Stephen Orlov

It has taken me some time to find words that adequately express my sense of loss over the passing of such a dear friend and mentor, Daya Varma. 


I met Daya over 40 years ago soon after I moved to Montreal for graduate studies in Political Science at McGill University.  He was already an esteemed professor of Pharmacology, but it was not in the classroom that we bonded.  I, along with a few other McGill students, were drawn to a group of third world activists committed to solidarity work against Apartheid and the War in Vietnam and in support of anti-colonial movements and social justice in the Third World.  Daya was our inspirational leader.


Daya had an encyclopedic knowledge of history and political theory, but he led through action more than words.  When Daya walked into a meeting, he always hung his ego on a coat rack.  For him, personal differences were petty; his goal was to get the job done.  The hotter the debate, the more he listened.  And he usually spoke last, offering insight and direction often overlooked.


What I learned most from my mentor was not his politics but his values.  Like some activists of the day, I was prone to moments of dogma, despite good intentions, and sometimes that dogma compromised personal relations.  Time and again, Daya taught me by example how to treat people with dignity, respect and compassion.


I’ll never forget Daya’s gesture of kindness when I separated from my ex-wife thirty years ago. He invited me to move temporarily into his small house on Grand Boulevard that he shared with his son, Rahul, and another friend, Minu.  It wasn’t just his invitation that touched me; it was how matter-of-factly he extended it, immediately, without a second thought, more of a directive than an invitation.  He even accommodated sleepovers by my daughter Emily who was three at the time, and my mother when she visited from Boston. That’s how Daya was and that’s how I’ll always remember him.


Daya, a strict vegetarian convert, never missed my annual Schwartz’s Smoked Meat Super Bowl party.  He’d nibble on a veggie side dish, and despite not knowing much about football, he’d confidently announce his prediction of who was going to win by what score. Of course, he’d base his home made analysis on the political reputation of the city, how progressive the fans were supposed to be.  The Dallas Cowboys never had a chance.


Some of you probably know that Daya was a connoisseur of fine aged whiskey.  My parents never drank but my mom stored in her closet an unopened bottle of 18-year-old vintage whiskey they had received as a wedding gift in 1941.  Whenever I mentioned this to Daya, his eyes would light up.  When my mom moved in 2003 she had no room for it, so I promised it to Daya.  Finally the big day came and I handed him this beautiful ornately-shaped bottle of 90-year-aged whiskey.  Daya, the devout atheist, held it in both hands like it was the Holy Grail.  He taped on bubble-wrap, carefully placed it in a heavy-duty bag and off he went.  I called him up a couple days later and asked, “So, how was it?”  Silence.  Finally I hear a whisper, “toxic.” Turns out my dad had probably opened it for a tiny taste before he waxed the cap and over the decades it had become toxic.  Daya and I had a good laugh over that irony of life more than once.


When Daya moved with his wife Shree to St. John’s, I rarely spoke to him on the phone and only saw him during return visits.  But we’d always pick up where we left off, as if he had never moved.  Many of his friends wondered how he would cope isolated in a Maritime community not known for global activism.  We needn’t have worried.  With great tenacity and focus, Daya researched and wrote two groundbreaking books of mammoth thematic scope, both progressive histories of medicine, polish-editing the second during his terminal illness.   He left a footprint marked by integrity and strength.


We will dearly miss Daya Varma, this extraordinary man, but his legacy lives on, enriching all of humanity.

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