Neelabh Mishra: A discerning, calm voice falls silent in an age of simplistic views and noise

A close friend pays tribute to a rare editor-teacher who swam across the worlds of English and Hindi journalism, was a companion of social movements and had a deep understanding of various issues

NH Photo
NH Photo


Now, one shall never get to meet Neelabh Mishra, never experience the feeling of equanimity, ease of being and depth that one would unfailingly come away with after meeting him. On February 24, at about 7:30 am, he breathed his last at Apollo Hospital in Chennai. Fifty-seven is no age to bid farewell to the world. In this matter, Neelabh acted contrary to his nature – for one who was known for his unhurried pace, he left us with uncharacteristic haste. Except it wasn’t his decision to make. He had wanted to live. From the time he was informed about his liver ailment, his visits to the hospital became regular. The doctors struggled to contain the worsening of the disease in his body. Yet, we continued to tell ourselves that he was stabilising.

The disease that struck down Neelabh ran in the family. His father and grandfather had succumbed to it at a young age. In the course of any discussion on his illness, Neelabh would proffer this information as a fact – not merely as a fact but more as a chronicle of an old relationship that went back to even before he was born. Some years ago, when the first warning bells rang, he remarked: “So it has finally caught up with me”. As if the ailment had journeyed through two generations to reach him and grab his hand.

While we were standing vigil at the hospital waiting for the end, I shared this impression with friends there. They, too, acknowledged with a sense of amazement as to how he always spoke about his liver disease as one speaks of an intimate relationship. I have never heard anyone describe in such a detailed manner the source of their bodily ailment or its impact like Neelabh did, as if he nursed no grudge against it. As if he was forging a bond with the legacy that had come to him, courtesy some gene inherited from his father.

Except, the relationship proved fatal. Doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi tried their utmost to prepare his body to be receptive to a liver transplant, but his body kept giving them the slip. At last, when he reached Chennai with the hope of a possible liver transplant, the ravaged liver had so enfeebled the body that there was nothing the doctors could do.

Neelabh’s struggle with his ailment was somewhat untimely, occurring at a particular juncture when he himself wanted to be constantly alert and active—his beloved India was also in the grip of an old disease that was spreading all over, and was succumbing bit by bit to it. Seeing the way the disease was spreading through the land brought forth a sense of unease, heightened by the inadequacy of the available resources and mechanisms to tackle it.

After Neelabh’s death, what is left but sorrow and regret? Restlessly pacing outside the hospital, friend Satya Sivaraman had remarked, “It is only with great difficulty that such a life comes about—how much reading, how much critical observation, how many relationships and how many memories it builds upon. Every individual does not necessarily contain an ocean inside him.” The depth of sorrow one feels at Neelabh’s passing has as much to do with the realisation that along with him we have lost the vast universe of experience which had animated him from within.

Anyone who has had the good fortune to meet Neelabh has something to say about his extensive reading. His friend Anant recalled something Neelabh always maintained, namely, that literature had inculcated in him an expansive vision and spirit of universalism; history had made him conscious of the continuity of time; and, journalism provided a direct experience of the present.

Having grown up in the familial environs of Maithili and Bhojpuri, Neelabh’s education was accomplished in the medium of English, and he went on to study English literature. But when it came to an occupation, he chose Hindi journalism. The alternative was the world of English newspapers; it was a blandishment he ignored. One is reminded of (Sachidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan) Agyeya’s words that to work in the field of Hindi is in itself a task fraught with peril, for there is an ever-present danger of being cast into anonymity. For that reason, Neelabh’s decision to pursue Hindi journalism despite his undoubted aptitude for English can only be called a political decision.

Neelabh, who began his journalistic innings with the Navbharat Times in Patna, possessed a deep understanding of politics. His parents, as well as his paternal grandfather, were followers of Gandhi; later, they were associated with the Congress. His father was a cabinet minister in the Bihar government. But Neelabh did not choose this part of his family legacy. Rather than take part in politics, he chose to contribute towards creating in society the wherewithal to understand politics by working as a vigilant journalist.

In Bihar, he was actively associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, being state secretary of the organisation. There was not a single Left group that he was not deeply familiar with. However, in no way did these deep engagements obstruct him in essaying his role as a journalist. He was among a handful of Hindi journalists who did not confine themselves to local politics alone. Not just his mind; his sensibility was cosmopolitan as well. Apart from nurturing a deep passion for and familiarity with world literature, he was a keen observer of the changes taking place in the fields of science, music and art.

As he became aware of the management’s machinations to close down the Patna edition of the Navbharat Times, Neelabh decided to shift his base to Rajasthan. There his journey took a new turn as he achieved a memorable companionship with Kavita Srivastava, one of the brightest stars in the human rights movement in the country today. He also worked very closely with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and the right to information campaign. Apart from his association with political movements, his involvement in social movements as well bestowed a new expansiveness to his vision. Whether owing to Kavita or his political temperament, he evolved into a feminist.

This relationship between companions in social movements was a beautiful thing. Neelabh and Kavita had two homes, one in Delhi and the other in Jaipur. They were not homes as much as a wayfarer’s halt. For youngsters, they were a sanctuary and school combined. There is no count of the number of youths who stayed in these homes and set out in different directions to work in the fields that they had become aware of. Neelabh was their silent teacher. Every guest of Kavita would invariably become a friend of Neelabh.

To imagine another as untouched by ambition as Neelabh Mishra would be difficult— someone who unfailingly emphasises the need to understand issues; who does not consider staying in the background and speaking gently to be signs of weakness; who does not hold that espousing a point of view is necessarily a compulsion to always take that side, come what may; and who sees the sensitive nuances of language as the biggest boon

In 2003, Neelabh came to Delhi to work as an associate editor at Outlook Hindi, assuming the role of editor in 2008. By then the management’s interest in Outlook Hindi had started flagging and the magazine had been turned into a monthly. It was a big challenge for Neelabh to keep it going as a meaningful publication. Even so, he succeeded in retaining the interest of the readers.

Everybody had an idea of the problems that came in the way of editing the magazine. But Neelabh kept the enterprise going. As usually happens, all Hindi publications have to keep their self-respect intact while suffering the management’s slights. After some time, the publication was turned into a fortnightly. But Neelabh’s unbiased editorial line was not proving helpful to the management. In one issue, Outlook (English) made a sharp attack on the then Uttar Pradesh government following which the government stopped giving advertisements to the magazine. The management urged Neelabh to deliver them from this impasse. It was a task for which he was ill-suited. It became clear that he would not be a ‘useful’ editor.

It was around that time that Neelabh got to know about his ailment, and it was around that very time that the Outlook management brought back its earlier, pragmatic editor. Neelabh put in his papers.

However, he did not seem eager to take on a new assignment. It had seemed strange to us then. But then he received a call from the National Herald. It was not an easy decision to make. The newspaper may well have been started by Jawaharlal Nehru, but now the shadow of the Congress lay over it. The dilemma was this: would taking on this assignment cast a shadow over his reputation of professional commitment? Again this is a strange feature in our parts – close links with the Bharatiya Janata Party do not dent a journalist’s credibility but any such association with the other party is seen to be tainted forever.

Finally, Neelabh took this decision, clearly laying out his conditions for taking up the job – he did not want to edit the party’s mouthpiece; further, just as he had refused to be pressured by the Outlook management, he found no reason to kowtow to the party’s demands. He said the minute there was an attempt to put pressure on him, he would quit.

This was yet another new beginning for Neelabh. To commence publication of Navjivan and Qaumi Awaz along with National Herald was a challenge. Owing to his immense credibility, the Herald group got a great deal of cooperation; he succeeded in creating a team of professional journalists. But this was just the beginning. And Neelabh had entered the most challenging phase of his life. For it was around this time that the disease started making him increasingly helpless. So very often we saw him go to the Herald office after a hospital visit. The struggle became more and more arduous.

To imagine another as untouched by ambition as Neelabh Mishra would be difficult— someone who unfailingly emphasises the need to understand issues; who does not consider staying in the background and speaking gently to be signs of weakness; who does not hold that espousing a point of view is necessarily a compulsion to always take that side, come what may; and who sees the sensitive nuances of language as the biggest boon.

Neelabh was not a dazzling editor. Rather, he was steady, more focused on analysis—the kind of teacher-editor who inspired deep explorations on various issues. On occasion, I have seen him fret over the absence of sensitivity to language, but at the same time, he was understanding of human limitations.

When a discerning, calm and quiet but determined voice falls silent in an age of simplistic views and noise, it creates a void. However, the absence of a friend who knew the secret of being joyous, gratefully accepting every little happiness, and was uncomplaining till the very end, is the bigger loss.

This article originally appeared on The Wire

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