Dada was fierce, fearless, and impossible to stop

Kuldip Nayar August 14 1923 - August 23 2018 | Drawing Bhaskaran Kuldip Nayar August 14 1923 - August 23 2018 | Drawing Bhaskaran

DADA LOVED MANGOES. No mango ever matched the sweetness of the Rataul, the mango of his childhood. When the police came to arrest him during Emergency, he asked them to wait a few minutes. He went to the kitchen and ate two mangoes. “I love mangoes, and knew I won’t get them for a while,’’ he told my cousin Kanika.

He was born on August 14, and fittingly so. Each year, he spent his birthday in Amritsar, on the border. He would go with candles, and a heart filled to the brim with optimism and enthusiasm for peace. This old fashioned, fuzzy, almost naive dream was something that he lived with his whole life. In the last few days before he was hospitalised, he spent his time organising yet another march to the border.

For years, he would reach the border with his small group of loyal supporters, walk up to the black iron gate, and light the candles. Each year, he would wait to see if there was a flicker from across the border. Even if there was pitch darkness, my grandfather would always claim that he saw lights. One day, he hoped that there would be a sea of them. This, like many other things, like the refusal to give up impossible dreams, is what I will remember him for.

My grandfather was the patron saint of lost causes. He nurtured them, he revelled in them, and he was untiring in his efforts to find a solution. He wore them as a badge of honour. He once filed a petition to save the Delhi Ridge. He lost the case, and now a swanky mall stands in the midst of what was once green scrubland. Needless to say, we never went to that mall, although it had the best Chinese restaurant and a great movie theatre, both his weaknesses.

Dada was a committed secularist. Recent dinner table conversations were around the anguish he felt about a polarised India.

Peace between India and Pakistan was his pet project—a cause that wouldn’t ever find many takers. Injustice bothered him. He spent his life guided by his conscience. And, the need to speak out against unfairness.

Sentimental was how many people—even family members—referred to him, when he insisted that there had to be talks between India and Pakistan, or when he talked about the possibility of an open border where people could come and go freely. My grandfather was never short of optimism. This is one of the many things I will miss about him, the hope that he had. He was an eternal optimist.

He had this childlike enthusiasm for the India his generation had seen being born. In his life as journalist, I have never seen my grandfather either jaded or without hope. His capacity to be concerned about various issues and be part of different campaigns to try and facilitate change was enormous. We could change things, was his firm belief and, possibly, the toughest bit of his legacy to live up to.

Dada was a committed secularist. Recent dinner table conversations were around the anguish he felt about a polarised India. Yet, he firmly believed in India’s pluralism. India would resist, he believed. It wasn’t about religion for him. It was about fairness. How can anyone be treated differently because they called god by another name? He was vocally anti-hindutva. Once, he called me excitedly to say, “These people say, ‘This old man, why doesn’t he die?’” For him, it was the ultimate compliment.

He never minced words. When he met Aamir Khan before Dangal at a function, he told him, “You’ve put on weight. It’s not a good thing.”

In his decades in “the profession” as he referred to journalism, he never missed a deadline. Even when he went to hospital, he had finished his column due next week. He had the memory of an elephant. He did keep notes. But most of his recollections were stored away in his brain, almost verbatim. He could remember the exact conversation he had with A.Q. Khan when he told him that Pakistan had the nuclear bomb. He was the first journalist to land that scoop.

He had just finished writing the book, From Jinnah to Modi, and was hoping to release it before the elections. And, sure enough, he had another project in mind. He was a serious journalist, but he never took himself seriously. He shaped opinions, but he was not opinionated. And, he never thrust his opinion on anyone. It didn’t matter if you were left, right, liberal or sanghi, he believed that everyone was entitled to a voice. He didn’t feel the need to prove he was right, or better.

The response to his passing has been overwhelming. Young journalists who he chatted with—he never refused an invitation to talk and loved an audience—people who read his articles and those with whom he fought his battles reached out to say they are bereft. He had a family, but he had a larger tribe of people he belonged to, too. He would be amazed by the response his going away generated. For someone who was a pioneer, he was not even aware of his popularity. He would be thrilled that Reham Khan tweeted. “Don’t tell me,’’ he would say. I can almost hear him slapping his thigh with a smile.

He loved gossip. His favourite question to me each time I went to see him was, “What’s the news of the profession?” It amazed him how things had changed. He saw Twitter and online news as the future. But then, what would happen to people like me, he would ask. Yet, he believed that journalism had the power to change the world. His generation had wielded that power to ensure freedom of the press. “You must be prepared to be jobless at least once in your career,” he told me. “You shouldn’t be afraid.” He certainly wasn’t. He fought two heart attacks last week. He was fierce, fearless, and was impossible to stop. Till now.