which was quickly abbreviated to Tarzie. He was never known as anything else until he also became Varindra in 1964 - a name given to him by the Subud movement which he embraced, with total commitment.

He grew up in a small country famous for its age-old tolerance which along with the climate and rich landscape, earned the name ‘paradise island.’ He was brought up as a Buddhist but was a natural sceptic. This from an early age took the form of challenging, what others around him said they believed in - Buddhism, Christianity, nationalism, patriotism or any other explanations of existence or tenets of right conduct.

His deep curiosity, and his love of words and writing, led him into journalism at an early age. Most unusually he was drawn not only to examine the roots of the injustice and violence, the lies and cruelty he saw around him. He was equally interested in the processes of his own mind and emotions. Already at twelve he was asking the big questions - the why and wherefore of existence - and searching for true values.

His exuberant participation in life as a brilliant Fleet Street trained journalist led to his becoming at the age of thirty-two the editor of the Ceylon Observer, the oldest newspaper in Asia. He had connections everywhere and moved easily in the highest places, as he campaigned for toleration of minorities and for linguistic equality. He loved lampooning pomposity. Under the pseudonym Flybynight, he set the English speaking middle classes of Sri Lanka laughing with a series of Jungle Stories, in which a large cast of animal politicians played out their power games with recognisable style and gusto.

It is hard to imagine from the account here of the year 1958 when Subud came to Ceylon that he was the witness and chronicler of racial violence that changed the whole history of the island. A defining moment in his life came in May during a state of emergency which had been declared along with the curfew and censorship of the press. He heard a scuffle, a cry and a lot of laughter in the street below his office window. Looking out he saw a roundly pregnant woman, a Tamil of the sweeper class, grotesquely trotting down the street as urchins took flying kicks at her swollen belly. A truckload of armed Sinhalese police, parked across the street, roared with laughter as each kick landed on its mark.

Tarzie (as he then was) was filled with rage-outrage. He refused to be silent, temporarily left his job and in five weeks wrote a strictly factual but vehement book about the forces and policies which were finally destroying the age-old toleration and harmony of his homeland. He took the typescript to London himself and found a publisher, Andre Deutsch who brought the book out within three weeks. Emergency 58 was at once banned in Ceylon, and became an immediate best-seller in Asia. The Subud leader Bapak is reported to have said it was his best book, because of the sincerity of its passion. It won him the prestigious Asian award for journalism and literature, the Ramon Magsaysay Prize.

Tarzie made a great many friends, but he never minded making enemies. He began to receive regular telephone threats to his life. Bapak who knew at once the quality and capacity of everyone he encountered, also foresaw the part he would play in Subud. When this part was about to be terminated by his assassination Bapak called him out of danger to Bombay.

Thrown into exile with his wife Sunetra (Harianti) and four children, he could now have two roles. As Tarzie he became a peripatetic teacher of journalism all over Asia, a ‘newspaper doctor’ as he liked to call himself. He was the inspirational animator of numerous international seminars and conferences. With his strong sense of what ordinary people want he co-pioneered the concept of development journalism. A colleague said of him: ‘In whichever country he was he seemed to be part of the people’. He wrote frequently in the international press, and, for a while based in Hong Kong, edited his own newspaper, The Asian.

Being a constant traveller – he used to say he wrote well at 33,000 feet - he could as Varindra at the same time fit in continual service for Subud.

He became - as he was variously called - Bapak’s courier, messenger boy, leg-man, ambassador, reporting regularly back to Jakarta. He was the ideal link-man between sprouting Subud groups in numerous countries and never needed to ask for expenses. His visiting presence brought lightness and laughter, and he was expert at finding a practical way between quarreling helpers and committee members. He would observe, though that dealing with Subud members, who themselves were going through an individualised spiritual process, could be more troubled and delicate than the relationships he faced later in the United Nations.

Already in 1963 at the Second Subud World Congress in Briarcliff, New York, Bapak made him international chairman of Subud, a position he retained for thirty years almost until his death. He wished to resign more than once and be an ordinary member, doing his latihan ( the Subud spiritual exercise) two or three times a week. But Bapak had reasons to keep him there. One was that he would never, as Bapak knew exercise responsibility as power but only as service, and the other that he would never allow a strong central organisation to take over Subud.

By the 1970s Varindra had become a global person, moving to New York. When he wrote an article questioning the current policies of the United Nations on population, he was invited to join that branch of the UN. He was then able to influence the way in which this crucial issue was handled - not through prescriptive birth control measures by governments, but by both addressing the conditions of life of poor people and empowering women so that they could choose the size of their families.

By now with his second wife Lestari he was living in New York. In 1980 he joined the brilliant team at the head of UNICEF, working for the health and protection of the world’s children. The late Jim Grant, Executive Director of UNICEF, called him ‘a unique pioneer in the most important revolution in our time - ‘the advancement of the human being everywhere’. The London Times said of him that his global vision and unaffected love of humanity made him at all levels a brilliant mobiliser for action on questions of poverty and the environment and especially for children.

Varindra had a horror of everything sanctimonious. ‘Don’t you go spiritual on me’ he would say to close friends. Bureaucracy was an incubus that had to be watched out for exposed and laughed at. At the end of his life he was warning us that some of the same forces which were crippling the UN, the universities and the churches could undermine Subud too.

He was a realist about human nature, especially his own. He never hid his own weaknesses. Rukman Hundeide, the Norwegian founder of the biggest Subud social enterprise, International Child Development Programme, says that it was his all too human imperfections that made him so attractive. In some way he became a spokesman for us sinners who are still in Subud and doing our best.

He had periods of spiritual dryness which he knew others also went through. He tells how for a whole year he lost the ability to feel or move in the latihan. (He once helped me a lot when he said “the latihan may be ninety-eight percent lead but then comes two percent gold worth travelling a long way for)’’.

When Bapak died in 1987 the same year as Varindra’s second wife, Lestari - the material for another book, long meditated, was waiting to be set down: a testimony of love and gratitude, full of the pointers the Bapak kept giving us towards a different quality of life in the here and now. In the UNICEF building in New York Varindra was famous for hanging his motto, or watchword, outside his door; EVERYTHING IS ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. I was told recently that it is still remembered and quoted - especially when an impasse is reached in a discussion on policy or action.

He wrote three other books besides Emergency 58, all on Asian themes: The Brown Sahib, the Brown Sahib Revisited and the Fall of Sukarno. There was one more book to come, though posthumously. His final concern was with the millions upon millions of the world’s children who are the victims of the world situation. Why, why do they have to suffer as they do? It was part of his ultimate quarrel with God, and he never found an answer. Between the Guns tells a mainly UNICEF story of how over several years warring bodies ceased hostilities to save the children on both sides.

Though widely known, admired and loved, Varindra Tarzie Vittachi never became a celebrity, which means a TV star, or wished to be. Though a brilliant journalist he was finally distrustful of the newspaper world, and the vaunted freedom of the press, which is so easily manipulated by powerful interests. What was needed to bring about change, he saw, was the informed participation of people in the drama of their own lives and growth. He pointed to the non-news media for this, the NGO and religious press, local broadcasting and videos. If he had lived longer I believe he would have rejoiced to see the arrival of the Internet with its value based community, to set up a global debate on the struggle for truth, justice and sustainable human development.

He never swayed big conferences with his oratory. He liked to work through more intimate meetings and his wide network of friendships. He helped to create and was active in the counsels of several non-governmental organisations working for world peace and justice: The Global Forum for Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, The Pate Institute for Human Survival, World View International Foundation. Their gathering had the object dear to his heart that those who make future-forming decisions should face and if possible get to know each other personally.

He spoke to me in his last weeks of the many letters he had been receiving, and the ones that pleased him least and most. The former were those that contained flattery, the latter those which showed he had really touched a person’s feelings. He had been a mentor, but never a guru, for many people and had left ‘ fruitful droppings’ - a typically earthy expression - in their lives. His daughter Anuradha once asked his advice when about to speak to a conference for young people. ‘Teach them to say No’, he said. Not a miserly No, but the life affirming No of those who hate bullies and petty rules. Never grovel because people are famous or powerful. Read tyrants as though you were a detective and learn to say No. It’s not global warming that will destroy us, it’s gullibility.

He died on September 17th 1993 of inoperable liver cancer in his daughter’s home at Chinnor near Oxford. A headline in The Guardian called him a ‘Genius of Communication and Nobility’.

The above is an excerpt from an Introduction to one of Varindra Tarzie Vittachi’s books

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