Goodbye to the Guardian of Kolkata’s Past: PT Nair’s Legacy Lives On

From Kerala to Kolkata, Jawhar Sircar pays tribute to PT's historic journey

My wife and I are shattered to learn that our dear PT — P Thankappan Nair — the barefoot historian of Kolkata is no more. He was 91 and died in his home in Kerala.

People of Kolkata know him as a researcher and historian of colonial Kolkata, but to me, he was a personal friend, though he was two decades older. He guided me in my spare-time research on Kolkata in the late 1970s and 1980s, when I was a young Director-level officer.

He lived in just one room in a humble house in Kansaripara Lane, with no phone mobile or email. As his place was quite near our Government Flat in Minto Park, if ever I wanted to contact him, I had to go to the locality and leave a word with someone there — because everyone knew him.

He would have his day’s meal by 9 am every day and then walk a couple of kilometres to the National Library, where he would be working from morning till its closing hour. PT would drop in occasionally at our flat, to tell me a few new findings about Kolkata — but he was always in a hurry and would refuse to eat anything. Only my wife, Nandita, could strongly persuade him to take some food and relax.

He had come to Kolkata from a way-out little village in Ernakulam, Kerala, in 1955, looking for a typist’s job — which he found. He then moved to a government post but he left it as he had fallen in love with this city. PT went on foot to every nook and corner to check up on the history of each road and locality and then verified the facts from records kept in libraries and archives.

He wrote some 60 books, mostly in English, on the history of Kolkata and some other topics. He also wrote a lot in Malayalam. His most useful book was “A History of Calcutta’s Streets” and I was tickled when he dedicated a book to me. Among his other publications are “The First Circulating and College Libraries of Calcutta”, “British Social Life in Calcutta”, “Calcutta Tercentenary Bibliography Volumes 1 & 2” and so many others on Kolkata in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The variety of his interests is clear from his books on diverse subjects like Indian National Songs and Symbols, The Mango in Indian Life and Culture, and South Indians in Kolkata among others. I reviewed some of his books in The Statesman those days, as The Telegraph was yet to be read widely.

Here is one such piece that appeared in 1983, 41 years ago.

“Calcutta As It Was:  Jawhar Sircar’s Book Review of P Thankappan Nair’s ‘British Social Life In Ancient Calcutta – 1750 to 1850’. Notes by James Long and JH Stocqueler”

Kolkata honoured him on quite a few occasions, but he deserved more. He spoke to me last from Kerala — about 3 years ago.

Every busy man needs his rest and may PT’s restless soul find eternal peace.

Jawhar Sircar

has been an IAS for 41 years, served as Secretary in Central Govt & CEO, Prasar Bharati. Now Rajya Sabha MP

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