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Traveller with a mission


THIS IS the story of a much-travelled Englishman my family and I knew, someone who visited us on and off during the 1990s. He was in his thirties then, handsome, well-read and articulate, prone to acts of kindness towards all around him.

My early memories of Charles Goschen are of those of an unusually tall man, almost doubling up with mirth at the recollection of an incident at the Chennai secretariat. This was some eight years ago. Charles had gone to Fort St. George in search of records of his greatuncle Lord Goschen, who had been Governor of Madras. Unimpressed by his curiosity, the clerk at the counter had told him not to waste her time with frivolous requests.

Charles was at the time writing a novel, one of three he wrote, I was to learn later, but never published. He moved to Pondicherry to continue his work there, but was still an occasional visitor at home.

Smiling, laughing, easygoing, a great fan of the cartoon serial 'The Simpsons', which he enjoyed in the company of my son, then about ten years old, Charles was equally at home discussing Montessori with my schoolmarm sister-in-law, film criticism with my journalist wife, or cricket with me and my son. He was a sensitive listener and we knew that underneath that cheerful exterior was a heart that cared for the underprivileged of the world. If he found India hugely amusing - there were always little incidents to have a roaring laugh about - he also had great admiration for the resilience and smiling ways of her poor.

I did not know then that Charles Goschen had fought the ravages of epilepsy since boyhood. His sister Caroline wrote to us recently: "Charles was born on 17 August 1958 in Rhodesia. My parents farmed just outside a small town called Rusape and Charles and I had a magical childhood with lots of animals, space and freedom."

Until 15, life had been a song for Charles. He had joined High School in Salisbury a year ahead of his age group. According to his father: "He achieved record distinctions at O level. At that time people were saying that it wasn't fair that Charles had everything, looks, brains and charm".

The epilepsy started when he was 15 as petit mal and affected his work, though he passed his A levels ahead of his friends. After a year's National Service, he went to the University of Cape Town to do civil engineering. The grand mal seizures started there and he had to leave.

He joined a firm of stockbrokers in Johannesburg but a seizure he suffered on the trading floor made him quit. He also had two minor car accidents and decided he could not drive and risk other people's lives.

Charles decided to try a completely different climate in the West Indies, beginning his novel writing efforts there. He taught English in Ecuador and started a fund there for a native girl's heart surgery, with a considerable donation of his own. He trekked to the source of the Amazon, to the southernmost tip of South America, and generally did a great deal of travelling.

"I think during this part of his life he abandoned thoughts of money-making and, whilst he had never despised the poor," says his father.

According to his sister, "Charles' life was a constant roller coaster of thinking he could control his epilepsy, followed by times when nothing he did made any difference and he had seizure after seizure. But he never gave up".

When Charles announced his decision to move to Srinagar, I was surprised because I had always believed him to be a south Indian at heart, though an Englishman by birth, born and brought up in Zimbabwe. It was much later that I learnt that Kashmir indeed had been his window to India when he first visited there with a friend years ago.

This second visit to the valley was to prove momentous. After seeing a cow's carcass floating on the Dal Lake, Charles launched what has now become famous as the Green Kashmir movement, beginning with distributing wicker baskets to shopkeepers for them to deposit their rubbish. He also wrote a regular column "Environment Watch" in the local newspaper, gave talks to school children and generally raised the level of awareness about pollution.

The "Green Kashmir Conservation Trust" which Charles set up received a grant from the local government, with which he extended the scheme, using shikaras to collect rubbish from other houseboats and other parts of the city.

All this resulted in a noticeable improvement in the ecology of the lake by 1998, and GK drew much media attention. BBC has telecast programmes on the project and several newspaper articles have been published on it.

1999 was a bad year for Charles. On a visit to South Africa, he had taken his internationally known wine maker brother John's wife and children to the beach, when they received news of John's death by electrocution. Six months later, his mother died.

His epilepsy once again went out of control. A bout of malaria in South Africa was followed by a broken leg while back in Kashmir.

When Charles went to South Africa to recuperate, his father took him to an old family doctor and soon his epilepsy was responding to treatment. He started swimming regularly to strengthen his injured leg.

On the morning of January 31, 2000, Charles Goschen was found dead in a swimming pool.

"John's wife said at his memorial service that she thought of him as being a travelling man and that he was just off on another one of his travels", writes Caroline. That is how most of his friends would like to think of Charles Goschen's passing.

V. RAMNARAYAN

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