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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 7, February 11, 2023

Nachiketa Desai (1951 - 2023) | Sagari Chhabra

Friday 10 February 2023, by Sagari Chhabra


Nachiketa Desai

(26. 10. 1951 – 5.02 2023)

Nachiketa Desai a journalist passed away on in Ahmedabad on Sunday, 5th February after a fall at his house. Why should a journalist’s death, make news when the entire profession has been dealt a dying blow by massive lay-offs, corporate takeover, dissolution of the Working Journalists’ Act and destroying the profession that was once held as the Fourth Estate?

Nachiketa Desai was a special person; while he was courageously battling cancer and heart problems, he held a dream close to his heart – he wanted to write and bring out a book on his grandfather, Mahadev Desai. Mahadev Desai was Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary and lived Bapu’s life thrice over: envisaging his day, making his appointments, assiduously being by his side, keeping notes and then writing them out meticulously. He died of a massive heart attack on 15th august 1942 when he was imprisoned inside Agha Khan detention camp along with Mahatma Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi and Sushila Nayar.

In an interview recorded by me in 1998, Sushila Nayar confided that the British wanted Gandhi to hand over the body of Mahadev Desai to them but Bapu refused, saying that no one can possibly hand over his son’s body. He cremated Mahadev Desai himself inside the Agha Khan detention grounds, and kept his ashes in an empty ink bottle. Every morning he would smear the ashes on his forehead which was not liked by Kasturba, as she felt Bapu was acting like Shiva, which no one should ever do. The task of keeping the diary was then taken over by the young, Sushila Nayar who had just completed her medical degree.

Like any Indian, I was extremely keen to see a book out by Nachiketa Desai which would bring out the writings of Mahadev Desai who wrote and edited, ‘Young India’ and ‘Navjivan’, often anonymously as he was a foot soldier of Gandhi and a journalist without bylines! In his own words, Gandhi was a hard task master so Mahadev Desai had not quite received his due share of recognition.

Mahadev Desai’s son Narayanbhai Desai was also an amazing fount of energy and commitment to the idea of India. Interviewing him and his reminiscences was also such a soul affirming moment, as after the 2002 Gujarat carnage he had gone across the country reciting the Gandhi Katha – Gandhi’s story and his ideals. The Gandhi Kathas were attended by thousands of people who often wept while listening to them.

Nachiketa was a befitting son who followed the footsteps of an illustrious freedom fighters’ family as was his maternal family, Malati Devi Choudhury (nee Sen) whom Mahatma Gandhi had nicknamed ‘Toophani’. However, in his own right as a journalist, Nachiketa worked with the National Herald, Business India and Newstime over the years. However, he remained at heart a freedom fighter and even resigned from his job once when urged not to carry the second part of an article he had commissioned. Despite the cancer that ravaged him of which he put up details on social media posts, Nachiketa wrote his book, ‘Mahadev Desai – Mahatma Gandhi’s Frontline Reporter’ - exhorted by many like me who simply wanted to read it!

Unfortunately, he revealed to me in a telephone conversation that it had several proof-reading errors and as he had a premonition that he was running out of time on planet earth, just a few digital copies were printed for the already announced launch at Sabarmati ashram on 1st January 2023 – Mahadev Desai’s birth anniversary. Lord Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhian and writer, Varsha Das, actor- director, Nandita Das and members of the Sabarmati Ashram Trust were present at the launch. The corrected book will hopefully be out soon but I am so glad that Nachiketa wrote the book and had the pleasure of releasing it.

Nachiketa Desai’s passing symbolizes the passing of an era where journalists held the torch of the values of the freedom struggle, aloft. While he will be deeply missed, one hopes the flame will not be extinguished as the struggle for true freedom continues…

Sagari Chhabra

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