In early 2002 I joined the Right to Food Campaign, and soon after Kavita invited me to Jaipur for a meeting. We have a place that friends from PUCL use and you can stay there, she told me. The guest house was teeming with people with all kinds of interesting lives and stories. One man, who did not bother to introduce himself, was a distinct contrast from the busy humdrum of that house. He sat on a comfortable seat, absorbed everything around him, and told us stories.
He talked about hunger in Baran, the variety of breads you could get in Iran, Champaran satyagraha and much else under the sun. I returned to that guest house many times over the next few months and he was always there. It took me two years to understand that it was his house that he generously shared with others and not PUCL’s guest house. By that time, I had invited many others to use that facility. I believe I am not alone in mistaking Neelabh’s ownership of that house. An eloping couple who were being harbored in his house once refused to let Neelabh into his own house at night, not knowing who he was.
He lived then in a tiny one-bedroom house which, thanks to his incredible hospitality, never felt crowded despite hosting so many people on any given day. A distinct part of that hospitality was Neelabh’s fondness for stories through which he weaved a camaraderie among those present in that space. Take, for example, a story he told about walking out of his house one foggy morning to find a suspiciously large bag in his garden. As he was trying to make sense of it, a man popped out of it. It turned out that Jean who came late at night did not want to wake everyone in that house and decided to sleep in his sleeping bag in the garden instead.
There were many stories about Kavita, of course. He told me of a call from her after she boarded a train penniless on her way to a meeting. Somehow she convinced the ticket checker not to deboard her on the promise that Neelabh would bring a ticket when the train stopped halfway in Jaipur, along with some cash for her journey. It was good that he generally sat in chairs with a recline, for he laughed so heartily as he narrated these stories that he would have fallen in a flatter arrangement.
With Kavita around, there was always tremendous energy, sense of urgency and action. Neelabh provided a contrasting picture.
“Neelabh, can you call that person”
“Can you do that now?”
“What’s the hurry?”
“We need to get that done, NOW”
“I am not going to call him before I have my breakfast Kavita!”
Such exchanges were routine, after which he sported a contented smile, settling back to browsing newspapers or deciding the meal of the day. Sitting on the sidelines, I enjoyed that wonderful partnership, each with their sense of purpose but with contrasting approaches that balanced each other.
Neelabh was calmly rational, humorous and generous – and thus, well loved by those around him. Not surprisingly, we had him mediating some of the difficult conversations at the Right to Food Campaign for he could empathize, reason and strike a balance among contentious partners.
As I got to know him, I started valuing his immense knowledge of India. So I stopped by to consult him often as I wrote my dissertation and the book. Through these seven years, he offered me a sounding board to test ideas and to discuss pesky puzzles. In one stage, in my quest to understand Tamil Nadu better, I wanted to distinguish between socio-political movements in Tamil Nadu with the rest of India. Neelabh was among the few that I could resort to in this quest.
He could discuss extempore two centuries of social movements in Bihar, politics of princely states, and the politics of every state in independent India. I learned something new with each visit and raised new questions that needed more work. His joy in sharing his knowledge was infectious and I can still feel the smile on my face as I left him with new leads and new questions.
The world knew him as a socially committed journalist who went on to become the editor of Outlook Hindi, and recently the editor-in-chief of The National Herald, Navjivan and Quami Awaz, publications founded by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru. I knew him more as an immensely knowledgeable friend who lived life as it should be lived. Like many around him, he was socially committed and worked on India’s most difficult political issues for decades. Yet, he had a perennial sense of cheer and the ability to take joy out of everyday life, bringing some of it to us through his stories.
He passed away two days ago, sadly a little too young. Visiting Delhi will never be the same again for me without a visiting him. He will be missed, but I can say with confidence that the knowledge that he shared and the stories he told me will stay with me as long as I am around. Goodbye Neelabh, a much-admired friend.