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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 28

Remembering Nikhilda

Monday 2 July 2007, by Lalit Uniyal


I first met Nikhilda around the time when I was leaving for my chosen work in the village. I had only just returned to the North from K.N. Raj’s Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). There was an unpublished piece with me that I had written on economic development, and somebody advised me to contact Nikhilda, which I did. He asked me to come over to his Kaka Nagar residence. He sat in his special great chair and heard me very attentively. He was interested in my article which, as I came to know later, he published in an Annual Number of Mainstream. But he was far more interested in my plan to work in a village among the landless. For me it was an expression of moral and intellectual conviction and an adventure, a plunge into the unknown. His interest was both professional and ideological, but it gradually became a deeply personal one too. He suggested that I write to him from the village.

I did write to him, and he published my very first letter, a personal one, under the general caption ‘Letter from Village’ and with the title ‘The First Impressions’. Of course I didn’t get to see Mainstream in the village, but I learnt of it through someone coming from Banda. By this time I had reached the conclusion that it was impossible to carry on work with the landless without a supporting general activity, and I chose education as that activity. But this confronted me with the problem of constructing an all-weather building for the school. How was I to solve this problem? We were desperately short of funds as it was. So I wrote to various persons and I wrote to Nikhilda too. It was a long personal letter explaining the specific need for a building and the theoretical basis for undertaking educational activity at all. He promptly published my communication as a ‘Letter from Village’ and added a note from his own side suggesting to readers that they support the cause. Again, I learnt of this first from the numerous letters of encouragement that I got, and from the money orders and cheques that I received.

This pattern continued for several years. I would send a hand-written letter to him on almost any topic; and he would modify the first paragraph to make it look like an article, get it typed in his office, and publish it. Most of my letters were not on village life, but had to do with national issues of one kind or the other. His readiness to publish whatever I wrote was a tremendous encourage-ment to me. Perhaps I would have ceased writing but for this encouragement. After all, writing was and could be only an occasional activity for me, since I was enmeshed in a world of constant strife and intrigue. If I had met with editorial resistance as well I might have stopped writing altogether. In another way too I owe it to Nikhilda. By temperament I find it a strain to write into the void as it were, to an unknown and unknowable audience. I can’t say about others, but I feel better motivated to write when I know I am addressing someone specific. The letter format, which he accepted and encouraged, suited me perfectly at that time. Perhaps this style was needed in the earlier years, and I could not have done without it then. However, when a typist in Mainstream (not Nikhilda) once told me that he found it hard to decipher my manuscripts, I decided to follow the normal practice; and from then on I wrote articles in the usual way, sending them typed too.

Initially I had a very austere puritanical streak which expressed itself in the following manner. I aspired to work selflessly, so I decided that no thought of self ought to enter into my life or activities, and I should neither seek nor permit publicity in any form or manner. My writings too should therefore remain unpublicised, hence pseudonymous. On this principle my earlier pieces had been published under a pseudonym. No editor ever opposed me in this. It was Nikhilda alone who patiently argued with me and persuaded me to write in my own name.

NOR is this all. At almost every crisis in my work, and there were many, he tried to help me in his own way. If there was no help to be given he would console me, saying that it was a battle of attrition. At one stage a baseless rumour was spread by interested parties, some of them associated with a well-known press agency, that I was secretly giving training in arms to the landless in Aau village. An official enquiry was ordered, which of course established the falsehood of the allegation. But it served to harass me and divert my attention from my work. While the enquiry was still in progress, I learnt from a friend working for that press agency that he was being pressurised to send a story confirming the rumour. I sped to Delhi where Nikhilda at once put me in touch with some persons, and the matter was closed.

I vividly recall the days of terrible tension when, after the election of a landless Dalit Pradhan in our village, the upper caste landlords made up their minds to dislodge him; and failing in this, some of them determined to eliminate him. The possibility was being openly talked of in the village. As preliminary precaution, we decided that the pradhan would not sleep in the same hut two nights running; senior officials were contacted; and an effort was made to seek the support of the local CPI unit. Unfortunately the local leader, who later left the party and joined another, played a dubious role. He was interested less in helping the Dalits than in causing harm to me. The prolonged stalemate, and the tension of the cat-and-mouse game, was getting unbearable. It occurred to me to seek help at the national level too. I met Nikhilda who put me in touch with the then General Secretary of the CPI. How effective the meting eventually turned out to be is less important than the fact that it took place at all, and at the instance of Nikhilda.

In the village I have felt in some ways intellectually famished, and there is a constant longing for intellectual stimulation. So long as my father lived, I visited Delhi fairly regularly, and I was always seeking out people to meet who thought for themselves and had something interesting to say. I invariably made it a point to meet Nikhilda himself and benefited from my conversations with him. He had a broad conception of things, and to discuss with him his understanding of national and international events was an education in itself. Moreover, he seemed to know everyone personally and had a shrewd but not censorious view of people. He helped tone down my extreme prejudice that those who held office, or sought it, were at best cultured rascals; and I saw for myself that men of integrity and sensitivity were to be found everywhere, though of course they became rarer and rarer as one went up the so-called social ladder. Knowing that I was keen to meet intelligent and interesting people, he would from time to time suggest an activist or an academic whom he thought I’d enjoy talking to, and very often he arranged the meeting itself.

In his sympathy, his accessibility, and his unselfish concern for my personal development and the success of my work, he was a father-figure to me. When one considers that it is a common sight to observe men pursuing their own interests at the expense of others, the example of one who seeks to build another for the sake of that other is an ennobling one. It reveals the tendency and the capacity to rise above self, which is a quality akin to greatness. Nikhilda possessed that quality.

(Mainstream July 11, 1998)

The author sought premature retirement from the IAS to fully dedicate himself to the upliftment of the landless in UP.

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