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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII No 27, June 26, 2010

For N.C. Democracy and Socialism were Inseparable

Sunday 27 June 2010, by K R Narayanan


On Nikhil Chakravartty’s twelfth death anniversary on June 27, 2010, we remember the founder of this journal by reproducing four tributes to him after his death by noted personalities (the former President of India and three veteran journalists) who knew him closely. None of them is, however, currently with us. The piece by K.R. Narayanan appeared in The Book Review (August 1998) and was reproduced later in Mainstream (September 12, 1998). The piece by Chanchal Sarkar was published in the first issue of Mainstream that came out after N.C.’s death, that is, on July 4, 1998 while the one by Prabhash Joshi, written in Hindi and published in Jansatta, was translated into English and carried in Mainstream’s Independence Day Special Number (August 15, 1998) and M.V. Desai’s tribute was published in Mainstream (July 11, 1998).

It was in 1963 that I met Nikhil Chakravartty for the first time. I had just taken over as Director of the China Division in the Ministry of External Affairs. He came to see me in his capacity as a journalist, as someone who knew China and was deeply interested in Sino-Indian relations. From this very first encounter I was attracted by his unassuming ways, his vast knowledge of things, his insights into people and politics, his keen intellect and power of analysis, the quiet sense of humour that enlivened his conversation and the deep humanity that broke out through his Socialist argumentations. Very soon we became friends and our families became friends.

In 1975 when Chandra Chari, Uma Iyengar and my daughter Chitra ventured on starting The Book Review, Nikhilda was one of the enthusiastic supporters of the project. Later when The Book Review was facing a crisis of publication it was he who took it over and published it from his Perspective Publications and kept it going for ten long years. When the three founding women editors were able to take over the publication, Nikhilda returned
it to them and with a financial contribution. Nikhilda was in a real sense the foster parent of The Book Review.

I recall vividly Nikhil’s visit to Beijing when I was at the Embassy there and his stay with us in 1978. He was visiting Beijing after many years. It was interesting to see how he traced out some of his old friends in Beijing and how warmly they received him and entertained him. He had so many memories and stories to tell of the old golden days of India-China friendship under Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai. We went together to see the famous Dazhai commune and, of course, the splendid monuments of Beijing. His observations of China of the time were acute and educative. As a guest he was the easiest and the most delightful to look after.

On return to India we picked up the old threads of friendship with the Chakravartty family. By this time I was a non-official—Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. I discovered that as a non-official it was easier to deal with Nikhilda. He was indeed a born non-official. We came closer to each other during this period. I discovered how fond he was, though very undemonstratively, of his son Sumit and his grandson whom he called Mithi. His wife, Renu, was for him a life-companion, for she had been a colleague and a comrade as well, an active and equal participant in several initiatives, political and social. Her passing away was a blow to him; he did not show his grief and did not permit it to impede his work and mission in life. But I think he was not quite the same after the death of Renu.

When I became the Vice-President he still used to visit us very frequently. But he was never at ease with officialdom and meticulously avoided attending all official parties, unless it had some connection with his profession—journalism. I invited him several times to join on my foreign visits, but he was not interested. When I was making an official visit to Iran in 1996 I told him that I would like to take Sumit with the group of journalists accompanying me. To my surprise he replied, “Why not his father?” This was the first time Nikhil had suggested anything for himself. He came with me along with Katyal of The Hindu, Saeed Naqvi and Zahid Ali Khan. It was a most rewarding experience for me to be with him on an official trip. We went to Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. Nikhil’s observations of Iran were most enlightening, he sensed with an uncanny instinct the change that was in the making in Iranian society.

A conversion with Nikhilda was liberal education—sometimes it was a revolutionary education. New facets of issues used to show up. And his recollections of Indian personalities, leaders and events were amazingly rich, throwing new light on the personalities and on the history of the nationalist movement and the post-independence period. I used to ask Nikhil why he did not record his conversations because they were things he would not jot down on paper. Now they are lost irretrievably.

Everyone knew that Nikhil Chakravartty was a Socialist. But he was a democrat among socialists and a socialist among democrats. For him democracy and socialism were inseparable. He strove through his chosen medium of journalism to keep the nation attuned to the national imperative of social justice and the international imperative of equality among nations. He spoke as he thought, simply; he wrote as he spoke, clearly; but both were thought-provoking and scintillating. Not for Nikhilda is the glib phrase, the shallow one-liner, the hidden jibe. Not for him the praise of authority or the medallion of public favour. Nikhil Chakravartty believed that journalism was a calling, not just a profession, much less a lucrative business.

The fact that his weekly the Mainstream has not only survived through the years, but flourished as a journal, spreading his ideas and outlook on politics and social affairs, not in any exclusive manner but in the welter of different ideas and opinions that found place in its pages, is a testimony and a tribute to his purposiveness in the midst of his myriad-minded interests and concerns. Among the many contributions he has bequeathed to us the Mainstream is unique. That he has left it in the young and able hands of Sumit Chakravartty is a matter of pride and solace to all his friends who cherish unfor-gettable memories of this lovable and humane personality, this unpretentious intellectual, this unassuming crusader for progressive causes, and this gentle giant of journalism of the twentieth century.

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