Obituary: Tarzie Vittachi
Tuesday 19 October 1993
HOW WOULD Tarzie Vittachi have wanted his obituary to be written? Surely, in a way that reflected the journalistic values that he lived by, passed on to others and fought for all his life, first as a newspaper editor in Sri Lanka, then as a great teacher of journalists in India and Asia, later as an effective columnist for Newsweek, and finally as a passionate publicist for Unicef and the cause of humanitarian action throughout the world.
Those values included clear and simple writing, intellectual honesty in argument, an absence of humbug or sanctimoniousness, and the use of the story to press home and to humanise the argument. Vittachi talked and wrote in parables, drawn from a huge range of personal friendships around the world, a love of story-telling, and a retentive memory for the incidents of life and living that came his way. This resulted in a style that was light in tone even when it was deadly serious in content. Some may have underestimated the impact of his writings because of the deliberate absence of easy posturing, but that did not reduce his real effectiveness.
Vittachi was an international journalist in a way that very few are. He started as editor of the Ceylon Daily News in the 1950s and set out on his journalistic career as he continued it; by defying the government of the time - Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike's - and nearly paying for his defiance with his freedom. He set about transmitting his values at the International Press Institute in Kuala Lumpur, then at the Asia Press Foundation in Manila. When he moved to London in the mid-1960s, his concern continued to be with the provision of high-quality journalistic material to Third World newspapers. Finally, he wrote a regular column from New York, literally boxing the global journalistic compass as a result.
Vittachi was an instinctive teacher, not in the sense of lecturing from a position of personal superiority, but in the sense that he desperately wanted to share what he had experienced, and because he felt, almost in a moral sense, that time should not be wasted. It was not that he had deep presentiments of mortality - he was almost hedonistic in his open enjoyment of the pleasures of life - but he believed that meeting friends was so precious that the occasion should be used to the full.
Vittachi knew of the dangers that went with fearless journalism especially in the Third World and he knew of them at first hand. As a result he fought privately and publicly for fellow journalists around the world who were gagged, intimidated or imprisoned. His support for Indonesian journalists such as Mochtar Lubis or Rosihan Anwar who suffered under the Sukarno regime was deep, constant and ultimately effective.
If you can tell a journalist by the company that he keeps, then Vittachi's was of the highest quality. Asian editors such as Oran Chopra and NJ Nanporia, British journalists such as Jim Rose and Harold Evans, these formed a kind of Praetorian Guard of like-minded enthusiasts whom Vittachi regularly involved in his projects.
In his column in Newsweek, Vittachi achieved something that few others managed in their writings about the Third World. He made a case without special pleading, without self-pity, avoiding that easy tone of moral superiority into which so many other writers on the subject lapse.
But there was one other element in his writing that influenced the others and bound them into a voice with its own distinction - his deep spirituality, springing from his membership of the Subud Community. Tarzie Vittachi talked more about religion than anyone else I know, and it influenced his entire approach to work and life. But he carried it lightly and with joy. It was integral to his thought, his behaviour and to his outlook. He travelled voraciously, he linked people and ideas, and he did so without thought of private aggrandisement or personal vanity. He was warm, he was loving, and he was funny. That was why he could be so deeply serious as well.
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