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Mainstream, VOL LI No 46, November 2, 2013

Happy Birthday, Uncle Nikhil!

Friday 1 November 2013, by Nandita Haksar


I cannot believe that we are celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Uncle Nikhil. I know that Uncle Nikhil is remembered as a journalist with formidable power of analysis and a man of cast-iron integrity. But all I can think of is the smile, a shy smile, making the dimples on both cheeks deepen and the eyes lighted up on seeing a box of chocolates.

He loved chocolates and every time we got chocolates we would always save them for Uncle Nikhil just to see his face light up. And he would never show disrespect to the chocolates by just popping them in his mouth and start a political discussion. He would enjoy it with all the attention it deserved. It was the purity of the emotion, a child’s delight.

I knew Uncle Nikhil was a Communist. And I also knew my father was one too. My mother thought of herself as a sympathiser. But then she had her own ways of bringing up a child who she hoped would become a revolutionary. The three of them believed that children should be brought up to think they could change the world, or at least a little of it. But the problem they faced was that I had joined the little group of Naxalites in the Delhi University.

My parents did not try to dissuade me but they did something even more effective. They told their friend Nikhil to deal with the situation.

And that is how I found myself going to 35 Kaka Nagar every Thursday for history lessons. No one said it was an arrangement to counter the influence of the study circle run by the Naxalites.

It was a strange time in my life; there were classes to attend and then the lessons on de-classing myself, cyclostyled pages of writings of Charu Majumdar about class enemies, and then the lessons on the broad sweep of history by Uncle Nikhil.

I did not at the time find any contradiction between any of these parts of my life. I had made up my mind I was going to earn my living by being a journalist. It was not an idea I had from Uncle Nikhil but he shaped my thinking on the kind of journalism I would do.

That is how I learnt very early on that he was a hard taskmaster; almost like the guru of the ancient times. I was barely out of school that the training began. How do we judge the mood of the people, predict the results of the upcoming elections? He sent me to the servants’ quarters of the VIP houses in south Delhi’s government bungalows.

Uncle Nikhil expected me to find out for myself; all he told me was that behind the Lutyen bungalows and the green gardens lived ordinary people with their families who voted. It was a discovery; because the lives of these people were invisible since I had never visited the quarters even behind the house where I lived with my family. There were the waiters, cooks, the dhobi and peons, and their families who lived in ten to twelve rooms behind the white-washed colonial bungalows with huge green lawns.

After a week of survey and then writing up my report I handed it over to Uncle; he took it without any words. Then there was no smile of appreciation; no warm words of encouragement. A few days later Uncle was discussing the contents of my report with my father. He did not tell him that the survey was done by me; it was only later. Then the two men looked at me and smiled. An acknowledgement for the good work done; but that is all.

Then came another assignment; I was told to review a book. And it had to be done in time for the next issue. And then more books. I have the books in my cupboard; they were mostly Bengali writers and poets.

And so I finished my graduation and joined the Indian Express. I was a trainee journalist and my first salary was Rs 250. My mother suggested I donate it to Mainstream because Uncle Nikhil needed the money. Again there were no words of praise or even a ‘thank you’; but I saw that it was acknowledged in the Mainstream as a donation from an anonymous donor who had given her first salary. I learnt the joys of working for a cause anonymously; without public praise or recognition. It would be perhaps the most important lesson.

I went to London for training in journalism and when I returned it was still Emergency. I found my mother giving Uncle Nikhil expensive bottles of alcohol gifted to my father by various embassies. Uncle Nikhil sold these to make a little extra money for his journal. It is still a mystery how he sold the bottles.

I also learnt that when Uncle would get tired of life in Delhi he would go off to the mountains. He wrote letters filled with descriptions of the Himalayas; he gave me books on mountains and mountaineers. He also gave a book of revolutionary poetry with a bookmark on the page with a poem addressed to a revolutionary girl. I cannot remember the name of the poet but it said it was alright for a revolutionary girl to love pink bows.

When Uncle Nikhil went off to the mountains in a rickety bus he would tell my father to write the editorials for him. They ensured no one knew this because the editorials were picked up by Uncle Nikhil’s loyal comrade Upadhyayaji who was a member of the Communist Party of India and acted as his driver.

I found I was no longer treated as a child or a trainee; I was allowed to sit in and listen to the discussions between my father and Uncle Nikkhil. What a feast it was. Sometimes they seemed like two Bolsheviks plotting on how to bring the Revolution. Many times it was about how wrong the Communists had gone in their assessment of the contemporary situation. I knew that both of them had left the Communist Party of India; or been thrown out of it. That had not made them cynical about communism or the power of Marxist analysis. These were valuable lessons for me.

And the most animated discussions were about history. History was their guide and their source of inspiration.

As I sat down to write my thoughts on the occasion of Uncle Nikhil’s hundredth birth anniversary, a seven-year-old Naga boy studying in Goa said to me: “History is a boring subject; it is all about old people.”

I looked into the yes of the young boy; it was full of wonder and curiosity about the world. But then he did not know his history or the history of his people. I know one day this ignorance would be a source of pain and regret. But for me I am glad I had a teacher and comrade, and yes, a friend in Uncle Nikhil who gave me the greatest gifts one human being can give to another: values that would stand by in the ups and downs of life; the capacity to analyse the world around me without the necessity for a god. So yes, history is about old people who will always remain young because their ideas continue to inspire and give hope even when they are a hundred years and no more with us.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Nikhil! May you live for another hundred years!

The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.

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