About Siddhartha

by Kai Friese, Jan 1993
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It is difficult for us, a small group of Siddhartha’s many friends to present something of his essence to those who did not know him when he was alive – he affected the lives of so many others in so many different but vital ways. We want to remember him and we want to honour him because he was a friend, but also to share with others his particular sensibility as it engaged with many crucial issues of our time.
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Siddhartha was curious, enthusiastic, compassionate, and a man in a hurry. At the age of 15 he learned that he had Hodgkin’s’ disease, a cancer of the lymph glands, the effects of which ultimately cut short his life. But to most of us, the illness only seemed to punctuate his existence and was never as inexorable as the joyful energy with which Siddhartha himself careered through our lives, and his own.
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The Hodgkin’s took him to New York City for treatment but that was soon put behind him, and with shameless speed he completed his High School, undergraduate and graduate education in America, France, and England before returning to India in 1985.
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Once home, Siddhartha immersed himself in social activism. He worked in environmental issues and in the movement for justice to the Bhopal gas victims. The reappearance of his Hodgkin’s took him back to New York in 1988 but he took his concerns with him, and helped to organize a tour of the USA by a number of Bhopal gas survivors as part of a publicity campaign against Union Carbide.
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But Siddhartha was never some kind of altruistic martyr. He had an irrepressible hedonist streak, which tangled his ‘work’ and his pleasures quite hopelessly, and caught up many of his friends in the process. One of his many delights was talking and Siddhartha’s conversations knew few barriers. He would talk to a jaded cynic about his political convictions, and gossip with the most austere activists.
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In the last few years, a good part of Siddhartha’s conversation and his life revolved around the issue of discrimination against people with HIV AIDs and officially targeted ‘high risk groups’. He was involved with Aids activists in New York during his treatment in 1988 to 89 and on returning to Delhi he helped to establish the group that later called itself the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan. His excitement with the group was tangible, as ABVA made its presence felt through public protests against discriminatory policies, and a petition campaign that helps to scupper the passing of the draconian AIDS ‘prevention’ bill of 1989. Siddhartha also worked with ABVA to publish a series of well researched reports on the status of marginalized groups of people, such as women in prostitution, gays and lesbians, professional blood donors, and drug dependents, who were stigmatized by public policies and prejudices on AIDS. The third of these reports, entitled ‘Less than Gay, a citizens report on the status of Homosexuality in India’ was published only a month before Siddhartha’s death. The ‘Pink Book’ (as it became known) bears the stamp of his voice. He worked with manic vigour ‘to articulate it crisply and in context, to take stands while admitting to contradictions, to leave a space open for ambivalence, while charting the role of the State vis-à-vis sexuality. The outcome is a strange mix of history and journalism, of serious research and activist interventions.’
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We won’t hear Siddhartha’s seductive voice any more, or ever forget it.
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