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Mainstream, VOL LI No 46, November 2, 2013

Thoughts on a Centenarian

Friday 1 November 2013, by S Viswam

The birth anniversary of Nikhil Chakravartty provides another occasion to his numerous friends and admirers to recall their association with him and pay homage to his memory. It is 15 years since this great Indian, great human being and a pre-eminent media personality left us. Time passes and memories fade. But in the case of Nikhilda, 15 years have really made no difference to his friends; his memory is still green for them.

Nikhilda was born on November 3, 1913. The centenary is defined as the “hundredth anniversary of an event”. The coming November 3, 2013 will mark the anniversary of the event of his birth. Which means that had Nikhilda been around, he would have celebrated his 100th birth anniversary, but, still, he would be only 99 years old! We would need to await the dawn of November 3, 2014 to call Nikhilda a centen-arian. The Oxford English defines a centenarian as a “person who is a hundred or more years”. Strict interpretation of the dictionary language would also suggest that a centenarian can be called so only if “he is a hundred or more years”. That is, if he is alive on the date of his centenary. But, alas, we lost him on June 27, 1998.

I do not know how right I am in my calculation. But that hardly matters. What matters is that we will be celebrating on November 3, 2013 the remembrance of a rare journalist who in his most interesting and event-packed life symbolised some eternal values to be cherished by a professional journalist. It speaks highly of that life if you consider that Nikhilda started off his journalistic career as a Communist but lost all political tags, labels and identities on the way. When death came to him—as it must to all men—Nikhilda was just a highly respected journalist. Nikhilda had described himself as an “Indian Marxist” in an open letter he wrote to the editor of Pravda in 1962 after the outbreak of the Sino-Indian conflict. But he had shed even that tag and others. On June 27, 1998, the world bemoaned the death of not a political apparatichiki or a comrade but only of a distinguished journalist who had made a name for himself as a great and popular journalist. The commissar had turned yogi!

I have written often about Nikhilda and his journalism, his humanity and his virtues. I can throw no fresh light on the man and his life. However, since the occasion is his birth centenary, I must say that I, at least, cannot visualise Nikhilda as a “centenarian” in the known sense of the word. Centenarians are precisely that—more than 100 years old, and that fact carries certain connotations associated generally with old age.

I cannot, and for that matter I wonder if any of his friends can, visualise Nikhilda as an old man, leave alone one giving all signs of a foot in the grave! During the two decades that I knew him and met him often enough, Nikhilda always came across as an active “young” man raring to go! The years between 1980 and 1998 were perhaps most active and event-packed for him, and incidentally also for me and a handful of other friends who assisted him in many a professional activity, when all of us were doing a lot of to-ing and fro-ing advocating some cause or the other. He kept pace with the youngest of the lot, and often surprised us with the intensity and commitment of his involvement. His very presence inspired us, and made us take on more work than we were capable of doing.

I would be guilty of repetition if I were to write of Nikhilda at greater length or in greater detail. Many of our mutual journalistic friends have written of and about him and shared their thoughts and experiences. Common to all these friends was a singular fact. Each of them felt that he (the friend) was the closest to Nikhilda among all journalists and that Nikhilda took him alone into confidence. This was a matter of great gratification and satisfaction to the journalist concerned. It made him walk with a swagger on the street although, ironically enough, he was in no position to publish the information given to him in confidence by Nikhilda. Nikhilda kept confidences scrupulously. Indeed, this trait was admired by all his sources who were sure their information was safe with Nikhil Chakra-vartty. Politicians used to ask him, instead, if they had some information about their own future in the party or how well or ill-disposed they were in the books of the Leader.

It is unfortunate that Nikhilda had not planned or responded positively to suggestions for a book of his memoirs. He kept evading the issue, he was in any case too busy to sit and recall the past, he believed so much in the present and worked for a good future. Had he penned his memoirs we could have had a peep into a part of India’s evolving political history. We are indebted to Sumit for keeping his memory alive by publishing extracts from his writings every week. I am a regular reader of N.C.’s writings every week in the Mainstream even though some of the pieces were read by me even before or immediately after publication.

The author is a veteran journalist now based in Bengaluru.

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