Nachiketa Desai: Breathing, eating and sleeping news to the very end

Over the years one watched Desai flower into a good professional field journalist, his mind space fully occupied by ‘leads’ and ‘assimilations’ of news feeds 24x7.

Veteran journalist Nachiketa Desai
Veteran journalist Nachiketa Desai

RK Misra

Journalists are like bile in the body who force out the ‘fats’ ingested by the rich and the powerful and splatter it across news pages with religious regularity. At least that’s what they are supposed to do. Friend and fellow-journalist Nachiketa Desai continued to do just this  for the bulk of his  professional life until he passed on to the other side at his modest Akhbarnagar home in Ahmedabad on the morning of February 5.

Breathe, eat and sleep news and  the acid in it corrodes your entrails over time. Seventy two summers of relentless beating and a multiplicity of profession- inflicted ailments had frayed the frame though the spirit held aloft until the burden became a trifle too much to bear. We had last met, just a week ago, when he was hospitalised for the umpteenth time. 

Aware that time was running out but yet unperturbed, he went about unfolding the blueprint of the work that needed to be done in disseminating the Gandhian legacy that he had inherited. Ironically his legacy and professional life remained in conflict with the latter getting the better of the former for the most part until the former became an abiding passion with him in the last leg  of his life.

I had first met ND, as he was known amongst his professional peers and dears, in Rajkot on March 21,1983. He had freshly switched horses from the United News of India (UNI) to the Indian Express in Ahmedabad and was on his maiden outstation assignment to cover  the  property auction of the erstwhile royalty of Rajkot who was also a minister in the Madhavsinh Solanki-led Congress government in Gujarat.

As the Times of India Saurashtra-Kutch bureau chief, it would make us natural adversaries. But as a visiting journalist who had come calling, the ethos of the region called for being a gracious host. It marked the beginning of a professional relationship that became personal and lasted his lifetime.

Over the years one watched ND flower into a good professional field journalist, his mind space fully occupied by ‘leads’ and ‘assimilations’ of news feeds 24x7. Haphazard and undisciplined in personal life, he was meticulous in planning for a forthcoming event as he was in timing newsbreaks. Having worked on the desk in a news agency, it was the headline which was always at the back of his mind  even in doing press conferences and routine stories.

A battery of journalists had descended on Porbandar, Mahatma Gandhi’s fabled birthplace, to cover Murli Manohar Joshi’s ekta yatra, both of us included. ND was Gujarat correspondent for The Telegraph while I was with The Pioneer. Reaching Porbandar after a night-long road trip, it was just a quick morning ritual and straight to the inaugural function -only, that ND was nowhere to be seen!

He surfaced soon after the yatra took off, toed along up to Junagadh where all of us broke free to file our stories. Next day’s Telegraph had a banner story on how the yatra flag-off function had  characters in prominent attendance whose criminal records still adorned the town’s police station. Days ahead of the event ND had briefed the night-editor on the implications of the story to follow, thus making sure that it got pride of place. He made sure that even ‘routine‘ acquired a distinct flavour through either planned treatment, unorthodox angle or sheer analytical acumen.

There were numerous ups and downs on this bumpy journalistic journey together for while we shared the end goal vision, we differed on the road taken to achieve it.  For ND, the end justified the means in getting a ‘story’ and he employed every trick of the trade  to reach it. His gifts came in handy. He was multilingual. He could write in english, Hindi and Gujarati, speak the languages with distinctive local flavour thanks mainly due to his schooling in Benaras and additional fluency in Bengali and Odia. He could cut through the clutter of India’s regional identities to acquire the shape and form that suited him for  access and affability to news sources. He could be a Gujarati, an Odia, a Bengali, a Bihari, an Uttar Pradeshi and genuinely so due to his countrywide forays and family spread. In the last few years, he had even picked up Malayalam.

His Gandhian legacy aided him in the pursuit of his calling but its puritanism tended to become a drag in the Bohemian style of a media-man’s existence. His grandfather, venerable Mahadev Desai, was Mahatma Gandhi’s  personal secretary who died in custody during the Quit India movement and his father Narayan Desai, a noted Gandhian scholar who was chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith for over seven years. His maternal  grandfather Nabakrushna Chaudhuri was the first chief minister of Orissa and maternal grandmother Malati Devi Chaudhuri (nee Sen) among the 15 women in the 389-member Constituent Assembly.

The heart has many halts before it finds its true calling. Nachiketa too joined the Tarun Shanti Sena on a call by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1973.Two years later  when Emergency followed, he became part of  an underground group that brought out a cyclostyled newsletter Ranbheri during the days of press censorship. News and print both possess a peculiar drawing power, and he soon began the arduous trek through its serpentine alleys from a stringer in Benaras to Delhi and thereon to Ahmedabad as a staffer with the UNI.

He subsequently moved to the Indian Express and into a whirl of transfers  and job changes that took him to Bhubaneswar, Bhopal, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Indore, Delhi and past The Independent, The Telegraph, Newstime, ETV Bharat, Dainik Bhaskar, Business India and the National Herald, to name some. Nevertheless he remained a homing pigeon returning to Ahmedabad after every foray. For all his newsy pursuits it was wife Ratna and his two children who picked up  the tabs as most journalists' families do for absentee husbands and fathers.

For most of the time ND remained a  man conflicted between his Gandhian legacy and  the passionate pursuit of his chosen profession. As his father aged, there was this relentless pull of taking on the mantle of restoring order to numerous rough drafts of precious history that lay stored in the Vedchhi ashram home of father Narayan Desai. And yet he kept putting it off unable to resist newsy urges until  the body fabric began fraying at the edges.

It was only in the last two years that he switched horses and his first book on his grandfather titled “Mahadev Desai: Mahatma Gandhi’s Frontline Reporter” was released at a function at the Sabarmati Ashram on January 1 this year. Frail but happy and buoyed, he soon plunged into the translation of another of his father’s works “Jigar na chera”. He had plans but  destiny had other designs .

The frayed frame gave way and Nachiketa joined a long line of journos who had sought solace in  Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.“ Sleep well, my troubled soul.  

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