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The public perception and the private perception on an individual may be very different and even contradictory in many cases. But there are few intellectuals and social activists who have passed this test to the extent they can, within the limits of the historical time they have survived. C. Unniraja perhaps belonged to such a small community of people, being remembered for his writings, talks, simplicity and his humility to his fellow human beings. Here is a sketch on C. Unniraja, by his daughter Sharada Mohanty.

As a leader and an initiator of the Communist Party of  India in Kerala, C. Unniraja was a theoretician, writer, orator and editor who inspired not just the communists but also many outside the communist movement. He was a member of the National Council of CPI. Considered as one of the main theoreticians of CPI, comrade Unniraja headed the educational cell of the Communist Party of India. He was also the Asian Editor of the World Marxist Review, published from Prague, Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1972. Being an eye witness to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet Union, he voted against it in the national council of CPI. In later years, he was censored by the party for taking pro environment stand on several contemporary issues.

When many communists within the mainstream parties took a position against India’s prestigious struggle against Silent Valley movement, comrade C. Unniraja was with the struggle. When many communists within the parties took a `pro-nuclear energy’ stand, comrade C. Unniraja was with the anti-nuclear struggle. Comrade C. Unniraja also took a public stand in support of the Narmada movement against the destruction of environment as well as displacement of Adivasis and farmers in the valley, when both CPI and CPI(M) were struggling to ignore the issue. His qualities have been many. Nevertheless, in this crucial times of history, it is time to hope for such individuals within the communist parties in India. In memory of Comrade C. Unniraja…

  • Countercurrents Team

My Father – C. Unni Raja

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A lot has been written about my father C. Unniraja in the past 20 years. He was a well known communist leader, a prominent Marxist theoretician, a famous journalist and writer, an excellent orator and so on.  But in this short write up I want to sketch a picture of him as a father, as a down-to-earth human being, as a person that made a big difference in my life and my brothers’ lives… I cannot talk about my father without mentioning my mother. She was his strength and support and the love of his life.  They had a big rapport between them which gave us a secure nourishing family to grow up in. My mother’s early death shattered my father completely. She was in charge of the household and all her life she gave him the support and the freedom to pursue his dreams.

My name is Sharada Mohanty. I’m C. Unniraja’s eldest and only daughter. I would be exaggerating a bit if I say that I was my father’s “princess” – a common term for father-daughter relationship. He was kind and loving to all his children. So can I write about my father from a daughter’s perspective?  My perspective on him is probably shared by a lot of people that knew him. He was this soft spoken approachable sweet man who did not have any airs about himself, who never hurt a fly knowingly. He knew a lot, read a lot, wrote a lot and he believed a lot in the goodness of human beings. He never talked ill of anybody, he never raised his voice at anyone and his needs were small… He was happy and content with the minimum of material things. In a world where greed is the predominant feature in humans, my father was a rare exception. That’s probably why he chose to be a communist.

When I was young my mother used to tell me that I looked exactly like my father. In fact people have walked up to me and asked me whether I was Unni Raja’s daughter even without knowing me. And I have always been proud of that… My father was a good looking man in his younger days – tall, fair and distinct. So being told that I look like him has always been a compliment. And on top of that he was a true gentleman. So people easily fell for his quiet charm.

I was named after my father’s sister who passed away sadly when she was young because of a heart condition that had no treatment at that time. So I have always wondered why he named me after my aunt who died at an early age…  It used to bother me then and it puzzles me now. Would I have named my daughter after a sister who died young? I don’t know… I guess it’ll remain a mystery because I never asked my father about it.

C.Unni raja had a big influence on me and my brothers to say the least. A lot of us in our generation were and still are very idealistic and Dad was the perfect person to adore and follow. He was a true role model for us.  He was an idealist to the core. He sincerely believed in equality and justice for every human being in his or her pursuit of happiness . He was ready to work tirelessly for his ideals. He never wanted any power or position for himself in return. So what is there not to admire about him? He was the man that we all looked up to…

It’s not just me and my brothers and my cousins that looked up to him.  Nowadays every kid wants to be a doctor or an engineer. But in those days many of the idealistic youth wanted to be writers or journalists. They often dreamt of starting a magazine or a newspaper when they graduated from college. Many of those young people used to approach my father requesting him to contribute an article in their magazine. How much ever busy he was, my father will find time to write something interesting for their publication. He wanted them to succeed in what they were doing. He was a true mentor to many people in the Party and outside.

I studied in the former Soviet Union. Thanks to my father I got the best education that I could have ever received.  Moscow was a paradise for learning at that time. In the university we learnt not just the relevant subjects in each specialization but also literature, history, music, art and culture. I think that the right to good health care and the right to education are two of the most fundamental rights of human beings. Living in the United States I now realize the value of the education that I received in former Soviet Union.  We had access to the best teachers, libraries, hostels – all free of cost. How can you beat that? Right now I spend a major part of our family income on my daughter’s education and I cannot say that it’s much superior to the education that I and my fellow students received in Moscow. It was not just the education but the overall experience of living in the Soviet Union for 6 years that has made me a better smarter human being. And I owe it all to my Dad. I know that it was one of the few favors that my father asked from the Party. And I’m eternally grateful to him for that.

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Achan was a good listener. I could tell my father everything – about my travels, about my friends , teachers, the little arguments with my cousins, the problems at work and so on. At times he’ll tell me that I shouldn’t look at things only from my point of view.  A lot of times he would just listen. I miss that so much. When I get into an argument with my teenage daughter and when she tells that I do not listen to her, I suddenly remember my father. It’s a great quality in parents to listen to their children. Instead we try to make them do what we want them to do forgetting that they are individuals with their own minds and dreams and aspirations in life. My father gave my brothers and me the freedom to choose our lives – good or bad. It is an extraordinary quality especially for his generation.

My father was away a lot when we were growing up…  It was a treat when he came home from his travels. He never used to ask us what we did in school and what grades we got in tests but he would always discuss with us the books that we read. When he comes back from these trips he used to bring us books and magazines and of course some sweets. His favorite goodies were peanut candies or jujibs. I don’t know whether they even sell those things in India anymore… And we used to eagerly wait for him to come home. Life was good when he was home. My mother was less irritated with us when my father was at home.

Thinking back I realize that Achan used to read all kinds of books, not just Marxism or politics. When he is travelling he loves to read easy fun novels starting from Harold Robbins and Arthur Hailey to Isaac Asimov. For someone with very limited income he used to spend a lot of money on books. My mother used to complain about it sometimes. He used to subscribe to Phantom and Mandrake comics for us. I remember coming back from school and before we do anything else rushing to go thru the mail to see whether there were any comics in mail that day. And after we read them Achan used to get them bound into volumes that we could read again and again. We had a huge library at home. There were so many bound volumes of all the Onam Specials of Janayugom and other publications. There was never a shortage of stuff to read.

Achan was a generous man. At school most of my friends came from well-to-do families. Their parents were doctors or IAS officers. Once at school they asked us all to donate some books to the school library. Everybody else brought ordinary story books that they picked up the day before at a bookstore. And Achan gave me this set of books on science – beautifully written and illustrated. I still remember the excitement in my class when I took out the books to donate. The whole class wanted to look at them first. I felt very proud that day. Every year on the last day of school Achan used to take me to Trichur and drop me off at my grandma’s place for summer. I had a wonderful childhood thanks to my summer holidays at Chittanjore. And he used to return a week before the school reopens to take me back to TVM. As a kid I used to look forward to both those events with a lot excitement.

Achan had an excellent memory and was meticulously organized in his thoughts. He never used to go unprepared to any speaking event. One incident stands out in my memory. There was a function to meet some Soviet dignitaries held at Mascot Hotel and Achan was the key speaker. After the formal introductions he got up to speak. And he stood there in front of the microphone without saying a word for a couple of minutes. The organizers started getting nervous and I even started worrying whether he forgot his speech. Everybody was in full attention by the time he started to speak and Achan gave an excellent speech and people were in awe at the end of it. I read later somewhere that good orators do not start speaking as soon they are introduced. They wait a little bit to get the attention of the full audience. And that’s what he did – grab the audience even before he started.

This is a rare known fact about my father – he was a true “foodie”. He loved good food. When he was in Prague he used to try all the local dishes and encouraged us to do the same. Since he was a broadminded, progressive man he was open to trying out a lot of new things in life. Even though he grew up as a vegetarian, he started eating meat and fish after he got married. My mother couldn’t survive a day without fish curry. And slowly my father got used the food that she cooked. Achan was a good cook too. On weekends my mother and he will decide to make something special and invite my friends or my brothers’ friends for lunch. He enjoyed standing with my Mom in the kitchen and helping her with little things. They were a good team.

Our good life came to a sudden stop when my mother fell ill. My mother, known as comrade Radhamma, was also a vibrant leader of the Communist Party of India. My father and my mother used to address each other as comrades. She was also the backbone of the family. I was away in Moscow and my brothers were still very young to deal with it. My father was heartbroken and totally at a loss. He was a man of few words and didn’t know how to show his support and affection to her when Amma was going thru the terrible illness. I started seeing him differently.  Even the most perfect person has his or her weaknesses. My mother was very supportive of him but when she was sick, Achan couldn’t show his support and sympathy. Not because he did not care. He did not know how to.  I guess that’s the difference between a man and a woman. And thinking back it makes me very sad that my mother did not get the attention and affection that she deserved in her last days… Until her last day she was taking care of things at home.

The only other thing that made me sad about my father was his inability to quit smoking. Once I asked him why he can’t quit the habit. He told me that it’s not easy and that it’s not his fault but his generation’s fault. He knew how crucial it was to quit the habit but he did not know how to. Now years of research point to the fact that nicotine is addictive and people need more than just willpower to quit smoking.  How I wish he had stopped it early… He could’ve led a better healthier life in his last years…

To sum it up, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything else in this world. My parents worked hard to give us the best and I’m lucky to have been born to them. Unni Raja was a great man – one of the best human beings I have ever known. I have heard people refer to my father as indifferent, out of touch with reality or a dreamer. I think it’s relevant to quote Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University who says, “We will never have a perfect world but it’s not romantic or naïve to work towards a better one”.  And that’s what he sincerely dedicated his whole life to – working towards a better world. Unfortunately there can never be another Unni Raja. Yet the world needs more and more people like him – dedicated, principled, compassionate, intelligent…

Sharada Mohanty is C. Unniraja’s daughter, studied at the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University in Moscow. She now lives in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.

3 Comments

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Informative write up on the life of Unniraja. His contribution, his habits and character have been discussed affectionately . These are lesser known facts about him. His contribution to communist movement is commendable . His works must serve as an inspiration to future generations

  2. Pritam Singh says:

    A wonderful tribute from a daughter to a communist father where she does not hesitate to also mention minor criticism of him. It also has good observations on the Soviet Union which sometimes get ignored in many criticisms of Stalinism. However damaged socialism was under Stalinist and post-Stalinist regimes, it also demonstrated the positive dimensions of a non-capitalist organsation of society especially in the spheres of education and health.

  3. Read the memoir with mixed feelings which took me back. I’ve known Com.Unniraja as a friend of my Father.Later in life his sons became my friends. In that way my Mother too had stories memories about Com.Radhamma and her daughter Saradakutty.
    What a legacy.Sharmaji,Dr. Thankam and Dr.Thampayi to Justice Rajan.on one side Com.Sankaranarayanan Thampi,Subhadramma,Chadayammuri,..onnthe other.
    This piece is a valuable tribute to a great thinker and humanist