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.