This iconic editor, analyst, and man of letters passed away on 30 December 2014, to be missed by many not only in the vast entity that is India, his country, but elsewhere wherever his wise words reached andby whomever his powerful and peaceloving personality touched.
Born in 1927 in a Syrian Christian family of Kerala, George Verghese was a stellar student and after Doon School, Dehra Dun his initial degrees from St Stephen’s, Delhi and Trinity College, Cambridge were followed by graduate honours from almost every Ivy League institution: Harvard, Yale, Cornell…
He married an equally remarkable person: Jamila, from a Punjabi/Kashmiri family converted from Shia Islam to Christianity. She became in her own right an activist for women’s rights and a writer. Graceful, lively, and hospitable, she was the perfect complement to her husband’s scholarly demeanour and quiet charm.
When my parents as Pakistani diplomats first met them in New Delhi in the late 1950’s, the Vergheses were amongst the best-liked couples in the capital. George was already an admired journalist and political commentator, and Jamila’s Christmas ‘at homes’ the most celebrated in the city. Later on, their sons Vijay and Rahul would become friends with my younger brother Saad.
By the time my parents returned to India, my father as our High Commissioner, in the late 1960’s, B G Verghese, having been Assistant Editor Times of India and Press Advisor to the Prime Minister, was in succession Editor in Chief of The Hindustan Times and the Indian Express. In due course his eloquent and unafraid Editorials against Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Emergency would result in his imprisonment.
George Verghese championed the underprivileged and the cause of social as well as political justice throughout his personal and professional life. He was a valued member of several global caucuses such as the Ottawa Dialogue. He authored a number of well-read books, the latest being his much-awaited memoirs ‘First Draft: The Making of Modern India’ (2010) and ‘Post Haste: Quintessential India’ (2014).
Our family friendship with the Vergheses was enriched further by meeting them on their visits to Pakistan, to our parents’ and other friends’ delight, and ours to India. In 2012 my elder brother Tariq and I had the pleasure of Uncle George’s company over tea here in Islamabad, and the bonus of seeing him later that year at the Shangri-La in Bangkok!
That same year I took my son Alparslan, who was friends with their grandson Kanishk in Hong Kong, to visit the Vergheses in their welcoming apartment overlooking the leafy heart of Delhi near India Gate. A typical youngster, he was touched by their hospitality and impressed by their wisdom. Standing on the balcony, Uncle George said, ‘In front of you are over 3,000 years of history. You must see the monuments of Lahore to be conscious of your heritage before going abroad for your studies’.
No finer advice has ever been given, and this was the principle practised by George Verghese himself.