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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII No 27, June 26, 2010

The Ajatashatru

Sunday 27 June 2010, by M.V. DESAI


It was the strangest of happenings that I should come to know of Nikhil Chakravartty in the late 1950s on account of his wife Renu Chakravartty. While she, living most of the last few years in Calcutta and therefore getting more and more remote in acquaintance became a distant figure, he grew over the last forty years as a journalist, philosopher, historian, critic, most uncritical of friends and friendliest of critics. Renu Chakravartty was discovered in person in August 1958 when she took the inaugural flight to Moscow of Air-India. Our hosts took Renu Chakravartty and me also to Leningrad as well as to the Hermitage. Then, I did not see Nikhil Chakravartty (N.C.).

A few years went by. The Boss who welcomed me to his fief when I left The Times of India’s Delhi editorship and who had been writing praise for my work had turned enemy. He wrote to me time and again to point out how things had gone wrong, how Roshan Menon or Melville De Mellow had slipped up if not goofed and wanted me to investigate and to report to him as the Boss. The Boss had, like the Birlas, a good number of MPs behind him because he had appointed as sinecures a large number of persons recommended by those MPs as artistes, musicians and broadcasters. His use of patronage ensured that the Minister would be careful in taking any action against the Boss as he had the goodwill of MPs from all over the country and the Minister looked to some of the MPs for support.

The Boss one day sent an emissary to N.C. who claimed he knew N.C. well. This was in order to request N.C. to publish in Mainstream an article about a public menace, an imposter, a corrupt fellow and a disaster for young girls that I had turned out to be in spite of the best credentials at the initial stage. N. C. sent someone with the article to me. I could not recognise myself as pictured in it.

As luck would have it, a young man two years junior at the university, who was staying with N.C. then, heard all this. He later went up to N.C. and asked him if the visiting emissary—the words ‘chamcha’ and ‘sidekick’ were not then in use—was talking about Mahendra Desai. N.C. said: ‘Yes.’ The young man said this can never be true because he had known about Desai who was at his own university. The person—no longer a youth—is now the editor of a political journal and a political activist. I saw him last in hospital after his bones had been broken in an accident.

Later the Boss asked me if I knew N.C. or had seen him. I told him that I did not know him except by name. He did, as the editor of a responsible journal, show me the article to make sure of the facts—stories mentioned as facts—in it. I still had not met N.C.

But I came to know him better some years later as a member of the Press Commission. The Chairman, Justice Goswami, who had retired from the Supreme Court, was keen N.C. should join as he was keen that a supposedly Rightist journalist like Narasimham should join us. At that time N.C. had a dialogue and a public discussion with the Prime Minister, Morarji Desai. This debate is a classic statement of the interplay of journalistic ethics and independence of political authority. Every journalist should read N.C.’s statement.

There were innumerable occasions later on when I turned to N.C. for advice—and, infrequently, information. He never withheld either. Nor I hope was his wisdom, born of experience and logic which P. V. Narasimha Rao has spoken of, wasted.

One of them I will mention because it illustrates N.C.’s method of work. At a meeting of the Editors Guild of India, an editor—now a member of the Rajya Sabha with the ticket of a political party—wanted the Guild to join his court case as amicus curae. The Guild’s President, N.C.—and he was a democrat everywhere—turned to us as office-bearers for advice. I asked N.C. if the editor member would stay the course. In fact the editor soon came under the influence of the proprietor and withdrew the case in which he had charged the politician with much misdemeanour.

When Chanchal Sarkar and I rang up to say if we could come and see him (this was soon after Renu Chakravartty’s death where he was present because he cancelled at the very last minute a flight to Bombay on public purpose to attend to his private matter), he said we needn’t come, he would come himself. He was as good as his word. He turned up on time and stayed with us for some two hours.

But N.C. was no longer a private person. Like M.C.—M. Chalapathi Rao—he was a public figure and an institution. He would say he would come at 6 PM. He would roll in at 9 PM and have his dinner.

To whom does one turn to now for advice and information? For, he was trusted by all and enjoyed the confidence of all. If there was an Ajatashatru after Lal Bahadur Shastri, he was to be found in N.C.

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