26/11/00 - The Sunday Times

A year after his young wife’s sudden death, Martin Jacques tells Margarette Driscoll he will never accept the way his life has been torn apart

The streets of Hong Kong were thronged on Millennium Eve, as its citizens ushered in the new century in style. There was no hope of getting a tram: the public transport system had ground to a halt because of the crowds. Instead, Martin Jacques and his Malaysian wife, Hari, walked well over a mile to meet some friends outside the Excelsior hotel in Causeway Bay. They arrived at midnight and saw in the new year standing outside the hotel entrance.

At about 1am, Hari, who had been unwell for just over a day, shouted: “Martin, Martin!” Jacques, a former editor of the British magazine Marxism Today, knew immediately what was happening. Hari sank to the floor, her eyes twitching wildly and her arms and legs jerking uncontrollably.

She was in the grip of an epileptic grand mal. Jacques had witnessed a previous fit in 1995 and sprang into action. He lay her flat on her side, loosened her clothing and called an ambulance.

Two days later, just after her 33rd birthday, Hari was dead. An inquest held in Hong Kong last week determined that she had died from natural causes and that the Rutonjee hospital, where she spent her final hours, did everything it could for her.

Jacques refuses to accept this verdict: he firmly believes her death was due to a combination of incompetence and racism. He says that when he visited his wife the evening before she died, he found it impossible to get a straight answer out of the duty doctor on the 41-bed ward as to who was in charge of her case or the exact treatment she was to receive.

When he expressed exasperation, Hari said: “I am the bottom of the pile here.” He asked what she meant. “I am Indian and everyone else here is Chinese,” she said simply. Jacques is convinced this is the key to why Hari died.

Grief takes people in different ways. Jacques has become haunted by Hari’s death, to the exclusion of almost everything else. A prolific writer and journalist (and former Sunday Times columnist), he intended to write a book about Asia, but the project has lain untouched. He has done virtually no work since Hari’s death. In the first few months he could not go half an hour without crying. It was two months before he could even read a newspaper article from beginning to end. The one project he has completed is a 100,000-word account of their relationship, entitled For Ravi: the story of Hari and Martin, written for his two-year-old son.

“I think about Hari all the time. I’m always aware of the disaster that’s taken place,” he says. “I am usually quite a smiley person but it is as if my face is on vertical hold rather than horizontal hold. The pain is unending. We are talking about the wreckage and devastation of one’s life.”

It is no wonder his grief is so acute. At 55, Jacques is now a single parent to a young son. He was 46 when he met Hari, then 26, and their relationship exploded like a bomb in his comfortable, middle- class London life.

Jacques met Hari in 1993 on the island of Tioman, off Malaysia, where he was on holiday with his girlfriend of 18 years. Life was full of vague discontent. He had left Marxism Today, which he had turned from an obscure rag into a must-read journal at the centre of political debate, and he was bored with Britain.

East Asia re-ignited his zest for life. He was dazzled by the energy and dynamism that was creating the Tiger economies.

Tioman, an exotic combination of beach and jungle, was a chance to chill out before coming home. Jacques went out for a run one morning when he passed a young Indian woman between some chalets nearby and said good morning.

“I don’t know why she stuck in my mind. It was not that she was extraordinarily beautiful, but there was just something about her. I can still see her, frozen in the frame of that second,” he says.

Later, as Jaqcues was setting off on a day-trip, he found she was one of the party. They got talking. The boat ride back took them through shark-infested waters. He began jokingly rocking the boat. Hari said she’d throw him to the sharks: “They like white men,” she added mischievously.

Jacques was intrigued, and captivated. It was love at first sight. “We had nothing in common,” he says. “She was very dark brown. I was white. She came from the equator, I came from the northern hemisphere. She was Hindu. I was atheist. It turned out she was a lawyer and I have never, ever been a fan of lawyers.”

One couldn’t call their brief encounter a holiday romance. Their paths crossed only for a day and he was with someone else. But he could not get Hari out of his mind. When he returned to England he sent a long fax to her office, telling her about his life.

He sent Emporio Armani silver earrings as a gift by DHL (she wore them the day they got married two years later). “From day one I entered her gravitational field and have never left it, even now,” he says.

Their courtship initially consisted of furtive telephone calls, mixed messages and missed opportunities. The cultural gulf between them was enormous. Hari was unsure how to treat this ardent Englishman. Jacques contrived a trip to Hong Kong to interview Chris Patten, then governor, and popped over to Kuala Lumpur.

Hari was chaperoned by a male friend. Jacques assumed he was her boyfriend and returned to Hong Kong disappointed. His hopes were revived in what he thought would be a last phone call to thank her for her hospitality. Hari said she missed him. They met again in Hong Kong that December and matters were settled.

Hari arrived in London in September, 1994. Her family was against the match. Jacques’s friends no doubt saw his young girlfriend as a sign of a mid-life crisis. But for Jacques, their relationship was a revelation. For the first time he felt himself truly in love.

He began to see his own country anew, through her eyes. Hari had never travelled outside the Malay archipelago and she was fascinated by London’s ancient buildings. Apart from the colonial houses, nothing in Kuala Lumpur dated beyond the 1950s. “She’d never seen the seasons,” says Jacques. “In Malaysia it is dark at 7pm every day of the year and the leaves never fall from the trees.” Hari was the daughter of Karam Singh, the youngest MP in Malaysia’s history. As such, she slipped into London’s intellectual, savvy crowd with remarkable aplomb. Yet Hari’s life was far from privileged. She lost her mother at six and was brought up by aunts and uncles. Her father was rarely around and they had very little money. As an adult she lived with her sister. Her mansion flat with Jacques overlooking Hampstead Heath was her first true home.

Jacques didn’t know Hari was epileptic; neither did she. A year after she arrived in London she had her first grand mal as they were preparing lunch in the kitchen. ” I said something. She didn’t reply. Her eyes were glazed over and she began to sink to the floor,” says Jacques.

A moment later she had convulsions. A neurologist diagnosed epilepsy. Though it was her first fit, it turned out that she had suffered from “absences” – a momentary loss of consciousness – in Malaysia, a classic sign of epilepsy. Jacques witnessed one such incident one evening when they had gone out to dinner. Hari dropped her wine glass.

In the summer of 1998, when Hari was already pregnant, Lovells, the international law firm she worked for, suggested a three-year secondment to Hong Kong. The new family (Ravi was nine weeks old) moved there in November; “She had moved halfway around the world for me, and it seemed natural to do the same for her.”

From the start, things did not go well. Hari failed a crucial exam for the Hong Kong bar (she passed the following year, but the results came too late for her to know). She was unhappy in the office. And for the first time, race became a real problem for her.

She had experienced racism in London, but it was low-key, rarely in-your-face, as it was in Chinese-dominated Hong Kong. Jacques was shocked once night at dinner to hear Hari tell friends she felt discriminated against “everywhere, most of the time”.

“I asked what she meant,” says Jacques. “She said, ‘In shops I don’t get served. I have to wait. If someone Chinese comes in they get served before me. In restaurants the waiter doesn’t come over unless I make a fuss.’ It came as a shock. Hari never usually complained.”

In Rutonjee hospital, on the morning of January 2, her system already weakened by over two days of chronic diarrhoea, Hari had a second fit and was given diazepam, a sedative. Epileptic fits supress breathing. So does diazepem, says Jacques. Did the combination of the two prove fatal?

In a British hospital her condition would have been closely monitored and an antidote or assisted ventilation given as soon as her oxygen levels began to fall. At Rutonjee, according to Jacques, nothing was done until it was too late.

Jacques arrived at the hospital after being telephoned about the second fit to find Hari unconscious, wearing an oxygen mask with two nurses by her bed. No doctor was present. Two minutes later a monitor began to sound an alarm and Jacques was shoved aside as a doctor arrived to resuscitate her using heart massage, shock treatment and drugs. More doctors came to help, but it was no use.

At first, he did not suspect anything was amiss. But when Hari’s medical records were sent to her consultant in London, the consultant said that she had not died of epilepsy. Jacques then set about trying to find out the truth and sought the opinion of other experts. Her employers, Lovells, have been very supportive, he says.

In legal terms, his trouble has got him nowhere. He hoped for a verdict of accidental death with recommendations on future care of patients at Rutonjee. Instead, after five days of evidence from both sides, the verdict was death by natural causes, and not so much as a rap over the knuckles for the hospital.

Nobody will ever know the truth about exactly why Hari died. It may have simply been a random, cruel trick of fate that could have happened anywhere. Her mother died around the same age in Malaysia from unknown causes, but Jacques insists that there is no connection.

The inquest has opened up an unexpected debate in Hong Kong, a colonial city where the superiority of one race over another is built into its very structure.

“I’ve been fighting a huge battle in a city that doesn’t even recognise racism happens,” says Jacques. “Now newspapers and television have taken up the cause I find myself in the odd position of having lost the legal argument while winning the public debate.”

Was racism a factor in her death? Jacques remains convinced it was. “If Hari said it, I’m 150% certain it’s true.” In the coroner’s view, she died of Sudep (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy). “I hoped for justice but I didn’t get it,” says Jacques.

He has decided to leave Hong Kong and bring his son back to London. There are just the two of them now. Every evening they go out together. They take the Star ferry to Kowloon side, where there is a play area, or ride the tram up to the Peak and walk round, looking down on Hong Kong.

“He is not the same little boy. There is a sadness about him that never used to be,” says Jacques. On a visit to London in the summer Ravi went to hospital for a check-up. “‘Mummy’s here,’ he said. We talk about Hari every day, but never about the hospital,” says Jacques. “He must have kept that memory of her.”

Jacques’s intense grief has made life as a single parent hard to cope with. “For the first couple of months after Hari’s death I could hardly bear to look at Ravi. He intensified my pain. When I looked at him, I saw Hari. Now that is subsiding. When I look at Ravi, I see Ravi, but with Hari behind him.

“I’ll take care of Ravi because I love him, and for Hari,” he says. But at 55 life as a single parent is a daunting prospect. The magic Hari unexpectedly brought into his life has been snatched away. He must face the future alone.

– Margarette Driscoll