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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 46, October 31, 2009


Sunday 1 November 2009, by Chanchal Sarkar


When I first came to work in Delhi the most respected journalistic figure here was Sir Usha Nath Sen, one of the founders of the Associated Press of India which eventually became the PTI (Press Trust of India). Sir U.N. once told me of his guru K.C. Roy, the real founder of the API, that in any matter concerning the Government of India, in Delhi or Simla, K.C. Roy could figure out exactly with whom the matter rested and who would take the decision.

Delhi has grown exponentially since K.C. Roy’s time and is not just a government city any more but a much bigger jungle. There are political parties, lobbies, business interests, diplomatic establishments, any number of what the British call Quangos (Quasi non-government organisations) but I feel Nikhilda could have been called K.C. Roy’s successor—knew where the buck stopped and who to call for an answer. And he would call. As for Sir U.N. Sen himself, a young Deputy Minister of External Affairs in Panditji’s Council of Ministers whose name I forget (I recall that he was from the Nizam of Hyderabad’s family) told me that when he first came to Delhi the only person who could ring the Viceroy up direct was Sir U.N. Sen because of the confidence and respect he commanded, again a similarity to Nikhilda who could ring the President or Prime Minister without having to boast about it.

Like Sir U.N. Nikhilda could do this because he never revealed confidences, because everyone, from the highest in the land to the woman in front of the Janakpuri Post Office, knew that they could speak fully and frankly. That was the secret of his limitless list of contacts. But of course the contacts would not have spilled out what they knew unless the person they spoke to was empathic, a very good listener whose interests were wide and deep and who could, more than anyone else in the Delhi Press Corps, put two and two together to make 22.

For this you need what a British philosopher Roger Collingood called a speculum menti—a map of the mind. Maybe that was the heritage of a lapsed Communist—a frame of mind able to assess developments and people and to surmise, speculate and predict. This is what made Nikhilda the commentator he was. He had a speculum menti which was no longer the immediate product of his Communist training but had widened well beyond it.

Presidency College, Calcutta was, in his time, a gem of an institution and in the galaxy of teachers there Prof Kuruville Zachariah was one of the brightest stars. In History Nikhilda was one of his most favourite pupils. Oxford, Cambridge and London of that time were the confluence where young Indians in the thirties got the first whiff of what the Soviet Revolution was doing to Russia and the hope it held out for egalitarianism in the world and, particularly, India. Some of the people in Oxbridge and London at that time became well known in the subcontinent’s radicalist public life. Mohan Kumaramanglam, Pieter Kueneman (of Ceylon), Bhupesh Gupta, Jyoti Basu and Renu Chakravartty were among them.


What was significant about Nikhilda was that even if his thinking differed and ways parted, he never made a messy break—the old friend-ships, affections and lines of communication remained. So it was all his life. As a journalist he had easy access to people of all callings and views. He was warmly welcomed and entrusted with confidence. With his trained mind, wide reading and analytical capacity he could interpret and explain.

Though be began as a full-time political worker—with a short spell as university teacher before—journalism to which he eventually came fitted him like a glove. But, thanks be that he wasn’t a “quota” journalist, turning out an amazing number of analytical pieces and seeing an astonishing number of people every week. He was also a delightful conversationalist and travel companion, interested in a myriad things, his well-stocked mind usually able to cap any story and draw forth a reminiscence of an anecdote. In journalism 50 years and in political work years before, he had seen passing before him the caravan of modern Indian politics. As for people he had seen many “Shelleys plain” and could describe them. Believe it or not, for the journalist gossip is often the building block of truth. Nikhilda loved a bit of gossip and usually had a saucy bit up his sleeve.

Mainstream was an inspired idea because there was nothing like a forum-type journal of opinion. It could never, in India, hope to touch a high circulation but it gave much satisfaction to its faithful readers. That it has held on for so long is a monument to great dedication and tenacity. May it have many more years with Sumit. Though Mainstream remained his flagship, Nikhilda’s influence enlarged after the Emergency and as his writings began to be widely syndicated.

He had infinite patience in dealing with meetings and people, even the most obstreperous and foolish, and was never fazed. Maybe it had something to do with what he told me once after Renudi’s death. When misfortune and setbacks occurred, he said, they produced no immediate reactions on him. These came a few days later and showed up in blood pressure and other symptoms.

Patience, good humour and affection for young colleagues produced in him an ability to persuade people, often very different sorts of people, to work together. His handling of them was sometimes gently firm but never suppressive. The Editors Guild, for instance, and Namedia worked smoothly and well. Most journalists that I knew, not excepting the well-known ones, are interested primarily in their careers and their own papers; interest in the profession and its problems came well down the list. Not so Nikhilda—he could always be counted to stand up, stick his neck out, advice and act in a professional challenge.

Whether in an evening’s lubricated dinner or a get-together in Karachi, Lahore, Colombo, Dhaka, Kathmandu or Geneva, he filled space quietly and with non-boisterous conviviality. And it is that space which we will find empty.

(Mainstream July 4, 1998)

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