12/11/00 - The Sunday Times

IT WAS supposed to be one of the happiest nights of their lives. Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, and Eric Hobsbawm, the veteran left-wing historian, were spending the Millennium Eve in Hong Kong with their wives. Hobsbawm’s son Andy, an internet company executive, had just proposed to his girlfriend in a restaurant and she had accepted. Half an hour after the stroke of midnight heralded the new century, the six were hugging each other in the street in celebration.

But a few minutes later Hari, Jacques’s lawyer wife, who had also been celebrating her 33rd birthday that evening, collapsed with an epileptic fit as she and her husband waited for a taxi. She was still holding the Gucci bag her husband had given her as a birthday present.

She was taken to hospital where, less than 36 hours later, she died.

An inquest into her death, to open tomorrow, is expected to be an important test of the way Communist China’s nominees are running the former British colony. A coroner is likely to be asked to decide whether any medical negligence contributed to the death.

There may also be questions over whether the dead woman’s Malayan Indian nationality was a factor. Her father was a Socialist party MP in the first parliament of independent Malaya.

Doctors can do little for epileptics but they are meant to be kept under constant observation.

Harinder Kaur Veriah, her full name, was put on a 41-bed ward at Ruttonjee state hospital, where the following day she suffered a second epileptic fit. Half an hour later she went into respiratory arrest, followed almost immediately by cardiac arrest.

The hospital says it did all it could to try to resuscitate her, and denies any negligence. Doctors, nurses and medical experts will be called at the hearing, which is expected to last at least three days.

Veriah had returned from a holiday in Vietnam a few days before her death and had contracted a fever while there, but was well enough to go for a meal at a Chinese restaurant on New Year’s Eve.

Alcohol played no part in the death: Veriah was teetotal. She worked for a British law firm in Hong Kong, and Jacques had moved there with her to study the Far East and write about its economy and society.

She had suffered one previous epileptic fit in 1995 when the couple were living together in London. She was taken to the Whittington hospital in north London, kept under observation and allowed home within six hours.

The couple married the following year and had a son, Ravi, who is now two years old.

Veriah’s consultant neurologist in Britain had diagnosed her as a mild epileptic. The condition is caused by an abnormal electrical discharge in the brain, but seizures are rarely fatal.

Jacques, 55, who has engaged a barrister to represent him at the hearing, has spent months battling to get an inquest after a postmortem examination failed to ascertain the cause of death.

He said: “It was terrible what happened. The reasons for Hari’s death remain unclear. There was no reason it should have been the end.

“We had all been celebrating because Andy Hobsbawm had proposed to his girlfriend unbeknown to anyone but Hari and I, who had organised which restaurant he should take her to.

“It was 12.30am on January 1 and they were just enjoying telling his mum and dad. It was as simple as that.

“We were waiting outside a hotel. There were hordes of people and not a taxi in sight. Suddenly Hari shouted, ‘Martin, Martin’, and she had an epileptic fit.”

Jacques added: “Someone called an ambulance and took Hari to the nearest hospital. I never thought Hari would be in there for more than a few hours.

“Her consultant neurologist in Britain had described her as a mild case of epilepsy. She had three fits in her life.”

Frances Pryor, Jacques’s lawyer, said: “Martin has very grave concerns and those who have dealt with the case echo those concerns, but we have to wait and hear what is said at the inquest.”

Eric Hobsbawm, 82, emeritus professor of economic and social history at the University of London, described Veriah as “a figure of outstanding promise, suddenly cut short”.

– Maurice Chittenden