The ‘barefoot historian’ of Calcutta from Keralahttps://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/in-a-land-far-from-home-parameswaran-thankappan-nair-5483563/

The ‘barefoot historian’ of Calcutta from Kerala

Six decades ago, a Malayali typist found his calling on the streets of Calcutta — and the city its most unflagging chronicler.

P Thankappan Nair, P Thankappan Nair books, P Thankappan Nair work, P Thankappan Nair Gandhiji in Calcutta, Gandhiji in Calcutta
East India’s Company: PT Nair at his Chendamangalam home in Kerala. (Photo: J Binduraj)

On an October afternoon in 1955, Parameswaran Thankappan Nair alighted from the Madras Mail at the Howrah railway station, carrying with him a bag of clothes and certificates. Like countless others before him, Nair, then 22, had spent a couple of years looking for a job before deciding to make the long journey to Calcutta (now Kolkata) from Manjapra, an obscure village in Ernakulam district of Kerala.

Last month, over six decades later, the 86-year-old finally gave in to the requests of his family in Kerala and bid farewell to Kolkata, a city he has lovingly chronicled in 62 books.

In the Calcutta of the 1950s, Nair’s first job was that of a typist at a private firm. It bored him as much as the city fascinated him — its rich colonial past, intellectual heft and its ability to carry together both the rich and the downtrodden.

He would soon leave his well-paying job to write full-time — about the city streets, its police force and history. In the decades spent in Calcutta, mostly on foot, soaking in the sights, meeting people, Nair proved to be more than a temporary migrant. His meticulous documentation of the city earned him the moniker of Calcutta’s “barefoot historian”.

Advertising

His curiosity about Calcutta’s past led him to British accounts, corporation records and oral accounts. The Malayali didn’t take to Bengali food, especially the river fish, and would instead eat at south Indian restaurants at first, when he stayed near the Kalighat temple, and years later cook at his Bhawanipore home. He did pick up the language — he could both read and speak Bangla, but chose to converse in Hindi.

“I have seen Calcutta expand quite a bit during the time I was there. For example, Salt Lake didn’t exist at the time. Tollygunge, where the film studios were located, was a separate municipality. When I arrived, there were mostly local Bengali families and refugees trickling in,” says Nair. “Calcutta was very cosmopolitan, it had space for all — Biharis, Bengalis and the English. The local families were cultured, educated and would look up to the British, imitating them in style,” says Nair, when we meet him at his home in Chendamangalam, a handloom weavers’ village near Kochi.

Life has settled into a rhythm here. Nair plays with his grandchildren when they return from school, does a bit of gardening and spends the evenings at the neighbourhood tea shop, reminiscing about Calcutta. Some dates and periods are stark fresh: at other times, his memory falters. “Unlike Malayalis, who would lie to get their way, Bengalis were an honest people. They were always friendly and cooperative. There was never any discrimination whether you were a Punjabi, Hindustani, Bengali or Malayali,” says Nair.

A year after he arrived in Calcutta, a stenographer’s job at the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) took him to Shillong. “In office, I would sneak into the ASI library to read. In the evening, after work, I would attend BA History classes at St Antony’s (evening) College,” he says.

In 1961, Nair was transferred back to the ASI’s central office in Calcutta, where he continued his studies and earned an LLB degree from the University of Calcutta. Following a spat with his colleagues at ASI, Nair threw away a secure government job and joined a newspaper, Engineering Times, started by a Malayali from Aluva, in 1966, as its correspondent in Bombay (now Mumbai). During this time, he married Seetha Devi, a schoolteacher from Chendamangalam.

P Thankappan Nair, P Thankappan Nair books, P Thankappan Nair work, P Thankappan Nair Gandhiji in Calcutta, Gandhiji in Calcutta
An assortment of the books he has written on Calcutta. (Photo: J Binduraj)

In 1976, Calcutta drew him back. He took up a two-room rented accommodation on Kansari Para road in Bhawanipore area of south Calcutta. Countless hours were spent at the National Library in Alipore. His meagre earnings were spent at the haunt of Calcutta’s bibliophiles, College Street, a tram-ride away.

“There’s no city in India like Calcutta which is so apt for a researcher or historian,” he says. “The cost of living is very low. Apart from the canteen at National Library, I wouldn’t eat outside. I would cook my own food. I would spend very less. I lived frugally,” he says.

One of the earliest books he wrote was on Calcutta’s streets. The street names and their origins would fascinate him. He says he discovered a lot more than what the locals knew.

“Do you know where Rani Rashmoni Road is? Do you know its history?” he asks of his audience, who are unlikely to know about this street in present-day Esplanade in central Calcutta. “It was the road that (19th century zamindar and founder of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple) Rani Rashmoni took from her home to the Hooghly river, where she took a bath. That’s where her home was in those days. Nobody knew these things. I would find out about them and write. Do you know that before the Maidan (the Brigade Parade Ground) came into being, a lot of families lived there?”

Over the next two decades, Nair’s body of work would swell phenomenally: Calcutta: Origin of the Name (1985), A History of the Calcutta Press, the Beginnings (1987), Calcutta Municipal Corporation at a Glance (1989), Calcutta Bevy: A Collection of Rare Poems (1989), Hicky and His Gazette (2001), Origin of the Kolkata Police (2007), to name a few. His latest and 63rd work — Gandhiji in Calcutta — is scheduled for a January launch.

The octogenarian says he didn’t mind how many copies his books sold or which publishers these came through. Most of the copies would go to the libraries, some he would keep for himself. “I have never asked for any money from the publishers. I don’t want royalty. I never wanted to earn through writing books.”

Nair’s disinterest in money set his family back a long way. As he chronicled Calcutta’s history, wife Seetha, who spent 11 years with him in Calcutta, working at a school there, chose to hold the fort in Kerala in the mid ’80s, bringing up their three children with her government-school salary. “My parents were aged, there was no one to take care of them. We had kids,” Seetha says in a low voice, adding, with a smile, “But he wouldn’t have written so much if there was a family to take care of….Ishtathodu koodi cheytha joli aanu…calcutta-yodu andhamaya sneham thonna (He did his job out of sheer love. He was blindly in love with Calcutta).”

“No Bengali has written of Calcutta (the way I have), why did they not write it?” Nair butts in. “Money was never the objective, yes, we have suffered a lot, but we have been able to preserve the history of Calcutta, haven’t we?” He has no time to regret the return to base. “My grandkids were waiting here for me. They have to be guided in the right direction,” he says.

Advertising

On November 22, his life of six decades and more were packed in cartons and suitcases, as the couple stepped out of their residence on Kansari Para Road. Seetha recalls how people in the neighbourhood gathered to say their goodbyes: “They didn’t know or read any of the books he had written because they were in English, but somehow they felt that he had done something for their city.”