Updated: November 23, 2018 10:33:13 pm
In the end, his exit was as quiet as his existence. On Thursday morning, Parameswaran Thankappan Nair, one of Kolkata’s foremost living chroniclers, left the city he has called home for 63 years, bound for Aluva in Kerala, the land of his birth. Coincidentally, it was on a Thursday that he first set foot in Kolkata.
His humble abode, very literally speaking, on Kansaripara Road, an old-world neighbourhood in the city’s Bhawanipore area, was astonishingly apt as the home of a man steeped in the history of Kolkata and its various institutions.
Typically, the octogenarian always answered a knock himself. At the tea stall near the lane leading to his rented two-room house, a motley crowd of Bihari taxi drivers spoke about “Nair babu” in the present tense, as though he would still appear at the familiar green door with its fading paint. Later, one of them smiled sheepishly and said, “Asal mein, kabhi bhi gaye nahi na kidhar (actually, we’ve never seen him go anywhere).”
Not entirely accurate. Ever since he arrived at Howrah station as a penniless youth in 1955, the peripatetic nature of Nair’s love affair with Kolkata took him to every part of the city several times, very often on foot. He came and went, as he did most things, quietly. The tea stall owner, Kumar, said Nair babu would always nod a greeting, which was about as far as their long-time familiarity went.
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The elderly grocer who provided initial directions to Nair’s house said all one needed to do on reaching the vicinity was to ask for Nair by his last name. “Or you could just say PT,” he said. On being told that PT had left the neighbourhood in which he had become such a fixture, the grocer reacted with polite disbelief. “He’ll come back, I’m sure.”
The sense of permanence is hard to miss. And it’s hard to blame those who refuse to believe that Nair has finally bid adieu to the city that has exerted such a persistent hold on him. His relentless attempts to document every aspect of Kolkata’s history, particularly from the 17th to the 19th centuries, led a few experts to describe him as an archivist rather than as a serious scholar.
During an interview several years ago, Nair had said he was happy to be whatever people thought he was. He wasn’t really concerned about labels, or about the criticism of his relatively pedestrian Bengali. And the bouts of introspection regarding his relative obscurity in his adopted city were rare lapses, which he didn’t dwell on. He never owned a telephone, or computer, only as many books as he could fit into his house.
All his 60-odd books were written in English, a fact solemnly pointed out by Mahendra Nath Seth, a bright-eyed little man of 59, who was 12 when he first met Nair. “I was running my father’s shop, and this year, I fell too ill to continue. Even so, Nair babu would tell me every day that I needed to get back to work. And I would tell him that he needed to write his books in Hindi, so I could read them. Now, there’s no chance,” he said sadly.
How Nair arrived in Kolkata as a wanderer and, on the strength of a mystifying, lifelong passion, decided to make it his home, should in itself be the subject of a book, even a film. As his wife raised their three children in Kerala and visited him on occasion, he continued what can only be called a solitary labour of love. His work did not make him a household name, brought him very little money, and took a lot out of him. It also made him the first port of call for anyone who wanted anything to do with old Kolkata.
Few people have recorded the history of this grand old city and its fascinating streets with the perseverance that P. Thankappan Nair has. For that, if for nothing else, Kolkata owes him abiding gratitude. A more memorable farewell would have been appropriate, but perhaps not entirely welcome, for Nair babu.
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