The barefoot historian who saw Calcutta from its streets - Hindustan Times

The barefoot historian who saw Calcutta from its streets

Jun 20, 2024 09:56 PM IST

What will be the legacy of P Thankappan Nair? As a writer who employed many methods to construct the history of the common man?

Historians use different constructs to retell history’s many platitudes: Nowhere in the world has one particular “history” ruled absolute. The same can be said about Calcutta (now Kolkata) too, as recorded by the self-trained historian, P Thankappan Nair, who published over 60 volumes on the different aspects of the city’s history. With Nair’s passing on June 18, at the age of 91, an era ended.

P Thankappan Nair (HT File)
P Thankappan Nair (HT File)

Born in 1933 in Manjapra, a village in Kerala, Nair arrived in Calcutta in 1955 after completing his matriculation. The city was still to shed the colonial hues. It was also teeming with post-Partition refugees. It was not easy for an outsider like Nair to get a hang of the city. After graduation, while working as a typist, Nair became an amateur historian of the city. Equally, his life as a flaneur took him to the inner hearts of Bengal, to the riversides, dense forests and to the tangled populated spaces.

His job as a typist in a city journal introduced him to a lot of regulars in many publications at that time. All of them had different stories about Calcutta and its many inner lives. This prompted Nair to delve deep into the history of Bengal. He read for long hours at the city’s public libraries. “He is sent from Kerala to Bengal to narrate our lives more than what we know,” popular singer Suchitra Mitra once said about Nair.

His reading was not just limited to history. His training in anthropology helped him to view and construct anthro-social histories of the people around him. For him, history meant people, not rulers and pundits. He defied the historical methods of colonial historiographers and those trained by them. In some sense, it won’t be out of context to claim that Nair was one of the foremost material cultural historians of India.

Of his many remarkable books, British Beginnings in Bengal 1600-1660 and A History of Calcutta’s Streets stand apart due to their intense scholarship and archival acumen. Calcutta’s streets, familiar and unfamiliar, turn out to be veritable jewels of information in the latter book. Nair observes with the verve of Walter Benjamin; he does not leave a street, a shop or a brothel. When one walks in the streets, one really understands the city, its “subterranean” spaces where people are condemned to live like rats, the fringes where refugees and other marginalised sections struggle to make a living.

I was taken to his house by friends while I was in the city for an academic lecture. He lived amidst piles of papers, books, ledgers and other things that were arranged in an order that only he could figure. Books sat on his bed and on the ridge of the big windows, and writing material sprawled on the unwashed floors. He asked me about my talk. When I mentioned how history is subverted, he turned serious and asked: “Wasn’t it always like that, for the benefit of a few?”

Nair did not lead a cosy life as a historian. In the late 1990s, he was seeking support for his various forms of research. He requested Jyoti Basu, the then chief minister of Bengal, to provide him with a monthly stipend of 3,000, which the government declined. However, his indomitable willpower did not deter him. As a tireless researcher and writer, he kept working. He wrote about the history of the National Library in Kolkata and later, BS Kesavan, the national librarian.

Nair’s personal tragedies were immense. Yet he withstood all of that, including the untimely death of his son. For him, the public was everything; the private was a space where one constructs the future. He declined to sell his collection of books, paper, and other materials. He reportedly declined an offer from a foreign library to buy his books for a large sum; he preferred to donate them to the Kolkata Town Hall Society.

Nair relocated to Chendamangalam, Kerala in 2018, the native place of his partner, Seethadevi, who is also a poet. On the day of leaving Calcutta, many wondered, how could he have said adieu to the beloved streets, the people, and the cultural ethos. After the packing was done, Seetha told the media. “Even today, at this moment also, he doesn’t want to leave Calcutta.”

What will be the legacy of Nair? As a writer who employed many methods to construct the history of the common man? He defied all established canons and power centres and his work will, surely, be appreciated for not reflecting the structures of hegemony. He will be remembered by all those who consult his tremendous body of work, of course, and by those who knew him well as a common man walking the streets of Kolkata.

Krishnan Unni P is professor of English at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University.He is a bilingual creative writer and critic. The views expressed are personal

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