Heartbroken and desolate, in this most difficult of all passages to write, I lament the bitter loss of Michael Bhatia. I offer a personal testament in tribute to an acclaimed man of letters and man of action. The inexpressible friendship we shared is engraved in my experience of Brown and of far-flung reaches where profound human events marked us indelibly.
Idealist and Realist
I quickly dubbed him “Bhatia,” which he countered with “Chopra”, a familiarity that stuck. He arrived as an undergraduate struck by lightning, a bolt that determined his knowledge of what he wanted to do, whatever form it might finally take. Rarely is gravitas located in youth, yet here it was; not wrapped in cynicism, as it invariably is, but grounded in boundless optimism and endless possibilities. In Bhatia, a firm moral compass matched a sense of humor, good fun, and enjoyment of life, while an insatiable curiosity explored the myriad richness of intellectual thought, distant shores, and interesting acquaintances. He had long since embarked on what he labeled his “vision quest.”
Durable qualities would be critical ingredients of survival later on when, after beholding terrible scenes in troubled spots, he could re-center on what “goodness”, however limited, may mean and answer for himself the question “how to be?” His clarity of purpose and struggle to find meaning in life kept him balanced through turbulence.
For Bhatia, the world remained always a magical place, even when it was deplorable as well, and through that magic he generated opportunities—opportunities precisely for mitigating what was dreadful. It is difficult to perceive the full extent of a big picture or to possess the creative imagination for big ideas without being a romantic and an idealist. It entails, additionally, a particular, virtually transcendental, capability to translate and transform dreams and ideals into real and tangible actions, and Bhatia was always engaged in the serious business of bridging these two realms. It is harder still to achieve effectiveness in practice without being crushed by the forces of pessimism that, in public as in private affairs, render good intentions into mere camouflage for specific interests. Reconciling this tension is what it takes to balance the two parallel careers of letters and action—one that permits no compromise and one that demands it. He was succeeding, for he never succumbed to the relentless mores of an anonymous kind of “professionalism” that sacrifices social relations and personal loyalty.
One day I admired a picture amid the physical trappings of Bhatia’s cherished inspirations. Without hesitation he presented to me the framed portrait of Lawrence of Arabia gazing into one of his own quotations: “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” Indeed, Bhatia had the makings of a most dangerous man.
Out of a mix of cultures, with intercontinental families and transnational identities, like me Bhatia was hard-wired philosophically, psychologically, and ideologically to be an internationalist. It meant living and working in countless places, taking comfort as an outsider to belong everywhere, and caring deeply about the particular because in it is the universal. Bhatia epitomized the ancient Vedic pronouncement Tat Tvam Asi: That Thou Art—the belief that to damage the other is to damage the self, for they are one and the same. Anywhere I ever went with him he displayed a reflexive instinct to protect.
Once in East Timor, the militia undertaking the methodical village-by-village destruction of the country set alight a house before us. Automatically, Bhatia disappeared behind a bush, and before I could follow I saw him next with a bucket of water dousing the flames. The exploit was captured by the press, who shot footage beamed around the globe before they too joined other villagers battling the blaze. The compassionate impulse was not without a cost: as we followed a dirt path leading away from the smoldering ashes, the militia confronted us, delivering blows that Bhatia would later dismiss as soft, pudgy slaps.
On another infamous occasion, during the retreat of the U.N. that promised it would not, 2,000 Timorese who had helped convene a referendum and were targeted, gathered next to the headquarters compound. In the darkness suddenly, tracer bullets were fired into their midst, whizzing streaks of light to add to the terror. In the panic, Bhatia and I knew that the bureaucratic response would be to keep the locals out. I rushed to a blue gate separating the two sides to force it open while blue shirts tried to close it. A few paces away under a high wall topped with razor wire, Bhatia caught children tossed over by their parents and disentangled those dangling in the air. The acts were immortalized by fictional characters in the feature film Answered by Fire, but behind the scenes was the rest of the night spent by Bhatia tending to each of the families, sharing with them food and water and administering first aid.
oming to terms with the enormity of desparate situations, we found refuge in the notion of “senseless kindness,” as articulated in Life and Fate, the magnum opus of the Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman, who was horrified by the march he covered from the battle of Stalingrad to the fall of Berlin. Senseless acts of kindness toward a soul that may even have done you harm seemed to be the only means of subverting overwhelming evil. In seemingly insignificant gestures incapable of altering the course of events was the very power of a goodness that balanced the odds. Bhatia’s accomplishments aside, without his senseless kindness, we are now in a colder and darker place.
However long someone lives, a life is ridiculously brief. At the moment of my own father’s death five years ago, I was beset by the feeling that we are here only long enough to be tested, as if in a cosmic laboratory. We cannot seem to alter the circumstances; we can only choose how we behave in them. That choice, though, seems to make all the difference.
At Brown, Bhatia endeavored to serve at the conceptual and actual frontiers of what might have become an internationalist order. Between the end of the Cold War and the start of another one, he was studying international relations at a historic time of grand experimentation in the business of making peace. In those “inter-war years,” Bhatia actively began his dual career of publishing and operating in the field, the field at that juncture being Western Sahara.
In his junior year, he organized and accompanied an aid convoy heading from London to the Sahrawi refugee camps in southwestern Algeria. As an intern at the United Nations in Geneva, his proposals for the protection of an entire population during its repatriation—a key feature of the region’s peace plan—were circulated to the negotiators of the process for consideration and adoption. On his return, he addressed the issue before the Fourth Committee of the U.N. General Assembly. Then he wrote about it, in articles and for his senior thesis.
Bhatia discovered that the peacekeeping field and humanitarian enterprise were concrete paradigms and vehicles for what he had the urge to do. He also recognized that a new type of career path was coming into being. Jobs which had been anomalous deviations from the norm were proliferating and increasingly accessible, and he believed the route to them should be institutionalized for his classmates. He joined a group of pioneers that founded Outposts, a student organization dedicated to direct, individual participation in the international system. Any step forward Bhatia took, he kept open the door behind him for others to follow.
In May 1999, in my capacity then as director of the Watson Institute’s international relations program, I had the unique honor and special pleasure at a moving ceremony to present Bhatia with his degree and seal with a handshake an eternal bond. On the distinguished grounds of the John Brown House, he was graduating, not only as a Bachelor of Arts but with a well-developed calling.
That summer his baptism under fire was nothing less than the fall of Dili and a conflagration throughout East Timor. It would be a painful hour of trial for us both. He was mostly fearless, but in times of fear, Bhatia proved truly courageous, and this impressed me, however well I knew him. I find that only a few act with benevolence under any set of conditions, just as only a few act always with malevolence; for the majority the distinction depends on how much pressure they are under. Bhatia’s sincerity under the gun put seasoned veterans to shame. Some attributes are not a matter of experience but of fundamental stuff.
What began as an exercise in election observation—standard enough—ended in the Caesarian birth of a nation. Bhatia experienced for the first time in a conflict zone: the human dimension of gross suffering, the desperate powerlessness and wrenching dilemmas, the arresting abruptness of being shot at, the gradual death of a bullet-ridden man resisting resuscitation, the sound of singing in churches by people encircled and trapped, the yearning for a moral high ground while bearing witness to the perpetrator, and the yawning questions about the human condition and one’s place in it. Alone in an empty convent, winded after a night spent surrounded by perpetual gunfire, we murmured the title of a book by the Polish war-correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński: Another Day of Life.
A general evacuation from a town whose inferno was photographed from outer space enabled us to reach Bali, the headquarters of the Indonesian military units implementing a ‘scorched earth’ policy. We walked in past the guards demanding an accounting of what happened to a couple of thousand children we had been forced to leave at the Red Cross compound. Typically, Bhatia, seeing the safe haven getting water-logged from leaking pipes, had begun to shovel dirt and move stones, and small three- and five-year-olds began doing the same, trundling behind him trying to dry the ground. Next dawn they would go missing. Passing through hallways we sought the demon responsible. There in a small room we found him: a duty officer who was in fact Timorese, himself in tears because for days he had not heard from his mother or sister.
Bhatia had every reason to leave Timor with the gloomiest outlook on his chosen vocation and the creatures that inhabit it. Yet, it was a demonstration of his will that he pieced together his bearings, cared more than ever about anyone in distress, and stayed a course of thinking and acting and seeking to understand why and how. As an honest man of his word, he could still blush and trust.
While he was in Afghanistan, the post-9/11 wars changed the logic of peacekeeping. The tools of an impartial third party were absorbed by combatants fighting war, and adapted in counterinsurgency and stabilization strategies. The complexity of the new context was of a different order of magnitude, but Bhatia had the best chance of navigating through it at the remotest edge of the front lines.
Being unable at times to change the world does not mean the world needs to change who you are. I saw Bhatia at the limits of endurance, and he was the personification of a humanitarian and the antithesis of the many unscrupulous officials and fraudulent charlatans who pursue self-advancement under the cover of humanitarianism. Bhatia matured and evolved and adapted down criss-crossing paths of his loves and wars, but he remained true to himself. I will never forget the words of his mother when she broke the news to me: “He wanted to do what he did.”
Jarat Chopra was a Brown faculty member from 1990 to 2007.