To a man who saw with child's eyes
Ram Ray, one of the last remaining titans of Indian advertising passed away on November 12, 2019
It was January 24, 2019, a few days before his last birthday on this planet. My phone rang, displaying his beatific, cherub face, and I knew Ram Ray was back in Bangkok.
I first met Ram in Bangkok in 1998 — and then several times again. Bangkok was his favourite city. And like everything else in Ram's life, this visit too was meticulously planned, always in the same sequence. I would receive a message asking if I could recommend any decent serviced apartments and new restaurants. I would send him a list. And then, as always, Ram would ignore all the correspondence and enjoy Bangkok as he always had, whimsically.
One of those days, feeling a little out of sorts, he visited a doctor, who performed various checks requiring, unfortunately, several long hours. To Ram, it was almost intolerable, exacerbated by the fact that none of the Thai nurses around him seemed to understand either his English or Bengali.
I only remember him asking, right in the middle of a test, "Can we go back to Kolkata now?"
Many of today's advertising industry puppies and hounds would not have heard of Ram Ray. If they had, they would not understand why he was so beloved and yet so much larger than life to those who knew him. I have known him for over three decades and yet have no memory of how he came into my life —or stayed, becoming close friend, confidante, fellow traveller, and often, mentor.
I remember sharing a lift with him in my early 30s when he was already a board member of J Walter Thompson, the advertising agency he led most of his life, in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, San Francisco and elsewhere. The lift was barely big enough for the two of us. He did not know me and back then I only knew that he was considered a legend.
Three decades later, now, I know what made Ram unrepeatable.
In a world where our strings are pulled daily by liars and manipulators, where subversion, distortion and mind-games permeate political life, business, religion and daily discourse, Ram Ray had a quality rarely found today: integrity.
Samit Sinha, a colleague of Ram's, faced a dilemma once. One of his biggest clients had made a pass at an agency employee. What was the right thing to do — stand up for the employee and sack the client or just pretend all was well? Ram's advice to Samit was succinct: "Business is important. But human dignity is more important."
Ajit Varma, who worked with Ram when he was breathing life back into Bates Clarion advertising, remembers a meeting with a client who was gaming them while having decided to shift his business elsewhere. When the truth suddenly dawned on Ram, he brought his two large hands down on the table with a loud bang so forceful that the table jumped and all conversation ended. Ram stood up, wished the client good day and left with his team.
That level of truth-telling requires both the ability to see what is going on and then to call it out. It's the honesty of the child who sees the emperor's nudity. There was a moment when I realised that that was what made Ram special.
He had never lost touch with the child within.
He paid attention like a child, fascinated by everything. I never saw him in a rush or impatient. He moved through life with the unhurried playfulness of a cruising dolphin. He loved typography and dove deep into its details. The science and lore of food, wines, and cheeses riveted him, as did culture, heritage and the greatness of others. He loved detail, on everything, as much as he could get.
When I wrote my first novel, Ram hosted an event for me at the Bengal Club. But what moved me was the mural-sized poster at the entrance, meticulously designed by Ram himself, down to the typography.
In 2011, Ram was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame, and again in 2013, by the Advertising Club Calcutta.
Ram passed away on November 12, 2019. His daughter Rashi told me I had been the last of his close friends to have seen him alive, even though he had stayed in touch with everyone else through his iPhone. After returning from Bangkok, he had become more private, spending time with his family and a few close friends.
Original to the end, Ram had given clear instructions that he was to be buried, not cremated. The same evening, his body was taken to Kolkata's Topsia Hindu Burial Ground, where he rests now.
In Hinduism, only babies, children and saints, believed to be pure and unattached to their bodies, are allowed to be buried. My dearest friend Ram, who never stopped seeing the world through a child's eyes, is at peace now in a graveyard surrounded by children.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at email@example.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.
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