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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

Memories of a Many-splendoured Man

Thursday 2 July 2009, by Inder Malhotra


Remembering N.C.

On June 27 this year falls Nikhil Chakravartty’s eleventh death anniversary. On this occasion we reproduce the following tributes to his abiding memory—the first two were published in Mainstream (July 11, 1998) and the remaining two in Mainstream (August 1, 1998) following N.C.’s demise on June 27, 1998.

It was with some trepidation that I first met Nikhil. I was then just past 21 and working for the tottering United Press of India (UPI) on whose ashes is built today’s UNI. But within a few minutes in his company I realised that I needn’t have worried. Unlike other very senior members of the profession, some of whom had dismissed me summarily, in one case without even looking at me, he was all attention and surprisingly generous with his time. He listened to me patiently and gave me the advice I had sought with great precision and manifest sympathy that had not the slightest trace of condescension. As time and good fortune brought me close to him for more than four-and-a-half-decades, I was to learn that, contrary to whatever notions I might have had, I was not being singled out for special treatment. To offer help, support and sage counsel to one and all, young or old, high or low, struggling or successful, was one of his many qualities. The number of those who have benefited from it is legion.

Another facet of Nikhil’s personality that made its impress on me early enough was that though he was a great journalist—who took his work, not himself, very seriously—our troubled trade was not the be-all and end-all for him. His concerns were wider, his interests wide and his ability to enjoy life, as it came, heart-warming. He was also a man of great learning and deep knowledge, a nationalist in the highest sense of the term and a humanist.

As is well known, he was a member of the Communist Party of India from his student days up to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Appalled by the party’s crass support to this assault on Indian democracy (a support that, incidentally, turned pathetic when Sanjay Gandhi, arguably the most powerful person during the Emergency regime, gave a resoundingly anti-communist interview), Nikhil simply did not renew his membership of the CPI. However, as Sharada Prasad said the other day, he never ceased to be a Leftist, committed to both national independence and social justice. In choosing communism during his student days in England, Nikhil did what the best and the brightest of his contemporaries, many of them his personal friends, belonging to the generation of the “pink thirties”, were doing. But it is worth recalling that he was sent to Britain by his family to compete for the then cherished ICS which he resolutely refused to do even though, at Oxford, he had won marks so high that they had been obtained only once earlier, by Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, in the early years of this century.


The main point about Nikhil’s membership for long years of the CPI and his life-long commitment to the Left is that no matter what his politics at any given time, he enjoyed high respect and total trust of leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, soldiers and other news sources across the entire political spectrum. It was this, combined with his prodigious diligence (even towards the end he worked thrice as hard as colleagues half his age) and his professional integrity, that made him better informed than any of his contemporaries. The files of Mainstream, to say nothing of his profuse writings for major newspapers, bear testimony to his unequalled qualities as a reporter, commentator and editor. Even after Sumit took over as the magazine’s editor, Nikhil’s contribution to Mainstream remained massive.

It was the prestige enjoyed by Mainstream and love for Nikhil that persuaded a wide variety of busy people to find time to write for it without any thought of remuneration. Editors of most national—and even international—newspapers were happy to let Nikhil reproduce their articles in Mainstream, again without any consideration of payment. Only once did he have some disappointment on this score; one foreign publication demanded £ 100 for reproducing a piece, which Mainstream was in no position to afford.

Travelling with Nikhil was always a joy. His scintillating conversation was usually spiced with humour, and after the end of the day’s work he was ready for good food. In China in 1992, it was he who told us not to waste our money on fancy and well-known restaurants. Instead, with the willing help of a Chinese-speaking Indian embassy official, he found for us each day a Chinese version of a dhaba serving superb cuisines.

On my first visit to Dhaka I had a list of about a dozen people to meet. To my delight I found that Nikhil was already in the Bangladesh capital, staying at the same hotel. We stayed in the coffee shop most of the day because most of the Bangladeshi mediamen and politicians on my list were trooping in, one after the other, to meet Nikhil.

Above all, it was Nikhil’s capacity to keep confidences that enabled him to be the best informed journalist of his times. Bragging about what one knows but cannot publish is a common failing of the practitioners of the craft of journalism. But this unprepossessing weakness hadn’t touched Nikhil even remotely. Some of the confidential information he had, he sometimes shared with only those he knew would not betray his trust. I was lucky enough to be so honoured.

A small part of the information he vouchsafed to me I did make use of—with his kind permission. The rest I must carry with me whenever I go to join him. However, I see no harm, at this late stage, in sharing with the reader one delightful incident which encapsulates what I have been trying to say.

Krishna Menon, at a time when he was at the height of his power, if not glory, as the Defence Minister, told Nikhil something which was highly sensitive. Having imparted the information, he apparently got worried. And, as was his wont, wagging his index finger said: “Nikhil, this is not to be whispered. Not to the leaders of your party, nor even to Renu.”

On Nikhil’s face appeared the captivating, dimpled smile all of us are bound to remember, and he retorted: “Krishna, your difficulty is that you have never been a Communist. Nor have you ever married. So you do not know how we Communists function. Nor do you have any idea of the husband-wife relationship.”

(Mainstream, July 11, 1998)

A veteran journalist, the author is a former editor of The Times of India.

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