Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Chronicler of Calcutta

He will not make a great impression at the first sight. There is nothing extraordinary about his appearance and if someday you find him walking down on a street, you may not even bother a second glance. But if you know what he did for last 40 odd years you will realize how extraordinary a man he is. He is very special in his nature of work. In the ordinary appearance of that unassuming, simple old man there lies a very beautiful mind. A mind of a genius, who dedicated his life to a very difficult task of documenting a city for the benefit of the coming generations. It’s because of him that Calcutta knows about its past with such authenticity. No , he is not the only one who fell in love with this city . There are many foreigners and sons and daughters of the soil who wrote about Bengal and Calcutta ….but in the recent times, his work is the most well researched work about the history and culture of Calcutta . A quintessential storyteller,he loves to talk and talk about calcutta. He can give you as many stories about streets of Kolkata as you care to listen. Each one better than the earlier one.

Many old cities have had chroniclers of their own. People who dedicated their lives writing about the city and its history in great details for the benefit of all. I read about some medieval chroniclers for Istanbul , I have read books by Abdul Halim Sharar on Lucknow and today I met the most well known contemporary chronicler of Calcutta P.Thankkapan Nair. This charming gentleman, who will complete 75 this year, has spent four decades at National Library researching about Calcutta. He probably knows much more about the city than anyone else and no wonder even the Governor of West Bengal accepts that he is not a walking encyclopedia but a complete University about Calcutta . Mr. Nair has written 40 books about Calcutta and he intends to write many more.
I met him at National Library where my team is doing a Performance audit. In fact, we hunt him out as we were not getting some basic information about the Library from the official channels. I was surprised to know that even today every morning he will dutifully turn up at National Library and research through the dusty volumes till late afternoon. His work is often disrupted by other readers who seek his assistance about the library , as he is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable person about the Library also. He knows better about the location of the books that most librarians and their assistants …as unlike them, he loved each and every volume stored over there, in those dusty racks . I found the old adage on simplicity as the biggest characteristic of a genius ,true in Mr. Nair’s persona. First thing that strike me was his sparking eyes. Very candidly he informed me that he has to do this to this city which gave him refuge for his entire life( he was born and brought up at Travancore, Kerala) .. “After all, this much I owe to this great city” he stated in a matter of fact tone . He told me his simple philosophy of life . “I do not take favours . Do not take royalties and do not care for any honour etc…that is why I am so fearless. I do not need political patronage, bureaucrat’s approval or scholarly sanction for my work. I call a spade a spade and no wonder, I do not feature in most people’s good books.” “They don’t like me but they know they need me for some of their works…so I guess the endure me for that.” He chuckled. In true calcuttan adda tradition, he is always game for a chat and ever ready to help. I asked for 10 minutes and he happily chatted for 2 hours with my team. I learnt that though he has written extensively about the city and its life over the centuries , he started his research when he decided to write about simple things of national importance. National symbols, peacock and mango for example. Do you know Mr.Nair wrote two volumes on The Mango in Indian Life and Culture? Today after penning 48 books, he is much sought after by various people for various reasons. A TV channel want him to feature for their series on 100 haunted houses of Kolkata , the Police Commissioner persuaded him to write about the History of Kolkata Police, tomorrow he will lecture the students of IIT Kharagpur enlightening them about the history of their Alma Mater which was a prison in the British period for freedom fighters, state PWD consult him for the original designs of heritage buildings and Governor of the state call for him whenever in doubt about some monument or event related to Calcutta.

Calcutta New Market in 1940s

Mr Nair lives alone at Kolkata as his family is now settled in his native Kerala town. He purposely lives without a Car, TV, computer etc (“ If I collect all these things to looks after..when will I do my research”?) . When I showed my amazement at his ascetic lifestyle, he simply laughed and confided that he enjoys all these luxuries when he is back at Kerala but Calcutta is his workplace, meant only for work . “Why should I indulge in such luxuries over here at the cost of precious time ?”

After meeting Mr. Nair , I was thinking how much discipline it takes to bring out well researched chronicles…even on very simple things. At times I do wonder, how many people in the coming generations would like to know the fact and fiction about Job Charnock or the ghost of Hastings house ? Probably most people living in Alipur area of Calcutta would not care to know about the Belvedere , the magnificent building that once housed the high and mighty of British Raj and today stores the invaluable collection of books as National Library , still standing tall in their neighbourhood . But there was something very touching , very puritan and yet very symbolic in Mr. Nair’s style of working….his quest for trivia, his eagerness to hunt out old books and periodicals and above all his austere lifestyle to ensure the unbiased, unpoliticized research. In Sanskrit books, I have read about search for knowledge for your own happiness( ‘swantah sukhay’) but after a very long time I saw someone who is still perusing that in this age of tabloid journalism and reality shows.


Swagata said...

Hi Atoorva
I've been reading your blog for sometime now and your latest post on PT Nair is a fascinating read. And so were you thoughts on St John's Church, Calcutta.
I'm journalist from UK with an avid interest in British India. I stumbled on to your blog quite by accident, while researching on Calcutta. But since then, I've been quite a regular visitor.
I wondered if I could write to you on your email regarding what I guess is of shared interest - the city of Calcutta.
My email id is
Look forward to hearing from you.

Kaushik said...

Absolutely! On a chance visit at his residence, tucked away in one of the dingy nooks of Sankharipara in Bhowanipur, on a mission of tracing some of the antecedents of the evolution centering the city port, what struck us was the disarming simplicity of this man. Never being egotistical or vainly possessive of the treasure trove of information he has been able to cull and compile during the last five decades of a single-minded, painstaking and passionate research from a host of journals, books, reviews, monographs etc , so minutely documented in his hand-written files, (had a faint resemblance with Pheluda’s Sidhu Jetha,? ) he excitedly showed some of the relevant materials which could provide some light to the references we were looking for.

What mesmerized me was that even in this age of cyber-revolution, when a tweak of a button could have exposed him to a vast array of information about some of the fascinating aspects of the city he holds so dear to his heart, he has assiduously avoided using such devices and concentrated almost wholly on doing the entire exercise on himself : meeting people, jotting down references, taking long-hand notes, covering large distances over public transport to some referral points in the off-beat outskirts of the city to get access to some little known vignettes of the city, get down to the National Library to deeply immerse himself in books, brooding over certain ‘non-topical’ issues, assigned to him informally by any institution (ranging from as diverse as who hanged Mangal Pandey or unraveling the lost threads of the history of Hijli ), to trudge a lonely way home, before taking a frugal meal for the day (loaves and biscuits)!

Perhaps at the end of the day, he sleeps a contented man or doesn’t he ? Except from the occasional warm acknowledgement or grateful hugs from the enlightened intelligentsia, including our very own Governor Shri Gandhi, there has not been much of an official recognition for the tireless efforts he has unquestioningly put in! He has already donated a large volume of his collection to Town Hall but I wonder, how far these institutes, say our libraries and the Archives, the repositories of priceless archival materials, culled from such diverse sources, including the private collections of the dedicated likes of Mr Nair, are themselves aware of them and what concerted measures have they taken to generally sensitize the people of these legacies, their inherent historic worth!

And what a sad commentary on our indifference ! The name did not ring any bell to the neighbour next door , who looked the other way when asked about his residence!

Deeply appreciative of the sensitive posts you have put in your blog! Why they are drawing so few responses ? Warm Regards.
Kaushik Chatterjee

Sudipto Basu said...

All I can say is that I must thank you for telling me about such an extraordinary person-- unparalleled not only in knowledge and wisdom, but humble enough to shun all publicity. Which is, in fact, an ideal I am trying to inculcate. I'd rather be a humble wisdom-thirsty unknown man than a bloated media-generated 'idol'.

This post makes a sharp contrast with your latest post.. On one hand, we still have gems like Mr. Nair; and on the other hand, we have morons who are eager to have a Padma award, that too for little good contribution to Indian society.

Chief said...

Hi Atoorva,

Really interesting stuff. I've been reading up on Calcutta for the past one year and have even launched a company called, where we do walking tours for tourists and the like.

I'm glad that there are more people in this world who care about knowing the past.

Trust me from what I've read so far, Calcutta is amazing. It has seen so much and been so much (and continues to) that rarely any city comes close.

If you care, I can take a group of you guys on a walk around the Dalhousie Square, which our walkers have been loving, and show you what I've found. I can promise you that you'd be left wanting for more.

Warm regards,

Explorer Ifte

dolphin said...

first hand account of a prominent historian. over 40 years of research only about Calcutta!

no wonder he knows the history, present and the future of the city.

thanks for sharing!

Exper said...

I wish to get in touch with PT Nair about a picture of the New Market that has been used in The Chronicler of Calcutta.
Will someone please give me an address or let me know where I can get the picture from or others like it.
Thanks. Jayant K