Following the sudden death of his dear ally and colleague, Ajit Sat-Bhambra mourns the loss of a true humanitarian
‘April is the cruellest month’, according to T.S. Eliot’s famous opening line to The Waste Land. He is right. There is so much truth in this notion that the coming of spring, with all the renewed life it promises, can bebrutal to those in despair, or suffering the loss of a loved one.
In particular, April 10 is a date I will always remember with sadness. On that day three years ago David Watts, then editor of this magazine, passed away. I was very fond of David and his death hit me hard.
Then, on the same date this year, I received the shattering news that Tom Deegan, a longtime colleague and contributor to Asian Affairs, as well as a dear friend for nearly 30 years, had died at his home in London. Although Tom had felt unwell in the weeks beforehand, such a sudden end was the last thing I expected.We had recently spent some time together in India, planning various writing and other projects, and the future was something we were both looking forward to.
There is so much to say about Tom that I barely know where or how to begin. Insome ways,he was a man of contradictions. A passionate advocate of free speech, human rights and more just social systems, he was very open – not to mention vocal – in his views. He could be frank almost to a fault but never brutally so – his bluntness was always intended to get to the heart of a matter with honesty and fairness.
Yet his private life was something of a closed book. When it came to personal matters, Tom was more of a listener than a talker. I could confide anything to him – and often did – in the knowledge that he would lend a sympathetic ear, offering advice when needed and always showing the utmost discretion. But he did not readily divulge aspects of his ownprivate life and it took all thelong years of ourfriendship for me to reallyget to know him.
Tom and I met through a mutual acquaintance in 1992 and I was immediately drawn to his decency and intelligence. We exchanged numbers but, unsure whether he would call me, I rang him and we arranged to meet over a drink to discuss a work project I had in mind.
So began a business relationship that quickly evolved into something deeper. From the start, Tom’s interest in literature and politics, especially South Asian issues, led us to develop a strong bond.
As someone who enjoyed reading, Tom felt that a number of good books never reached the readership they deserved due to the fiercely competitive nature of publishing and the rise of so-called ‘vanity publishers’, who charged would-be authors large fees to print their work, but with no interest in marketing it. As a result, he establishedhis own small publishing house and wrote a book entitled The Truth AboutVanity Publishing. Impressed by his ideas, I became involved in the business, printing several titles.
We also undertook otherliterary projects together, including– during an enjoyable stay in Bangkok –the translation and editing of two works by the writer Mohammed Amir Rana,Gateway to Terrorism and its sequel, The Seeds of Terrorism.
Being so often in such close proximity, we naturally developed a robust camaraderie, talking, laughing and bickering in equal measure. I came to look on Tom as a family member: he was like a brother who shared my interests and outlook on life, who understood my problems. Such was his sensitivity and perceptiveness, I sometimes had the uncanny feeling that hewas right inside my head.
Tom’s curiosity about the world around him, his love of travel and learning about other cultures, stemmed from his daysservingin the merchant navyas a young man. He spoke passable Spanish and even managed a few words in Urdu, though with an Irish accent!
Besides writing for Asian Affairs, Tom also played a key role in our sister organisation, The Democracy Forum, since its inception in 2009. He attended meetings, cultivated important contacts and proposed various ideas for seminars and debates. He was always well informed in his views about a range of issues, and his involvement in both the Forum and the magazine further expanded his interest in the politics and societies of South Asia.
As in any small organisation, Asian Affairs and TDF enjoyed something of a family atmosphere. Tom was very much a mainstay of that family, and there is now a great void, almost as if a beloved parent or sibling has passed on.
It has taken me some time to sit down and write these words, as I still feel a profound sense of shock and disbelief that Tom is no longer here. It is not that he died especially young; nor was he always in the rudest of health, having developed type 2 diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
What is so difficult to digest is simply his absence; the fact that the decency that defined him, his passion, humanity and generosity of spirit, those quirky habits we all came to know and love, have now vanished from the world.
But maybe that is not so. Surely someone who leaves such a deep yet gentle imprint on life as Tom Deegan did, never really goes away. For his family in Ireland and London, and for all of us at the magazine who cared for him, as well as his many friends, his mark is indelible.
We miss you, Tom. You will be an incalculable loss to this magazine, the Forum and the people to whom you showed kindness through the years. But in the end, you will be missed most of all, not for what you did, but for who you were.