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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 45, October 30, 2010

An Undeceived Leftist

Saturday 30 October 2010

by N.S. Jagannathan

My acquaintance with Nikhil Chakravartty began in the mid-sixties when I was working with The Hindustan Times. Mainstream had just been launched and my Leftist friends had introduced me to the journal and, a little later, to Nikhil himself. He had not yet become the father figure he had since, and even though I was much younger to him, pride would not let me address him as ‘Nikhilda’ as others had even then started to do. He was still a distant figure to me, though friends in Patriot, just born and at its combative best, constantly spoke of him. It was only when the Emergency was imposed in 1975 and the Indian Press was under siege that I came to know him better. Then began an association which I have counted as one of the best things to have happened to me. On my part it was part awe and part slowly maturing affection. On his part he gave generously of his enormous reserves of friendship—to which anyone who knew him more than slightly will readily testify.
In these twentyfive years, we have met countless number of times, and on occasions, worked together. The years he was President of the Editors Guild were the most active of that rather lackadaisical body. Under his guidance the Guild accomplished a great deal more than rhetoric about the ‘Freedom of the Press’. On behalf of the Guild, we travelled together more than once to the then turbulent Punjab.

On his return from Oxford in the early forties and after a couple of false starts, including a stint in academia, Nikhil chose the one profession that was tailor-made for him. He had few peers in journalism, especially commentative journalism. His commitment to the freedom of the press was total and his norms of professional ethics was of the strictest. People who have only read him would not know that what appeared in print was only a minuscule fraction of what he knew. His knowledge of affairs, especially Indian politics and it dynamics, was astonishing. There was no one of any consequence in the Indian public life he did not know and who did not readily, even eagerly, share confidences with him. Leaders of all political parties spoke to him freely with the total trust that he would not betray their dark secrets. He did not eke his columns out with these whispered confidences as others, anxious to show off their rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, often did.

His intellectual range was astonishing, though he wore his learning lightly. This and his knowledge of affairs he shared with me much to my enrichment. He had a certain dry ironic wit that he held under check in his public writing but his conversation with friends sparkled with this sardonic humour.

Nikhil was a life-long Leftist in politics but an undeceived one. Often his writings irked official Communists but none dared question his intellectual honesty, public purpose and commitment to India that shone through everything he did or write. Almost alone among commentators on public affairs he once pleaded for a national government, seeing in it the only solution to the immobilism and confusion caused by a fragmented political electoral verdict.

Books were a special interest of Nikhil and his contribution to the growth and stabilisation of The Book Review will be gratefully acknowledged by all those associated with it. His loss is a deeply personal one to me and to everyone who knew him.

[This tribute appeared first in The Book Review and was then reproduced in Mainstream, September
12, 1998]

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