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

Troubadour of Our Times

Thursday 2 July 2009, by M. Venugopala Rao

He was all grace when we (my wife and I) met him our last time. That was a few weeks before Nikhil’s final departure. My wife placed a bunch of flowers on the small table before him and was moving back, when Nikhil rose unsteadily to his feet, beckoned her closer and held her hands fondly for a moment, asked us to sit, sat himself, got us some tea and spoke haltingly. If his memory was slipping, he did not let it. With a shy smile, he quietly confirmed for himself and for us that he remembered we were going to see him that day. Movement was a little difficult, he said, and he could not see the papers properly except for the large headlines. He asked for my glasses. I thought he might try them on but he did not.

We had checked with Sumit earlier, who said Nikhil was “better”, had insisted on moving back to his Kaka Nagar flat though there were “complications”. Despite them, he said, Nikhil had a few days earlier gone on his own to take his leave of his aunt who had passed away. I rang some days later when Sumit, his voice cracking, said Nikhil was “not at all well” and they were taking him to hospital for some checks. Then we heard how he fought a brave battle, until he opened his eyes briefly one last time, to say his final farewells perhaps.

When we saw him laid out beautifully in his bare bedroom full of the flowers he loved, he was grace itself. His face was radiant and clear “in which one may see vision”—like of the survival of beauty in truth and goodness and of all that is not tawdry and mean. Like a benediction which seemed to touch everybody and everything around. There was such a profound quietness, beyond sorrow or tribute.

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I remember going to see Nikhil another time, years earlier, after he announced his retirement as Editor of Mainstream (in October 1992). We talked briefly of the times when the journal was born in September 1962, the trials and troubles it rode, of the later appearance of Patriot (in 1963 from Link House) as another sentinel against reaction, his role in keeping its hopes alive and how it never was properly appreciated, and how some of us (as I told Nikhil) were in no position to influence events. How it soon became too late for Patriot and Link, for Link House itself, and how Mainstream survived and survives.

Mainstream survived because of Nikhil’s tireless networking with grassroots groups, think-tanks, the political establishments and their counter-establishments. And more basically because, as I said in a note on Nikhil’s retirement (published in Mainstream’s issue of October 1992), “Mainstream has never been an overly ambitious attempt to establish a large presence in the destructively competitive media world, and because it has been content to discharge its responsibilities on a modest scale, unlike more ambitious ventures”—like Link House, for example.

Mainstream appeared “one month this side of the Chinese attack which changed the course of history”—an episode that is once again being remembered as a major factor of destabilisation looming over Asia. And there was then, as there is now, “a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety about threats to the sovereignty of the country, about the course of development planning, roadlocks to reforms, miscarriage of distributive justice and much else”. And all this was “not entirely” because of the “influence of imperialist and reactionary forces”, then as now. “Status quoits and forward-looking political parties, intellectuals and academicians seemed locked together and separately in ritualistically held sectarian positions”, then as now. “That did not seem to be taking the national debate forward, involving the mainstream of the people”—as it is not now.

Mainstream was and continues to be “part of the endeavour begun then to demystify dogma, define and defend national interests of the vast deprived and disadvantaged people of the country against reaction”. Today, reaction has assumed alarmingly cynical forms. Born-again socialists, “social justice” ganglords and clueless Congressmen are cosying up to the Hindustva-RSS brigades (which indeed have very little use for Hinduism, which is why they are more of a menace) in the pursuit of a kind of “realpolitik” that cannot see beyond its tenuous hold on power.

Nikhil saw that ironies and the dilemmas more clearly than most, as some of his recent writings have shown. He was sad but not despairing. When you said it seemed that the patched-up, de-ideologised, tired old political establishment, that has gone on reinventing itself with lesser and lesser conviction, may finally be on its way out, he was sure a new, younger and vibrant political culture of commitment is emerging across the country. This too is reflected in his recent writings, and in the changes noticed in Mainstream since 1992, the new voices and the new “actors” that are finding space in it.

As in some of the strong, well-researched and no-nonsense news journals which are replacing crony journalism and making it look the tawdry thing it is, showing that finally markets too may need commitments of sorts.

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These are the issues that came up constantly in Nikhil’s long on-again, off-again association with Link House—which has received very little or no attention. Nikhil was a pillar of strength for Link House through its highs and lows, a generous and path-breaking mine of information for its older and younger reporters. For the younger lot, he was like the Pied Piper who came calling whenever the mood struck him, or whenever his advice or help was sought about one thing or another. Almost all of Link House seemed to come alive when he was around. This was so true of the time when a brooding heaviness enveloped Link House during the Emergency, as much because of its negative endorsement of the stated need to prevent a total constitutional breakdown as its festering unhappiness with some of its excesses and its inability to fight them openly.

Nikhil understood the compulsions, the embarrassments and suggested ingenious ways protests could be registered. He would drop around exciting story ideas about the unlovely activities of the “extra-constitutional authority”—the one that soon developed into the many—that could get past the censor, and still offer significant insight into the working of the Emergency and about how it was eventually being wound down. The chief protagonists of Link House’s no-win non-struggle are no more, and it will be unfair allround to talk about it in any detail. This much was true: it was a non-struggle that drained Link House of its foundational and inspirational sources of strength, and its capacity to survive mounting odds, leading in galloping stages to its present pitiable comatose condition.

Beyond Link House, it was a struggle that clearly drained the nation of its secular, socialist and democratic will to resist seizure of power “by any means” by the de-ideologised and fundamentalist forces—as it is so evident today.

There is an important lesson in all this: threats may be looming again to the freedom of the press and the viability of independent journals and newspapers. Outspoken critics of the Emergency have said that when the press was asked to bend it chose to crawl. (Let me say here that for all its problems and predicaments, Link House did not.) This is no less true of what is happening now, already. It is sad though that this is as true of major news organisations which should have no need to crawl, as of several vernacular ones.

Mainstream, much weaker without Nikhil, has a very careful way to tread: its commitments make the times harder.

Let us remember, however, that Nikhil was much more than Mainstream and the various other causes, institutions and organisations that he was associated with. He was the troubadour of our times, of its joys and sorrow, and shared them with so many and kept hope alive for so many.

(Mainstream, August 1, 1998)

The author was a veteran journalist who worked for many years in Patriot as its News Editor and subsequently functioned as the Editor of Link.

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