Wednesday, February 1

Chronicler of Kolkata returns to his roots

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When flight 6E-6965 to Kochi takes off from the Kolkata airport at 12 noon this Thursday, it will take away — for good — an important page of Kolkata’s history. Parameswaran Thankappan Nair, or P T Nair, the foremost surviving chronicler of Kolkata’s history, will return to his roots — in a small town in Kerala called Chendamangalam — leaving behind the city he has called home for 63 years.

Nair arrived in Calcutta on a Thursday morning in October 1955, travelling ticket less on Madras Mail, as a 20-year-old with Rs 20 in his pocket. Sixty three years later, as the 83-year old prepared to pack his clothes — and his Remington typewriter, on which he banged out his adopted city’s many histories and myths — he spoke to TOI of his abiding love for the city and his love-at-first-sight moment.

That moment came on a tram that took him from Howrah to Dalhousie, across the Hooghly, when he got a glimpse of a city rising from its slumber; that “first sight of the city and its river after the mad rush of Howrah station” all combined to give him a high which, he admitted on Tuesday, held for 63 years.

Nair, when he came to Calcutta armed only with his matriculation certificate and a set of clothes, did not have any plans of being the foremost chronicler of what once was the British empire’s second city. “All I knew was that I needed to find a person called U Raman, who worked at the General Post Office. I went to the GPO and took a seat facing the post boxes as I knew Raman used Post Box No. 906,” Nair reminisced on Tuesday at his Kansaripara residence, his home for most of his stay in the city.

Raman did not come but a peon did, opening the post box. Nair followed this peon to Raman, who was also from Kerala and who invited Nair to his home near Kalighat temple. It was this journey from the GPO to Kalighat — made on foot — that convinced Nair that the love at first sight he felt for the city in the morning was not a fleeting emotion.

Nair secured a steno-typist’s job at an office off Dalhousie Square; his first salary was Rs 130 at a time when two meals a day would cost Rs 1, he said on Tuesday, adding that he had managed “a fixed deposit of Rs 5 lakh in the 63 years between that 1955 October Thursday and this 2018 November Thursday”.

But money was the least of his concerns. The buildings that gave Calcutta its “City of Palaces” moniker and its streets soon took up much of Nair’s off-work hours. “Whenever I saw a building or a monument or came across some littleknown street, I would collect material from different sources and make notes about its origin,” he said.

Oral history has no substitute, feels Nair

Whenever P T Nair came across a building or a monument or a little-known street in the city, he began collecting material on it from different sources.

“It is important to gather information from different sources — government records, newspaper clippings, local historians’ articles — to know a city’s history and dispel the myths about it. But written notes and histories have their limits. There is no substitute to walking the length and breadth of a city and listening to its oral histories from residents if you want to know it inside out,” Nair added.

Nair’s city has changed over the years. But its chronicler has not. He lives the same frugal life, still takes down notes of whatever he feels is important on the same small scraps of paper and uses his old, faithful typewriter. He still walks down to National Library. And, no, he does not use a mobile “lest it distract” him from his affair with the city.

His wife of 52 years, Sita, has been his other pillar of support. She worked as a schoolteacher in Kerala and raised their children as he remained obsessed with his city. “Someone in a family has to make a few sacrifices for a greater cause. He is a shining star and I always want his rays of knowledge to dispel the darkness of ignorance,” she said.

Nair realises what he is leaving behind. “I will miss the city and the city will, probably, miss me even more. But I am returning to my roots and will spend quality time with my family, which now includes my granddaughters,” he said. But he would be keeping himself busy, he added, by researching his native village and its history, its temples and place names in Kerala.

Source: Times of India

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