Rahul Varma


My father, Dr. Daya Ram Varma, was a brilliant scientist with over 225 scientific publications and two full-length books — Reason and Medicine: Art and Science of Healing from Antiquity to Modern Times, and Medicine, Healthcare and the Raj: Unacknowledged Legacy — to his credit. He was the founder, editor and key writer of several political journals, including New India Bulletin, India Now and INSAF Bulletin, and was author of a boundless stream of articles, essays, critiques and chapters in prestigious scientific books and journals. A staunch secularist and socialist, he was the featured subject in world-class documentaries such as Bhopal: Beyond Genocide (Tapan Bose, Suhasini Mulay) and Bhopal: Search for Justice (Peter Raymond, Harold Crooks). He founded, supported or influenced many progressive organizations such as the Indian Peoples’ Association in North America (IPANA), CERAS, Kabir Cultural Center, the South Asian Women’s Community Center, Teesri Duniya Theatre, and many others. He championed the cause of peace and harmony between India and Pakistan and between people from these countries living in North America. He was a one-of-a-kind activist who combined science, politics and human rights, envisioning a society built upon the foundations of peace, equality and justice.


Much will be written about him in these pages by comrades, friends and admirers. I add to their voice some of my personal reflections and experiences, which will elucidate my father’s illustrious life.


Known popularly as Daya, my father was born in a peasant family in a small village called Narion in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, India, to proud parents the Late Sampati Devi and Matabadal Chowdhary. He was the only son among three surviving siblings. My grandfather was a peasant as well as primary school teacher, popularly known as Munshi Baba. He wanted his children to have more education than he himself had had, and none of his children disappointed him. My father excelled. Starting at a one-room primary school in his village, he emigrated to progressively bigger cities for his secondary, post-secondary and graduate educations. My grandfather had desired his son and daughters to remain attached to the family and stay within sight of the family home, which they were born in. My father’s academic accomplishments, however, took him away from the family, the village and, eventually, the country he was born in.


Even though my father spent most of his life in Canada, visiting the village infrequently and for short durations, much of his belief system was shaped from his days in Narion. Those days saw him being raised in a peasant family, watching his mother and father breaking their backs to reclaim family land from money-lenders, and experiencing financial hardship in getting educated. As a boy, he lived in a mud house with a dirt floor. He traveled eight kilometres on foot every day to attend school and did his homework while returning home in a bullock cart. He worked as a servant to pay for his lodging as his high school was 30 kilometres away from home. During his university years, he slept in a space donated by a fellow student outside his hostel room. He grew up watching the inhuman treatment Dalits and minorities received at the hands of landlords and members of the “upper” castes. He was married at a very young age — a union that would end in divorce decades later — and had children, also at very young age, from whom he would be separated during most of their formative years. Amid all this, he pursued his father’s dream and alleviated his burden by earning scholarships, going on to receive MBBS and MD degrees with honours from the prestigious King George Medical College in Lucknow. He came to Canada in 1959 and received his PhD in Pharmacology from McGill University (1961). He then became a professor of Pharmacology at McGill and carried out ground-breaking research, finally retiring as a professor emeritus in 2009.


But in spite of his academic accomplishments, departure from his birthplace, divided and separated family, immigration to Canada – much of his wisdom, consciousness and belief system came from what he had observed, learnt and experienced as a young boy growing up in his Narion.


For all his personal troubles and hardships from a very young age, he was aware that a larger number of people were surrounded by conditions harsher than his. He worked all his life to change conditions that subjugated people and treated them as subhuman. He was very sensitive to human conditions but utterly unsentimental about his own. He seldom talked about his parents’ hardships publicly. And only on rare occasions, in personal conversation or private letters to family members and friends, would he talk about his own hardships – and that, too, in few words: “I know what poverty means”.


He placed public suffering above his own and that of the family; yet he made great sacrifices for family members and those close to him. He observed the world around him and sided with men and women trying to change the world. He believed change was not only possible but was the only solution to build a just society based on peace, equality and fairness. Whether he succeeded or not is secondary to the fact that he made us aware of the need for change. He was resolute that change would happen only if one worked for it and he was very satisfied with the work he did all his life to change the world. I never once heard him mention that God would change things, I never once heard him say that change would come for the next generation, and I never once heard him use words like afterlife — he believed in change and justice for this generation and in this lifetime.


In his lifetime, he went from being a poor village boy, to a distinguished student, to a brilliant scientist, to a concerned intellectual, to a tireless activist, to an elder statesman who inspired young and old. Despite being away most of his life, India remained central to his existence and imagination. While many remembered India for its natural beauty and family history, my father remembered India for its people. He loved people. As an immigrant to Canada, what distinguished my father from compatriots was that while many of them worked heroically for professional success and personal wealth, my father worked to better human conditions on issues such as poverty, violence against women, equality, minority rights, global peace and a fair economic system. For him there was no separation between professional success and political consciousness.


He brought his immediate family to Canada in 1975-76. Having been apart from him all my growing-up years, and joining him as an adult, I wasn’t only united with a separated father, but with a father who was an intellectual activist mobilizing support against suppression of democracy, working on issues such as the Bhopal disaster, mass violence against Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, Adivasis, Christians, human rights and other issues.


He held dear the principle “Land to the Tiller”, and was a militant and fiery believer in agrarian revolution. He formed a North-America-wide organization called Indian Peoples’ Association in North America (IPANA), a support organization, with a Marxist- Leninist ideology, which supported “armed struggle” to emancipate the masses. I joined IPANA and worked side-by-side with my father. But I left it eventually, owing to ideological differences, mainly that I could not endorse what was referred to as “revolutionary violence” in the name of armed struggle. Even though I formally left IPANA, I never abandoned my belief in my father’s goals, and I continued assisting him in everything he did. My father explained to me that armed struggle was merely a method not a principle. He said if it was the most successful method to achieve results, he would embrace it. If it was not, he would discard it. And he did. But, obstinately, he never abandoned the idea of a society based on equality, fairness and justice. He was always evolving and refining his thinking, while never compromising his principal goal. Organizational setbacks did not deter him; he reinvented, refined and emerged stronger and more mature, which is pretty evident in his articles.


He was instrumental in initiating many social justice organizations, including Teesri Duniya Theatre, a theater company that I co-founded and became artistic director of in 1986. My father was the staunchest supporter of Teesri Duniya Theatre and a voice of wisdom behind many of the plays I wrote. He was a source of the wisest political one-liners I have ever heard: short but loaded in ideas for exploration. I have explored many of his one-liners in the plays I’ve written. Bhopal, a fictional play based on the world’s worst industrial disaster at the Union Carbide factory, derived its premise from my father’s wisdom.


For him, 1984 was marked by state-sponsored violence against Sikhs and the world’s worst industrial disaster at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.


When the Union Carbide plant exploded, killing over 2500 people overnight, and while company bosses, corporate lobbyists and media were busy establishing whose fault it was, my father flew to India and started collecting data from the survivors and victims — data which would later become the subject of his research and, eventually, potential evidence against the corporation. He told me that the impact of this poison gas (MIC or methyl isocyanate) would haunt not only the present but also the generation to come. He told me that those not yet born at the time of the explosion would carry devastating effects of the MIC, a fact that was kept hidden as a trade secret.


When I sit down to pen a play, one of my primary subjects for contemplation is how this play might be distinct from other plays written on the same theme. My father’s one-liner, “MIC will haunt the generation yet to be born” – became that distinct idea of the play that premiered in 2001, and which was subsequently published, translated and produced in French, Hindi and Punjabi.


Dr. Sonya Labonte, a character in the play, was inspired and informed by my father’s work. I based this character on him to honour his prophetic thinking. He pursued his research and produced scientific facts and published papers exposing the corporate culpability. He could not be silenced. Once, at a scientific conference in Pittsburgh, USA, he walked up to and scolded Union Carbide hired doctor Hans Weill, who infamously said that MIC would be hydrolyzed and roll out of the Bhopal victims’ eyes. My father warned him never to go to India.


He was a funny man with a very unique sense of humour. He would ask me, ‘Rahul, can you do something for me?” “Yes”, I would reply, eager to help, and he would say, “You have to do nothing” – what he meant was that the task amounted to no task at all. He would call and leave a message, “This is Daya, I have nothing to say”.  He introduced me to Dipti, and wanted us to get married, which we did. To impress Dipti, he sent her a letter highlighting my good qualities as follows: “Healthy, non-smoker, owns a car but rides bicycle; against caste-system, supports women’s movement, non-religious, non-chauvinist, non-traditional and non-vegetarian!”


Nothing in his life was everlasting except the principles by which he lived his life. His principles were his greatest achievement. It’s his principles by which one can view him: land to the tiller; power to workers; Dalit and minority rights; equality in all spheres; justice for all; and secular and socialist society. Everything he might have had personally, he sacrificed to achieve his principles.


He was a bright bridge player, he treated dogs as humans, and he loved scotch.  My father was very proud of his grandchildren. If anyone said, “you have four grandchildren”, he corrected them by saying, “four granddaughters.” He loved his granddaughters. He loved children. But he lived most of his life away from them, preventing himself from being the father he may have wanted to be. But he made up for this by loving his grandchildren and children in general.


He retired as a full-time professor from McGill in 2007 but he did not retire from his retirement. He wrote two books on medicine and society and wanted to write a third, titled Poverty: A Curable Disease.  But in the year leading up to his death, he battled many ailments, forcing him to retreat to a rest. So, instead of embarking on his third book, he ended up writing a chapter on poverty as he wanted it to be published before his death – that’s the kind of man my father was.


His legacy is that he never gave up the hope that a just society is possible. He was a big man in every way. His life is worth celebrating and he will continue to inspire.

Top - Home