Brian Paul Bach
As most everyone knows, the eminent historian and specialist in Calcutta Studies, P. Thankappan Nair, recently decamped from his longtime domicile in the city and has returned to his native seat in Kerala.
Since the media, including Souvik Ghosh in this magazine, have profiled him in appreciative detail, I’d like to add my own reflections on the man, his city, and me.
When exploring Calcutta’s architecture firsthand, I was introduced to P.T. (if I may) via my first Calcutta guru, Samaren Roy of Behala. When P.T. knew of my intentions for a future book, he immediately and ever after regarded me with an acceptance and understanding that, no matter who I was or wherefrom, the results of my pursuit must be based on careful research in order to arrive at credible presentation. These, I soon discovered, were his own standards, which I’ve endeavoured to follow.
For me a sort of bond formed between us: he as avuncular guru, me as eager chela. Both of us are non-Calcuttan in our origins, but by his dedication and achievements he is consummately Calcuttan through and through. His independence in approaching and documenting the city’s history is legendary, and has been duly noted through the years. I’ve always thought the moniker assigned to him, ‘The Barefoot Scholar’, though catchy and not at all derogatory, was wholly inadequate, as if he were some kind of novelty. We know of course, that his independent methods in Calcutta studies have always been couched in the most sincere and commendable avenues of research. To his Scholar status I would add Accurate, Thorough, and Modest. Still, he knows that the popular label is affectionate, and happily, his appreciators are legion.
Of his many works, ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’ is my favourite. By its thoroughfares shall a city be known, and P.T.’s exhaustive examination of all the interlinking elements therein coalesce to form a unique and lasting portrait of the metropolis. Once, when doing research at the University of Minnesota’s Ames Library, I required a look at P.T.’s ‘Streets’ to ascertain an inquiry. And there it was, up on the shelf, so I could relax. In addition, the endowment of his library to the Town Hall is educational and civic consciousness at its best.
In person, in conversation, one of his trademark deliveries is a rapid-fire ‘No, no, no, no!’ This is not to negate anything, but as a signal that an important point is about to be made. His feistiness in clearing up Calcuttan convolutions and misconceptions is just as fascinating as it is edifying, and many is the time I’ve seen him smile wryly or chuckle at an absurdity. In fact, he can wax positively puckish, given the opportunity. One winter evening he was all bundled up and taking Ayurvedic syrup to nurse a cold. I brandished my camera to get an impromptu portrait, to which he crowed, ‘Ah! You like my clown hat that much, hmm??’
In the midst of one of my summer visits, he was particularly industrious, working on about five different projects at once, each one obviously organized in his mind, to be tapped out on his assertively-manual typewriter for publication. In such a continuously sensuous city, his management of distractions was not only admirable, but enviable. No phone, TV or other bothers. Simplicity was built in. The instant coffee he served was admittedly austere, but the biscuits proffered were impeccably-arranged. This, from a man who had the dignity (not temerity) to cancel an interview in the Writers’ Building office of Chief Minister Jyoti Basu – to his face – as a result of not being offered tea, or even a chair, on the appointed occasion. P.T.’s fierce independence is never anything less than refreshing.
I found his daily schedule to be expertly regulated. Mornings at the National Library, a mere stroll through storied Bhowanipore, then over Tolly’s Nullah, and back. Afternoons were officially branded as ‘unpredictable’ (probably when P.T. did his most adventuresome forays), but evenings were open. After each of our sessions, he always insisted on guiding me back towards the Metro. He was always a bit concerned that I might get lost in the greatness of the core city. I never have, though. Besides, with over a thousand pages of his ‘Streets’ book to augment my maps, I could always determine the who, what, and why of the routes I trod. By his research, I learned that his own street, named Kansaripara (which we walked along now, he narrating interesting facts and perspectives the whole time), has been inhabited by smiths working copper, brass, silver, and gold for its entire existence.
His attentiveness has always been endearing. At the conclusion of our most recent exchange, he was particularly anxious, though. ‘Be very careful crossing the street!’ he warned. The street in question was named after Harish Mukherjee, the Father of Indian journalism. Once across, I turned about and saw P.T., in his ‘clown hat’, keenly following my progress. Once I signalled all was well, he lingered a few moments, just to make sure. This time, it was my turn to ensure that he was satisfied with our parting, and that he was safely homeward bound.
Mr. Nair, you are a scholar and a gentleman, the Dean of Calcutta Studies, and I salute you for your achievements in the furtherance of understanding one of the world’s great cities. It is a high honour knowing you and being your chela. Live long and prosper!
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!