Martin Jacques was comfortably settled, had a successful career as an editor and political writer, when his whole life was overturned. On holiday in Malaysia, he fell in love, magically, irreversibly, with Hari. Each risked all to be together. How could anything touch their happiness?
It was Saturday, August 21 1993. I was staying on Tioman, a small tropical island off the east coast of Malaysia. The time was 7.30am and I was just returning from a run when I noticed a young dark brown woman walking between the wooden chalets to my left. She smiled. I said hello. Nothing seemed more natural: everyone smiled and said hello on Tioman. But there was something about her that stuck in my mind: to this day, I can’t tell you exactly what it was. That morning, my partner and I had signed up for a jungle trek. People began to gather for the 9am departure, when suddenly I heard this voice: “Didn’t I see you earlier? Weren’t you running through the village?” With barely a pause, she added, “Only a white man would do something as stupid as that.” I was reeling. She was wearing a huge grin and her big brown eyes were full of impish humour. Before I had collected my thoughts, she fired another salvo.
“Why did you come to Tioman?”
“A friend recommended it,” I replied weakly, waiting for the next round.
“There are much more beautiful islands than this.”
Beginning to find my voice, I said, “It’s not much use you telling me now.”
The jungle trek began to move off. We fell into animated conversation as if we were the only two people in the world, let alone Tioman. She was breathtakingly direct, razor-sharp, mischievous, and as warm as the weather. I barely noticed the South China Sea to our right, the golf course to our left, the large iguana observing our progress, the coconut trees that punctuated our path, such was the electrifying effect of her company. Who was this woman I had just met and yet with whom I already felt enormously intimate? I had been overwhelmed. I was defenceless. I fell in love with her within just a few minutes, within the first few hundred metres of the trek. I didn’t believe in love at first sight when I was 17, let alone 47. It was the most beautiful, the most exciting, the most compelling moment of my life.
After about half an hour, as the group made to climb through the rainforest, I wrenched myself away from her and went to find my partner. The group was soon stretched out over several hundred metres and yet somehow I always knew exactly where Hari (or Harinder as I knew her then) was: I had entered her gravitational field, never to leave it. We stopped for lunch by the sea and Hari disappeared with her friends to do some snorkelling. All too soon we were making our way to the beach and a narrow blue boat that whisked us back to our hotel.
Hari had hijacked my mind. My eyes were constantly on the look-out for her that day, but apart from a couple of distant sightings, the following morning arrived without further contact. I was anxious, aware that she was due to leave around midday and that, unless we exchanged addresses, we would never meet again. I noticed a colleague of hers at breakfast and asked him: he told me their group would be gathering in reception at 2pm. Hari and I duly swapped contact details, exchanged a fewsentences, and then she was gone.
But she never left my mind. There was something about her: her openness, her humour, her energy, her smile, her strength, her intelligence, her total lack of pretence. It felt as if I had known her for years, not a day: I had finally met my soul mate. On the face of it, though, we had absolutely nothing in common: she was dark brown, I was white, she was from the equator, I came from cold northern climes, she was from a developing country, I was from the west, she was a Hindu, I was an atheist, she was Indian, I was Caucasian, she was a lawyer, I was a writer, she was 26 and I was 47.
Two days later, my partner and I left for home. On the red-eye flight back to London, I wrestled with how I was going to make contact with Hari. I determined to write her a fax explaining as best I could how I felt towards her. It was not easy. I barely knew her, we were separated by 6,500 miles and a cultural ocean that I could not possibly fathom. I elected to be every bit as audacious as she had been towards me. It concluded: “This letter is just to say how much I enjoyed meeting you, that it was really something special, there was a sense of unfulfilled promise: how much I liked you, and how much I would like to meet up with you again, sometime, somewhere who knows. But next time properly, at our leisure I think it might be great . . .”
Restless, impatient, I phoned Hari at homethe next day, but she was out. I sent her another letter and some small presents. There was only silence. Finally I managed to get hold of her. It was an eerie feeling. She was on the other side of the world, living a life I could only guess at, and I was filled with a powerful craving to be with her. She promised to write and eventually a letter did arrive but, alas, it betrayed none of the intimacy of the jungle trek.
Somehow I was not deterred. Upon my return, I had begun making a television programme about the decline of politics and it occurred to me that an interview with Chris Patten, then governor of Hong Kong and with interesting things to say about the subject, would not be an inappropriate choice. Duly fixed, I started to work out the logistics. The idea of returning to East Asia so soon filled me with excitement. I had found the region hugely stimulating: Europe, in contrast, seemed dull and predictable. And then there was Hari. I phoned her one Sunday afternoon and suggested she came over to join me in Hong Kong for the weekend. In retrospect, it was a ridiculous proposition: Hari had never been outside Malaysia in her life, apart from Singapore. I was guilty of western hubris. “No, that would be impossible,” she told me, then added, with barely a pause: “Why don’t you come to Kuala Lumpur?” Why not, I thought.
I arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport late on a Saturday afternoon, as dusk fell with equatorial speed. I felt tired and the heat seemed even more sapping than usual. Hari was nowhere to be seen: not a very auspicious start. After a while, she turned up and drove me to her sister’s house where she lived. She suggested that we went with a friend to see some fireflies: I readily agreed, though with less than 24 hours together, I was far from enthusiastic. It was much worse than that. As her friend Dhiren drove us to the fireflies, with me in the back, it became abundantly clear that they were very close friends: had I flown 6,500 miles to spend the evening with Hari and her boyfriend? When I crawled into my hotel bed sometime after 2am, I felt I had made a terrible mistake. Hari collected me in the morning and we spent a pleasant but hardly intimate day together in KL. As I bade her farewell, I was fairly sure I would never see her again.
As I prepared for the Patten interview in my Hong Kong hotel the following morning, I decided to phone Hari one last time, to thank her for showing me KL. The conversation meandered around until I asked her how she was.
“I’m feeling sad.”
“Because I am missing you.” Nothing that had happened between us in KL had suggested this. Her words reverberated around my mind. My body levitated somewhere between the floor and the ceiling. She had finally told me how she felt towards me. Tioman had not deceived.
Over the next two months, the phone and fax lines between London and KL hummed. Our relationship grew ever closer. It was obvious that we needed to find a way of meeting again and this time I left the decision to Hari: she suggested a week together in Hong Kong in December. For her it was a huge step: her first trip outside her homeland, to meet a white man from the other side of the world. She told her sister that she would be going there with some friends, but made no mention of me. I told my partner that I was going to interview Chris Patten for the Sunday Times magazine but, unlike when I had gone to KL, I made no mention of Hari.
I arrived at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport mid-afternoon in a state of enormous excitement. I waited impatiently in the long immigration queue, collected my bags from the carousel, put them on a trolley, looked up and there, just a few metres away, was Hari, wearing a huge beaming smile: in that instant I knew we were going to have a wonderful week.
Hari had suggested previously that she would be staying with friends in the New Territories. Regardless, she came with me to my hotel on Hong Kong island. We made our way to my room. Hari walked over to the window and stood there for several minutes, silent, transfixed by the magnificent views of Hong Kong harbour, one of the great sights of the modern world. I joined her and we watched together until somehow, by magic, we turned to each other and shared a gentle, tender kiss: it was our first. There was nothing dramatic about it, there was no passionate embrace, it was just like our relationship was always to be: sensitive, loving, delicate, considerate. It was a promise of and for the future, neither presumptive nor precipitous, but a quiet understanding that a lifetime together beckoned.
When we returned to the hotel later that evening, it was obvious that Hari had no plans to go to the New Territories: I summoned up the courage to ask her, and she said demurely that she would sleep in my room. The first night we slept in separate single beds, but thereafter we shared the same bed. Every night Hari would put on these white tracksuit bottoms and a couple of T-shirts. We would kiss and cuddle, but those white tracksuit bottoms never came off, and somehow I had no desire to remove them. Western as they may have been, they strangely defined the cultural difference between Hari’s world and mine. Our natural, effortless intimacy made me deeply mindful of her feelings, whether expressed or unexpressed. Those white tracksuit bottoms became a thing of exquisite beauty, a symbol of our love and respect for each other. Falling in love with Hari was so easy, so natural and so romantic. It was to be February before Hari and I first made love.
The week raced by, the most marvellous of my life. The day before we were due to fly off in such bizarrely different directions, we sat down over lunch to discuss the future. The geographical chasm between us required deliberate decision: chance was not an option. It should have been a difficult conversation but, like everything else with Hari, it was sublimely easy. When we returned home, we agreed to tell our respective partners that our relationships were over: Hari had only told me about hers in Hong Kong. I would go to Malaysia for a week early in the New Year and she would come to England for a fortnight in May. We debated where our future should be, Malaysia or England: I was happy to live in Malaysia, anywhere to be with Hari, but she was insistent that it should be England, at least to start with. She would come to London in September for a year, do a master’s degree in law, and thereby test the water. We even discussed children.
“One,” said Hari.
“Two,” I suggested.
Probably two, we thought, maybe.
Every one of the decisions we took that lunchtime came true.
Hari told her boyfriend (who, by the way, was not Dhiren) and her sister immediately upon her return: her sister, with whom she lived and had a close but complex relationship, refused to accept it. I had decided to tell my partner after the Christmas holidays but, in the event, I, too, conveyed the news immediately. We had been together for 18 years and I felt extremely guilty. Somehow, until the trip to Hong Kong, I had convinced myself that there was nothing to say because nothing had happened: except, of course, in my mind everything had happened. I had always been very honest and loyal to her, so this went right against the grain. Not surprisingly, she was mortified. I moved into a rented flat and, carrying a huge burden of guilt, lived a life of emotional exile, telling virtually no one, sustained by the daily faxes and phone calls with Hari, and the impending prospect of her visit. My partner, the aggrieved party, behaved with great honour throughout this period and, despite everything, we were to remain friends.
My arrival at Kuala Lumpur could not have been more different from the last occasion. Hari was waiting for me at the airport with some of her friends. It seemed as if she had told the whole world about me. The two months since we had last been together had taken their toll. Her father, Karam Singh, a famous lawyer and radical, had died in January. He was a remarkable character, the youngest ever MP in Malaysia, jailed under the Internal Security Act for leading a march of rubber plantation workers, expelled from India by Indira Gandhi for his role in forming a police union; a leading lawyer, he died penniless, wedded to the cause. Her sister had still not reconciled herself to our relationship and when she heard that I was coming to Malaysia, she told Hari that she had to leave her home. Despite everything, that week, our first proper time together in KL, was delightful. Hari was so happy and calm, secure in the certainty of our relationship. Her large entourage of close friends made me extraordinarily welcome. And I enjoyed getting to know Kuala Lumpur, one of the most multiracial cities on earth.
In our months apart, we exchanged faxes virtually every day. And almost every day we phoned. It consumed almost a third of Hari’s income (there were no cheap international calls in those days). She wrote: “Little did we realise that one flash of a moment of me seeing you run past in a remote part of the world would turn out to be such a lucrative business for both British and Malaysia Telecom.”
In May she was due to come to London, a prospect she viewed with mounting excitement. She wrote: “I’m at my study table upstairs and in the background I hear a very inspiring sound. I wish I could see it from my window, but alas the grills and window panes don’t allow it. It is an aeroplane, Martin. Do you gaze at the sky like me, especially towards the evening, looking for planes?” For Hari, planes represented places she could only dream of, which were now about to become a reality. In the same fax, she talked of the pain of the last four months, but her faith in our future seemed to grow stronger by the day. “Whatever it is, it is inexplicable, the magnificent power and energy that has brought us closer together despite enormous obstacles. ‘In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once and never again, no matter how many times you live.’ We have come far, MJ, our lives were destined to meet and create another entity – us.”
I will never forget her reaction as we drove from Heathrow along the raised section of the M4 into London. Her neck made of rubber, her eyes on the ends of stalks, she stared this way and that, engrossed by the buildings on either side of the road. “How old is that?” she exclaimed, pointing at a rather nondescript late Victorian church. I told her it was not very old, then caught myself, remembering that for her, from a former colony whose phenomenal economic growth had all been concentrated into the last 20 years, it was incredibly old. I began to see my own country through Hari’s eyes.
Towards the end of Hari’s stay, I started to get nervous about the responsibility involved in her coming to live in London. For the first time, uncertainty began to creep into my mind. Perhaps our relationship wouldn’t work. We hardly knew each other. We were from different sides of the world. So far our relationship had always been on holiday: what would it be like in real life? I would never forgive myself if Hari came to London and it all ended in tears. For the next two months, I wrestled with my uncertainty while Hari remained utterly steadfast in her commitment and belief. Then somehow the mist lifted and my old sureness returned. When Hari arrived at Heathrow on September 10 1994 to live in England, I was filled with excitement and total certainty. I could not have been more right.
Hari adapted to life in England with remarkable speed. It was not easy. Everything was unfamiliar, often alien: the fact that virtually everyone was white, the disquieting aloofness of the English, the miserably cold weather, a cost of living that shook her rigid, the bland food, the weird humour, the heavy clothes, the strange buildings. But Hari was possessed of a remarkable adaptability. She adjusted to my cosmopolitan media and intellectual world – a milieu that was quite new to her – with effortless ease. She had a capacity to relate to people, a way of making them feel they had known her for years within just a few minutes, of transforming cultural distance into personal intimacy. My father adored her from the moment they met.
Hari lived the first 27 years of her life in Malaysia: she was to spend little more than four years in England. It was part of her magic to be culturally multilingual. I suspect many people never really thought of Hari as a foreigner: a colleague at the Independent, where I was then deputy editor , once said in a surprised tone, “She’s so occidental, isn’t she.”
Her openness and friendliness were very Malaysian. Her familiarity with the unfamiliar – England – had something to do with being from a former colony and coming to the old imperial centre: the subjects of our former colonies enjoy a knowledge of Britain that the British do not, in their imperial hubris, have of their former colonies. Her strength, her passion for life, her compassion for people, were related to the adversity that had scarred her life. When she was just four months, her father was imprisoned for more than four years. Less than two years after his release, her mother, Harbans, died when she was just six. Her father was an inspirational figure, but also unreliable, frequently absent, possessed of a fearful temper and not in the least bit interested in money. Hari and her elder brother and sister lived in abject poverty for well over 10 years, constantly moving from one rented place to another, making do by sewing up the holes in their clothes, never knowing where the next meal would come from. Eventually the children, now teenagers, went to live with their uncles and aunts, but even then there was little stability as they were passed on from one set of relatives to another.
Knowing Hari, it was hard to believe all this. Most people probably thought she came from a relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan Malaysian family, such was her self-assurance, her ease of manner. She never sought to hide her background, nor seek sympathy: she was always disarmingly candid. But still I found it difficult to understand how Hari, who had been dealt such a raw deal in life, was seemingly unmarked by it. On the contrary, she turned this adversity into an enormous strength. Despite her youth, she had a wisdom the like of which I had never encountered. Far from rejecting the hardship of her youth, it instilled her with a sense of empathy: high-flier as she was to become, she always identified with those less fortunate than herself, always had that sixth sense about their lives.
Hari was proud of her background and her country. She never had any intention of abandoning her Malaysian citizenship. But for her, Malaysia also represented pain and, coming from a fairly strict Punjabi background, a constraint she found stifling. For her, England meant a new start, a sense of liberation.
I, meanwhile, was transformed. Tioman, and trusting in Tioman, was only the beginning. Hari turned me inside out. Work had always been the most important thing in my life, but no more. The meaning of my life was no longer Marxism Today (or whatever came after), but Hari. I loved her with an extraordinary passion and tenderness. I had never even vaguely loved like this before. At 47, I was re-formed as a person. To share my life with someone of a different colour and from a different world obliged me to question all my old assumptions. Nothing was the same again. My cultural coordinates were changed for ever: Europe seemed that much less important, the history I knew much too western, Christmas a strangely parochial event, my skin colour charged with significance rather than simply a fact I took for granted. Coming from such different backgrounds forced me to question assumptions I was not even conscious of having made. Everything had to be thought anew.
Following the completion of her master’s in law at King’s College, London, Hari began the search for a job. I was none too confident that my country would offer her the opportunity her obvious talent deserved. After much head-scratching, we decided that the most likely avenue was a job in one of the top City law firms, where her East Asian background, her fluency in Malay and her knowledge of Cantonese would be obvious assets. But would firms dominated by a public-school, Oxbridge, first-world and white mentality give Hari even half a chance? On paper, her prospects looked slim: apart from her master’s, she had an external degree at London University. Little, I thought, would the gilded lilies of the commercial law world understand just what this represented: with no money in the family, she had worked and done her degree in her spare time. I was always confident, though, that if Hari got an interview, her personal magic would do the rest. For months she couldn’t get an interview. Then finally she made the breakthrough and was interviewed by Lovells, one of the top five City law firms. I remember the day she came home from the interview. I asked her how it had gone.
“How long did it last?”
“A quarter of an hour.”
I was crestfallen. She had barely got through the door. I fell into silence and then, about an hour later, I asked her if she had liked the partner who interviewed her.
“Yes, he was nice.”
“What did he say to you at the end?”
“You are obviously a self-made woman.”
I could barely contain my excitement. I knew that Neil Fagan, the partner in question, had, with remarkable speed and perception, understood Hari: in that instant, I somehow knew that she would get the job, which, after a couple more interviews, she did. I have always felt a great debt and affection for the partners who made that decision: Hari came from an utterly atypical background and could not have been more different from the conventional City lawyer. It was a brave and far-sighted decision. Working at Lovells was a challenge of a totally different order from anything Hari had experienced before: and she loved it. A year after she started work there, Graham Huntley, one of the partners who had appointed her, suggested she should do a secondment at one of their East Asian offices, feeling that her best opportunity of becoming a partner probably lay in that region.
It came as a shock but the more we thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. I had long been happy to follow Hari wherever her career might take her. I always felt that, as she had come to England, one day I should go with her to East Asia. It was part of our voyage through life, sharing and exploring each other’s worlds. It also coincided with my own burgeoning interest in East Asia. I had become increasingly bored by British politics and culture and was keen to write a book on the nature of Asian modernity. I sensed this was my opportunity. We slowly began to plan our future in Hong Kong.
That same summer we decided to start trying for a baby. Ever since that lunch in Hong Kong, we had intended to have children and, as Hari would say with a smile, “you are not getting any younger”. I was now 51, Hari 21 years younger. Strangely, though, I never felt any age difference between us. It is rare in any kind of relationship for two decades to dissolve into nothingness. Our efforts met with almost immediate success. It always felt as if our relationship was blessed, that God was looking after our every move. On August 30 1998, just nine weeks before we would fly to Hong Kong, Ravi was born, the personification of our love.
We spent two manic months as we arranged to ship all our goods to the other side of the world, Hari revised for her exam for the Hong Kong Bar (which would require her to fly to Hong Kong when Ravi was just six weeks old), I produced a special issue of Marxism Today on New Labour, and we got used to life with a newborn baby. Two days before we left, 200 people came to a farewell party and then, on November 1, the three of us flew out to Hong Kong, elated but shattered.
Hong Kong was our place. It was where our relationship had started, the magnificent harbour and extraordinary skyscrapers had been the amphitheatre for our romance: it was the city to which we had returned for the handover to China in 1997, to celebrate a historic occasion and to remember an even more historic occasion, our week of passion when two people from opposite sides of the planet had fallen in love. Now we had come to live as three. Initially we stayed at a hotel in Wan Chai and every night we would wander off for a bite, Ravi secure in his baby seat, Hari chattering away in Cantonese to street traders and shopkeepers: I was reminded that she was Asian, that she knew the Chinese well, that this, rather than London, was her natural habitat.
It was not to be long, though, before we fell out of love with Hong Kong. Tourism is, of course, an entirely different matter from residence. Hong Kong is a place where white expats still enjoy a privileged position; the sense of superiority among the majority has changed little post-handover. We had looked forward to having plenty of Chinese friends but, to our dismay, this proved far more elusive than we had anticipated: they had long learnt to live their lives apart from their former colonial masters. Nor were we prepared for the threadbare character of Hong Kong culture. The expatriate world worships at the altar of mammon, while the effects of 150 years of colonialism have denuded the Chinese of their cultural birth-right. In Hong Kong, money substitutes for soul.
But that was not the worst of it. Hari found herself the object of a raw and crude racism, which she had not experienced before in either Kuala Lumpur or London. It was not for many months that I was to realise the true dimensions of the problem. As a white person, my experience was completely different from Hari’s: the Hong Kong Chinese are rarely courteous but they treat whites with respect and deference. With her dark brown skin, Hari was regarded as an inferior being. We were at opposite ends of the scale. One evening we had some people round for dinner and we were discussing Hari’s problems with some Hong Kong Chinese employees at work. Someone asked whether it happened elsewhere.
“Everywhere,” she replied instantly.
“What do you mean, Hari?” I asked in a state of shock.
“People ignore me in shops. They are rude to me in restaurants. They mutter black bean shit in Cantonese when they walk past me in the street.”
Hari was not one to complain. It was not in her make-up. She had learnt to cope with adversity and rise above it. She was not in the least bit naive about racism, coming from multiracial Malaysia that would have been difficult, but until Hong Kong she talked about it only occasionally. Given the chance, she preferred to think people were not being racist, demeaning as it was both for the perpetrator and for her.
For me, it was the turning point. From that moment I came to see Hong Kong in an entirely new light. As a white person, immune to such treatment, my enlightenment depended on Hari. When we were out together, Hari had always seemed to be treated respectfully: now I realised it was because she was given my colour. There was rarely any mention of racism in the media or public discourse: I began to understand that Hong Kong was in denial. Our white friends were universally oblivious to the problem: they never suffered. And it contradicted my own view of our relationship: this was Hari’s continent, she spoke Cantonese, she had an intimate knowledge of Chinese culture, and she had been brought up in a Chinese neighbourhood in Malaysia. Through Hari, I gained a unique insight into Hong Kong, one that white people otherwise never experience. I came to understand how race permeates everything everywhere. It became a very frequent topic of conversation between us: but it never occurred to me, until too late, that Hari was in any kind of danger there.
Despite all these trials and tribulations, we had a wonderful time in Hong Kong. Unlike in London, where we lived a hectic social life, a sense of calm descended upon our lives. We spent most evenings together, just the three of us. We were determined to bring up Ravi as an Asian baby: he would come with us everywhere, always be part of our world. He was the source of enormous pleasure for both of us and, to no surprise, Hari, the strongest, most independent woman I had ever known, turned out to be a brilliant mother, a complete natural. She loved Ravi to bits. I had selected five cities that would be at the heart of the research for my book and decided to spend three weeks or so in each, beginning with Taipei, Shanghai and Tokyo. The separation that this involved filled us both with foreboding, so we decided that Hari would join me with Ravi for a few days in each.
While I was away, we would always phone each other a minimum of twice a day and exchange emails, sometimes several. After she returned from Taipei, she wrote: “Your message takes me back to the days when I would rush to work [when she was still in KL] to read your faxes. Five years on and we’re communicating via the net . . . it’s still as romantic. I miss you terribly and was in tears most of the time on the plane and at home. If you were ‘wrappable’, I would have sneaked you into the suitbag . . . Sorry for giving you a hard time before I left for the airport – I hate the separation.”
We were sharing Asia together, our journey through life acquiring a quite new dimension. We began to realise that our future lay in both East Asia and England. Amazingly, after more than six years together, the passion, the excitement that we had felt for each other that morning on Tioman had never worn off, never dimmed. I felt the same feelings for Hari during our time in Hong Kong as at the very beginning. Except that we had now accumulated many shared experiences and a new understanding of each other: getting to know Hari was like living in a big house, and as I turned on the light in each room, new and wonderful treasures were revealed. On the face of it we may not have had anything in common, but in reality we had everything: openness, risk- taking, radicalism, energy, a love of life and people, humour, warmth, curiosity, the world.
As 1999 drew to a close, our close friends Eric and Marlene Hobsbawm, their son Andy and his wife-to-be Kate, joined us in Hong Kong for the millennium. It had been long in the planning and we eagerly awaited their arrival. We were not to be disappointed. The seven of us – ranging in age from one to 81 – spent an extraordinary week in Vietnam, travelling around in a minibus that came to symbolise the spirit of that holiday: we were like a bunch of teenagers without a care in the world. We arrived back in Hong Kong early on Wednesday afternoon, December 29, whereupon Hari announced that she would be cooking Christmas dinner for everyone that evening: this was to be the Christmas party that Ravi had missed in Vietnam. After a game of tennis, she went off to shop and that evening, dressed in a bright red miniskirt and matching jacket, her personal rendition of Father Christmas, we relived our Vietnam holiday and exchanged Christmas presents. The following day, Hari went off to work. During the day, we talked many times on the phone as we always did. And then in the evening we took a junk to Cheung Chau, a nearby island, where we had dinner with the Hobsbawms and some other friends. The weather was cool, the sea was calm and the views, as ever, were magnificent. We had finished dinner and I was playing with Ravi by the quayside when Hari came over to me and said she wasn’t feeling well. I was taken aback: I immediately knew it was serious because she never complained about feeling ill. She said she was suffering from very bad diarrhoea and fever. I herded everyone up, told them Hari was feeling ill, and we made our way back. We arrived home just after midnight. It was Hari’s birthday, but she was in no mood to celebrate. I put her to bed, piled coats on top of the duvet, switched on the fan heater; the bedroom was soon like a Turkish bath, but still she was cold. She slept little and fitfully. Come the morning, feeling wretched and worn out, she insisted on getting up and going out on the junk for the day with the Hobsbawms. I furtively took the birthday cake I had bought for her the previous day together with 33 candles, hoping that at some point she would be able to enjoy it. The junk was bathed in glorious sunshine, it should have been the perfect setting for Hari’s birthday, a marvellous end to the millennium, except that she spent most of the day lying under a pile of coats on the deck. Eventually, as the day began to run out, I lit the candles, brought the cake from the hold and we all sang Happy Birthday. Hari emerged from the coats and smiled: there was no hiding how awful she felt. She went home to bed, her rest punctuated by calls from England and Malaysia wishing us a happy new year. That evening she insisted on going out for our long-planned dinner with the Hobsbawms and a subsequent rendezvous at midnight with Andy and Kate. As we stood on the steps of a hotel at 1am, trying to work out how to get home, Hari, with panic in her voice, shouted, “Martin, Martin”. I knew immediately what was happening. In 1995, Hari had suffered a grand mal epileptic fit in London, the first of her life. This was her second. Having been with her the first time, I knew exactly what to do. My heart was pounding, but I remained completely calm. Hari needed me like never before. After about half an hour, an ambulance arrived and took us through the thronging crowds to the nearest hospital. She was then taken to another hospital close by where we were told she would be kept overnight. I was a little surprised: in 1995 she had been held in out-patients for observation for a few hours before being allowed home. Shocked and shattered, I left Hari around 4am to look after Ravi.
Later that morning, I took Ravi to see her. For several minutes, the three of us lay on the bed, motionless, Ravi between us. Somehow he knew that Mummy wasn’t well, that life was not right. Exhausted and subdued, Hari was not her usual self. After a while I saw what I assumed was the duty doctor and went over to speak to him. I wanted the hospital staff to know that Hari’s husband was white because I thought it might help: in the back of my mind I was worried she might face discrimination. I asked, “When is she going to be discharged?”
“Later today or tomorrow morning.”
“How is she?”
“She is not my patient.”
“Whose patient is she?”
He gave no reply. I was very annoyed but not overly concerned, thinking that she would soon be home and that there was little they could do for her in any case. We stayed for an hour or so until Ravi, just months old, decided it was time to play doctors and nurses. I told Hari I would come back when Andy and Kate returned from their shopping expedition and could look after Ravi.
I arrived back at the hospital in the early evening with some flowers and various things that Hari had asked me to bring. We talked about her fit and why it had happened: after her previous one in 1995 we had gone to inordinate lengths to try and prevent another. As we chatted, it never really occurred to me that the most likely cause was the infection that had laid her low. I was mystified as to why they were keeping her in hospital and eventually the duty doctor, whom I had spoken to in the morning, came to her bedside. I asked him when Hari could go home and he said either tomorrow or the next day.
“Why are you keeping her in?”
“For observation and tests.”
“A chest x-ray,” he mumbled.
I continued my questions only to be told once more by him that Hari was not his patient. “Who is?” No reply.
I was utterly frustrated. I wasn’t sure what to do, how far to push things, aware that this was a very different culture to the one I was used to. I turned to Hari and said: “A fat lot of use that was.”
“I am bottom of the pile here,” she replied instantly. It was like a thunderbolt. The remark was so unlike Hari. But it was part of an all too familiar story in Hong Kong. I asked her what she meant.
“I am Indian and everyone else here is Chinese,” she said, with a note of resignation.
I told her that I was going to get her discharged. It was already late in the evening so I agreed with the nurses that I would collect Hari at 10 the following morning. We talked a little more then I kissed her goodnight. As I made my way out of the ward, I turned to wave goodbye and blew her a kiss. She whispered, “I love you”, across the ward. She phoned me twice after I got back to check that Ravi and I were OK. It was the last time I ever spoke to Hari.
The following morning, I got up early to take Ravi to the hospital and collect Hari. The blue sky outside matched my optimism that Hari would soon be home. At 8.50am the phone rang.
“This is the nurse at the Ruttonjee hospital. Your wife has had another fit. You must come to the hospital immediately.”
The world was suddenly out of control. I was filled with terror. I shouted to Andy to look after Ravi and ran for a taxi. The journey to the hospital took just a few minutes. Desperate though that ride was, it was as nothing compared with the situation I was confronted with when I arrived at Hari’s bedside. She was lying there, impassive, wearing an oxygen mask, her head turned to the left, her eyes closed, deeply unconscious. Two nurses were present, no doctor. A couple of minutes later, an alarm went off, the nurses went into a frenzy and shortly afterwards a doctor arrived and then another. I was pushed aside and retreated to the end of the ward in a state of shock, panic, fear and total disbelief. What was happening? Could my Hari really be dying? The very idea was so incomprehensible, so ridiculous, so absurd. How could it be? Hari was the definition of life. I walked backwards and forwards along the corridor pleading with her to pull through, dropping to my knees and praying that she would live. At 10.30am, I was told she was dead.
My life started on August 21 1993, when I discovered the most beautiful thing in the world, to love someone without limit and be loved without limit. It ended on January 2, 2000, when the person whom I loved beyond all imagination died. I was born on this earth to meet Hari. She was the meaning of my life. There is no way back after such a catastrophe. There is Ravi, my treasure, my dearest friend and companion, the greatest gift that Hari could have left me, the only reason I am still alive. He will never know his mother, but I pray he will have memories of her. She was the most remarkable human being I have ever known. For the last three years, I have just about managed to stay on the right side of life, devastated by her loss, horrified by its manner, and haunted by a desperate loneliness. Alas, to make matters worse, very few people understand the terror, the carnage of such intimate death. But that is another story.
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times
Afterword: Seven weeks after Hari died, I returned from England to Hong Kong with Ravi to be with my memories of Hari, to return to the book (which in the event I couldn’t), and to try and find out why Hari had died. I eventually managed to get her hospital records and, on the basis of the deeply disturbing reports I received from my medical friends in England, I fought for an inquest, which was held in November 2000. After a five and a half day hearing, the coroner determined that Hari had died from epilepsy, which I knew from my medical friends was most unlikely. Far more likely was that, following an injection of diazepam, she had suffered respiratory depression which had neither been monitored properly nor treated and which culminated in respiratory arrest. During my evidence, which lasted three hours, I quoted Hari’s words to me about being ‘bottom of the pile’. The story became headline news in the newspapers, radio and television. Hong Kong’s veil of denial had finally been lifted. It was a watershed. At last racism spoke its name. Hari’s words had been heard, her case reverberated around East Asia and beyond. The debate continued to rage in the Hong Kong media as Ravi and I finally left for England in March. The government belatedly admitted that racism was a serious problem, rather than the minor problem it had previously claimed. It is now considering introducing antiracist legislation. An inquest held in London last June recorded an open verdict and questioned the standard of care given by the hospital. Hari’s death will shortly be the subject of litigation in Hong Kong.