Martin Jacques found his soul mate in Harinder Veriah; it was a passion that knew no cultural bounds. But in Hong Kong, he says she faced racism in everyday life and believes it was ultimately responsible for her untimely death in hospital
One afternoon in December 1993, a journalist called Martin Jacques and a lawyer called Harinder Veriah sat over lunch in Hong Kong and made a number of life-changing decisions. Jacques, who was 47, lived in London and had a partner of 18 years; Veriah, who was 26, was Malaysian, lived in Kuala Lumpur, and was also involved in a relationship. They had met on Tioman, off the east coast of Malaysia, the previous August. They had just spent a week together and knew that they couldn’t continue life without each other.
‘We agreed we’d go back and tell our partners,’ Jacques says. ‘Which we did. And that she’d come to England in late April. Which she did. We debated if I’d go and live in Malaysia but she insisted on coming to England, she planned to do a year’s Master’s in law at King’s London. Which she did. And that we’d have two children.’
Jacques, sitting at the dining table in his Mid-Levels flat, lowers his head and begins to weep. After a while, he says, ‘At that lunch on that Thursday, everything we said we’d do we did, except we only had one child.’
That child, Ravi, is now two. His mother died, aged 33, on January 2, 2000, in the Ruttonjee Hospital of – so an inquest decided last week – natural causes: the official term used to describe what happened was ‘sudep’ which means ‘sudden unexpected death in epilepsy’. After the verdict, Jacques issued a statement saying that his wife’s death was ‘entirely avoidable’, and added that the fact that ‘the coroner should deem the hospital’s management of my wife as reasonable suggests that medical standards in Hong Kong are way below what is acceptable in a modern society’.
During the inquest, Jacques had also raised the issue of racism which was picked up by the international media. He told the hearing that on a visit to his wife, who was ethnic Indian, on New Year’s Day, she had said to him: ‘I am at the bottom of the pile here.’ When he asked her what she meant, she replied: ‘I am the only Indian here, everyone else is Chinese.’
Now, on a Thursday afternoon two days after the inquest’s verdict, Jacques is discussing racism – what someone has described to him as ‘the big, dirty secret in Hong Kong’. ‘I want this case to force a significant change in the way Hong Kong thinks about racism,’ he says. ‘There is no question whatsoever that Hari felt that she suffered racial discrimination in the Ruttonjee Hospital. Listen, the person who experienced the racism is the authentic voice of what happened. I know the Ruttonjee issued a statement denying it – have they interviewed Hari? Have they spoken to her?’
The problem with racism is that it’s a slippery beast and analysis of it can quickly veer headlong into irony. Last week, for instance, The Times in London ran a piece headlined ‘Wife’s death blamed on Hong Kong racism’ which ended on a note of concern about the quality of Chinese nurses being imported to Britain and observed, meaningfully, that more than 100 mainland nurses are already working in the British National Health Service.
‘Do you think I’m not aware of that?’ says Jacques, heatedly, of the danger arising from such skewed responses. ‘I completely and utterly disagree with what was written at the end of that story.’
He pauses, thinking about the whole thorny issue; he is an honest and articulate man who clearly loves language and intellectual conundrums.
Despite the fact that he says he was once a smiling person who no longer smiles, he is still capable of great animation. Conviction has, of necessity, become his companion. Now, he lifts up his head once more and insists, ‘Everyone has the capacity to be racist. But you cannot remain silent about racism. A friend of mine said to me that maybe I shouldn’t say anything for fear of kindling traditional white racism towards the Chinese. I cannot agree with that.
‘Racism is racism whoever perpetrates it. There are no excuses or justifications. It must be exposed, not condoned by silence. The treatment of people of darker skin like Hari is appalling in Hong Kong. I am just giving Hari a voice when she is now silent.’
This is a story which Jacques describes as ‘a terrible fantasy, a fairy tale with a terrible ending’. On August 21, 1993, on the island of Tioman, off the east coast of Malaysia, Jacques went for a run. He ran and played tennis and kept compulsively active until the day Veriah died when his life came to a halt. On his run, he had been strangely struck by a woman he saw in the distance. That woman was Veriah, and she happened to be on the same jungle trek Jacques and his partner had signed up for later in the day.
‘I fell in love with her in 10 minutes,’ he says simply. ‘I’d never believed in love at first sight, not even as a teenager, but I did with Hari. It was as if I entered her gravitational force-field and, from that moment . . .’ He stops and begins to cry. After several minutes of anguished, silent movement, he continues, ‘I never left it. Not even now. I was completely bewitched by her.’
Veriah was in Tioman on a weekend outing with her Kuala Lumpur law firm. She was the daughter of Karam Singh, the youngest MP in Malaysia’s history. Shortly after she was born, her father was imprisoned for four years for leading a march of rubber-plantation workers. Her mother died when she was six. She grew up clever and fearless and independent because she had to: there was little security and even less money in her life. Until she met Jacques, she had never left the Malaysian archipelago.
‘I’ve tried to work out what was the charge of our relationship. Hari was my soul mate. She was . . . I’m not a religious person but I was born on Earth to meet Hari. The meaning of my life is as simple as that. I realise now that Hari and I shared fundamental human values. I didn’t need to think about it then, I just thought – I’m so happy. I didn’t realise anyone could be so happy.’
In 1994, Veriah came to London and the couple was married two years later. In November 1998, Veriah came to Hong Kong with her law firm, Lovells (which has, says Jacques, been tremendously supportive to him since her death). Jacques, who had a high profile as a columnist and broadcaster in Britain, came too, intending to write a book on East Asia.
‘Hari spoke Cantonese and so when she came to Hong Kong, I don’t think she felt she was coming home but she definitely felt she’d have a cultural advantage. That’s not what happened. What happened is that the attitude of the Hong Kong Chinese towards people of darker skin is unthinkingly racist. She got racism all the time, everywhere, on the street, in the shops, finally, in the hospital.’
Jacques stops, weeps a little, then continues speaking. It’s evident that he has a compulsive need to talk; when he’s occasionally interrupted by a question, he says, politely, ‘I’ll just finish this’ and keeps going, as if he has to paint a verbal picture for himself of exactly how it was. Not one item of Veriah’s belongings has been moved from the flat. Her shoes are still at the door, where she left them, and the answering machine still announces ‘Martin and Hari’s number’. But on the last day of the last century, which also happened to be her 33rd birthday, she set out to celebrate new beginnings, and never came home. ‘The pain of losing Hari is . . . terrible. Not because of the way she died, though of course it was horrible and painful and brutal, and the truth has been denied. But that’s not the most painful thing. It was that it was a relationship of such beauty and it’s over and there’s nothing after it. For me, my life started when I met Hari and it ended when she died.’
In the early hours of New Year’s Day, in a taxi queue outside The Excelsior hotel in Causeway Bay, Veriah had a major epileptic fit. She had had her first such fit in 1995, in London. She was taken to the Ruttonjee Hospital – an institution which, as it happens, was founded by an Indian philanthropist and businessman called Dhun Ruttonjee. At 8.35am on January 2, she had another fit. She was injected with 3mg of Valium, went into respiratory depression and her oxygen level began to fall. Her husband had been summoned by the hospital, and so he was present when she stopped breathing, went into cardiac arrest and was declared dead at 12.15pm.
Coroner Andrew Chan Hing-wai observed last week that in the matter of ventilation support ‘with the benefit of hindsight, I’m sure more could have been done’ but added that ‘there was little evidence to suggest that would alter the outcome’.
‘Hari’s death was entirely avoidable,’ says Jacques. ‘If she’d been in a London teaching hospital, she’d be alive today. The overwhelming view of the reports I have received from consultants in London is that Hari died through respiratory depression, culminating in respiratory arrest, and the failure of the hospital to take prompt action in the form of ventilatory assistance. I viewed the inquest as essentially a political process rather than something that took us to the truth – in fact, at the end of the week, I think we were further from the truth than we were at the beginning.’
Veriah had two funerals, one in Kuala Lumpur and one in London. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery, in north London. Her body was embalmed in Hong Kong but Jacques wasn’t happy with the result, so she was not openly displayed (as is usually the custom) in front of her Sikh relatives. Instead, he had several photographs of her blown up to poster size, and these were hung at the funeral.
Jacques produces the posters during this interview, plucking them out of the chaos of his office, with its court papers and newspaper clippings strewn across the floor (and a copy of a book called The Soul In Grief half-hidden under the sheaves).
He has not added a single sentence to his Asian book since Veriah’s death. Instead, he has typed 102,000 words of a memoir, currently with his agent in London, which has the working title For Ravi: The Story Of Hari And Martin.
Because, of course, Veriah left a part of herself behind in their son. ‘In the early period, Ravi made my pain worse, I couldn’t spend more than an hour with him. He’s still a constant reminder but now I can see Hari behind Ravi. He’s kept me alive – if it hadn’t been for Ravi, I’d be dead.’
He leans over to Ravi, who has appeared at the table, looking like a delicate, impish ghost of the woman who is smiling out of the posters, and he croons, ‘You were like a river together, you and Hari. So flowing, so natural, so beautiful.’ In a few months’ time, he will take his son back to London. ‘But Hong Kong should not think I will fall silent about anything. I want to get justice, I don’t want anyone to think that this is finished with.’
While the inquest was going on last week, it so happened that Ravi fell ill and had to be taken to the Canossa Hospital, where he spent four days on a drip. It was the first time Jacques had been in a Hong Kong hospital since Veriah died. How, at that awkward legal moment, did he find the nurses? Jacques smiles fleetingly. ‘They couldn’t have been better.’
A shadow crosses his face, then he adds, ‘Mentally I kept measuring the number of hours Hari had been in hospital against the number of hours Ravi was in hospital and wondering whether Ravi would last. If you’ve had that experience, your view of hospitals can never be the same.’
He rubs his forehead with his hands – a constant gesture as if, by doing so, he can erase nightmare memories – and Hari’s silver wedding ring gleams on his finger. He looks up. ‘We all know that the worst can happen but basically, we never believe that it will. Most of my being can’t accept that. Every single morning I have to re-introduce myself to the fact that Hari is dead.’
– Fionnuala McHugh