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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

A National Loss

Monday 30 June 2008, by S Viswam


Tempus fugit. Time flies. And how! I was completely taken aback on being reminded by Sumit that the tenth death anniversary of Nikhilda will fall on June 27. “No, it cannot be,” I protested. “Not ten years already.” “Yes, yes,”said Sumit, “it is, it is.”

It is unbelievable that ten years have passed since we lost Nikhilda. Yet, in its rapid sweep, Time has devoured those years and completely overshadowed an event which when it occurred deeply saddened a number of people whose lives had touched that of Nikhil Chakravartty, one of India’s great sons and a human being par excellance.

Some memories fade but many linger. I was with Nikhilda for the better part of the forenoon of June 27, 1998 after having shifted him from the hospital where he had already spent three weeks to the Gangaram Hospital. Nikhilda had been in a coma during all those weeks, but on the morning of the last day, he opened his eyes and had a look around him for a couple of minutes but he did not respond to queries. I was called out of the room on an errand, and when I returned after 45 minutes, he was gone, as quietly as he lived. With his death, an era in Indian journalism and in India’s public-political life had ended.

At a memorial meeting at the International Centre a few days later, I mentioned in my tribute to him that he was no ordinary human being but an institution. Kapila Vatsyayan, who presided, referred to my description and said even the word “institution” was somewhat inadequate. Nikhilda was “institution plus”, the plus being attributes which are special to great men like Nikhilda whose very life is their message to their fellow-beings.

I was honoured and privileged to have known Nikhilda for many years, although I have often bemoaned that I met him rather late in my life and only after I shifted to New Delhi from Mumbai after 30 years’ stay in that city. I was exceedingly fortunate not only in getting to know him and receive the blessing of his friendship, affection and camaraderie but to have been adopted by him and Renudi as a member of his family. I remember telling my wife soon after we bade him the final farewell that I would miss him every day in my life.

I do not know how to say this, but I have not missed Nikhilda all these years and yet I have missed him the most during this period. Those who have lost near and dear ones will probably need no explanation for this paradoxical reality. My relations with Nikhilda were personal, social, and professional, but even beyond this they transcended into a few other forms. He was both teacher-mentor and a father-figure to me, and this for a number of years during which we worked together closely in the field of media. This experience alone generate many memories for me and make me recall many events and developments shared by us frequently. But more than even this, I really did not miss him or feel his loss all that intensely since I have been reading him week after week in Mainstream.

Sumit does an extraordinarily good job keeping an eye on the topicality of Nikhilda’s article he selects for use in every issue. And, like me, many of Nikhilda’s friends and admirers must be marveling at the continued relevance of his commentaries to the current national/international affairs of the week. Reading him every week is like learning his immediate reaction to the topic of the day. Professional journalists will tell you that this is the hallmark of a good journalist: he writes both for the present and the future. In this area, Nikhilda was a master.

Politics lost a great potential practitioner when Nikhilda left it and strayed into journalism. However, while politics was not the net loser, journalism was indeed the net gainer from Nikhilda’s switch. Journalism in Nikhilda’s hands proved to be an instrument of social and political change. Nikhilda was a teacher by inclination and would have liked to be a history professor in any leading university. The job would have been his for the asking, but his concern for people’s welfare dragged him into politics for a brief stint, and then landed him in journalism, which he “discovered”, much to his own disbelief as he told me once, to be his true calling. Politics, he felt, could be painful and demanding, but journalism was exciting and interesting.

But then, Nikhilda did not stop just being a journalist. He was an amalgam of many personalities, characters, avocations, and above all passions. Many disciplines interested and attracted him, and because he pursued each with equal dedication and commitment, different people knew him and sought his friendship and time for different reasons. But all his pursuits were motivated by a single factor: cleansing society through change and the ushering in of socialism and secularism for the greatest good of the largest number of people.

THIS assessment may make him seem like a serious-minded and intense political-social activist tilting at windmills. He was an activist indeed, and he did pursue social concerns with a view to improving life, and he did chase worthy causes. But he did all this with a smile and in good humour and he spread cheerfulness around him. He was extremely modest about his own good work but tolerant of the faults and foibles of others. If he disagreed with you, and he often did, he told you so gently. He could be sharp when he wanted but his criticism of the other point of view was always sober, mild and fair. Interaction with Nikhilda was always a pleasure but, more important, it was education too. He was great fun to be with, what with his wealth of anectodes and subtle wit and good-humoured sarcasm.

The best time to catch Nikhilda was at tea-time, although any time was tea-time when you called on him, with or without appointment. He liked to describe himself as a reporter, and he was always at his best while reporting, orally or in writing. And his brand of reporting was special: he always had something to report exclusively, even if it be a little nugget of information. This was because he mingled with the powerful and the mighty as well as the ordinary people, but he made a good story out of every experience of his. He kept himself busy meeting people and keeping abreast of the latest political developments, but because of his varied interests, he would meet with a variety of people. Nikhilda’s “morning rounds” were a regular feature of his daily routine and by the time he returned home it would be well into tea-time, and time for meeting visitors. Nikhilda liked to relax and take it easy, but beyond the couple of hours around tea-time he was involved in some activity or the other all the time. He was always busy but amazingly enough he could find time for you if you really wanted to meet him. Often enough I could not keep appointments with him because of my other preoccupations. When I would call and asked to be excused, he would retort with false sterness in tone: “Well, I have not been exactly idle either!” It was a typical Nikhilda comeback!

Nikhilda’s major failing was his scant regard for time. He arrived everywhere late. And he never apologised for keeping others waiting. I do not remember whether it was Nikhilda or my good friend Inder Malhotra who told me a story about the then Home Minister, Gobind Ballabh Pant, being invariably late for Cabinet meetings, much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who was a bit fastitidious about time. Nehru did not show his annoyance but Pant realised that his late arrivals disturbed the proceedings. So, he made it a point to arrive quite early for the Cabinet meetings, but Nehru did not comment. On the third time, Pant complained to Nehru that his disciplined conduct was not being duly appreciated. Nehru laughed and said: “This is the trouble with you, Gobind, you are either early or late, but never punctual!”

Nikhilda, however, made up for his unpunctua-lity by contributing immensely to the occasion with his leadership, guidance, and good humour. Nikhilda participated in a number of public affairs events and addressed meetings, but I have never seen or known him to read out a pre-prepared speech. But, strangely enough, he always took notes when others spoke whether it was at seminars or round table conferences. He would jot down points on small bits of paper, and I often wondered what he did with those notes. I once asked him and he said there would be always something worth recalling from the speeches, and the notes would help him. However, he had such a poor hand that often he could not read and decipher his own notes which were a heap of scrawls and signs.

Much has been written about his achievements as a journalist, his courageous opposition to the Emergency of 1975, his refusal to accept the Padma Bhushan award, and his leadership of and contribution to media institutions, especially in his capacity as a member of the Press Commission, President of the Editors Guild of India, and Chairman of the Namedia Foundation and as the first Chairman of Prasar Bharati. He set standards and examples and was an inspiration to his colleagues and comrades. The best example of his professional contribution is Mainstream itself, and it is gratifying to see that Sumit is carrying forward Nikhilda’s legacy with the same commitment to professionalism as his father. Nikhilda saw Mainstream as the voice of his conscience, as a protector of human rights and as a champion of public causes, and not as a vehicle for spread of any brand of ideology or promoter of vested interests. This is what won him the esteem of all sections of society in addition to that of colleagues in the profession. In his death ten years ago journalism was not the only loser. It was a national loss in every sense of the term and he will be entitled to the nation’s gratitude for all time to come.

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