By Zubair Ahmed
As a literature student undergoing my graduation in Chennai in 1992-94, the burning desire to become a journalist was at its peak. Fascinated by books, magazines and periodicals, I would always try to find time to familiarize myself with the nuances of the field by religiously going through news reports and editorial columns published in “The Hindu” and “The Indian Express”, the two English dailies published from Chennai. My mentor, Jameel Ahmed Sb made me take memberships at both British Council Library and American Consulate on Mount Road. I would find myself at the Libraries, literally, everyday and get fascinated by the feel and look of the foreign newspapers and periodicals. It was a life changing experience for me.
After the demolition of Babri Masjid, the communal atmosphere of our nation had started to vitiate. There were many attempts to replicate the riots in many parts of the country. The country was at crossroads. Identity politics had come to the fore. Religious identities were stressed upon. The way ahead looked very worrisome. But, there were peace-loving, secular citizens who wanted to rein on the deteriorating condition.
A group of stalwarts, including retired judges, bureaucrats, senior journalists, social workers, religious leaders, sensible politicians and literary figures from across the country came together and decided to form a platform – Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity (FDCA). A chapter of the same was also started in Chennai. I too as a young lad wanted to be associated with this endeveour. And, it opened a different avenue for me in my life with memories that I still cherish.
Fortunately, on the launch of the forum in Chennai, Mr Kuldip Nayar, the renowned journalist and syndicate columnist was to be part of the inaugural function. To my surprise, I was asked to liaison with him. It was indeed a once in a lifetime opportunity for me.
The day, he was supposed to arrive at Meenambakkam Airport in Chennai, I reached well in advance, not to miss him. My aim was to do my best to impress him and get close. I knew him very well as I was an avid reader of his column – “Between the Lines”. As soon as I saw a giant of a man coming out with a sheet of paper and a pen in his hand, my face brightened up. Instead of looking for someone, who was supposed to receive him, he was searching for a chair to sit. Without waiting for him to come out, I rushed in and introduced myself. He smiled at me while looking for the chair. He found an empty one and headed towards it. He started to read the paper he was carrying. I tried to have a glance over it. It was all scribbled over with many words and sentences striked off. I couldn’t decipher a single word. Observing my curiosity, he handed over the paper to me and asked me to read it. I couldn’t. It all looked greek to me. He smiled and told that it was his latest column, he was working on while on flight. He was running out of time as he had to fax it as soon as its complete. Sitting over there, he completed it and then showed me. It was same for me, once again. I couldn’t read it. He told me that only his secretary could decipher it. He immediately rushed towards a payphone, made a call and faxed it.
Relaxed, he started asking about me. Non-stop, I started blurting out about my ambition and aspirations and how lucky I am to be with one of the great journalists of our country. He was so down to earth that he made me feel comfortable. As soon as we reached the Hotel, he asked to join him. He kept asking questions about my education, the city and how I was preparing to be a journalist. I was more curious to know about his London days, his column on LTTE and the recent one on Benazir Bhutto.
Whenever, in the morning I went to meet him, he would ask me to read the headlines of the newspaper for him. I felt so high reading news to a journalist, who had seen in and out of journalism in India.
We had four days in the city together. I would rush to college and skip my classes and get to the hotel to spend time with Kuldip Nayar. He would be busy making calls and fixing appointments to meet people. He asked me to accompany him. He asked the driver to drop us near the office of The Hindu newspaper. We went in and headed to meet Mr N Ram, then editor of The Hindu. I was on cloud seven to be with two stalwarts. I keenly paid attention to their conversation on the affairs of the country. They had their agreements and disagreements. He in fact introduced me to N Ram as an aspirant journalist. I too tried to sneek into their conversation.
Then, we headed to meet Malini Parthasarthy, who had just come back from Colombo after interviewing Sri Lankan Prime Minister on LTTE and the role of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). It was an interesting conversation with Nayar aggressively criticizing the Congress government for its policies.
When we came out after the meeting, he asked the driver to go. He told me that we will take a stroll on Mount Road and go to the Indian Express office. It was 200 mtrs away. He put his hand in his pocket and took out a handful of one rupee coins. While walking on the pavement, he kept looking for incapacitated and disabled people sitting on the pavement with bowls. He would stop and drop one or two coins. He kept doing it till he ran out of coins. A gesture, I won’t be able to forget. Small mercies indeed!
We met the Editors of both “The Indian Express” and its Tamil edition “Dina Mani” He enquired about his columns and its response. The answer was quite positive. They discussed a lot of issues covered in his columns. While coming out, I was a little curious. I asked him why he wasn’t publishing his column in “The Hindu”, a respectable paper with whom he had best of relations.
He smiled and told me that, his columns are published in more than 70 newspapers and periodicals in English as well as vernacular languages every week. Some of the papers, he give it for free and others he charged. On his choice of news papers, his columns were published, he told me that a few papers have a communal bent, and he was keen that the readers of such papers must read his columns. He had a better opinion about The Hindu, as it maintained a balanced tone.
The inaugural function of FDCA went well. The city responded well to the new initiative. There were many renowned persons from the city who joined the Forum and pledged their unstinted support to create an amicable relationship among different communities and also strive to protect democracy and secular values.
Those were the days, when you had to okay your flight tickets. And there was a glitch. Kuldip Nayar’s return ticket was not “OK”. But, he wasn’t perturbed. He had asked me to follow it up. Skipping my classes, I ran around to get it okayed. The flight was in the afternoon. It was 10.00 am. There were a few people waiting in his hotel room, all fingers crossed. Some of them cursing me for being given the job, which they felt I would fail. And, when, I barged into the room with the okayed ticket, Kuldip Nayar got up from his seat and came towards me, hugged me tight and said, “I had full faith on Zubair. I knew he will do it.”
I can still feel that hug. The reassuring hug that trust can be built between people who had just met a couple of days ago. While departing from the city, he had an advice for me. He asked me to come to Delhi after my graduation and join him. Unfortunately, fate had some different plans. It never materialized. However, whenever he visited the city, he would inform me and I would spend time with him apprising myself with the world of news and journalism. It did help me in being a human being who could do a little bit of journalism with a humane face.
When I read his memoirs, Beyond the Lines, a couple of years ago, memories started pouring in. Though, his columns had off late taken a back seat, his take on events, politics and policies, especially, our flawed foreign policies have so much for us to contemplate and take recourse.
Rest in Peace Kuldip Nayarji. You will be missed for many reasons. We will try to find the spirit of India from your between the lines. We shall remember the glow of the candles you lit to erase the darkness in the broad daylight. And of course, your legacy will remain etched in the collective conscience of the nation.