Nachiketa Desai, an Ahmedabad-based multilingual journalist and author, passed away at his Akhbar Nagar residence on February 2. He was 72.
ND, as most of his friends called him affectionately, belonged to a prominent family of freedom fighters who worked as foot soldiers of Mahatma Gandhi. He was the grandson of Mahadev Desai, Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary, who died in custody during the Quit India Movement, and son of Narayan Desai, also a noted Gandhian scholar.
His maternal grandmother Malati Choudhary was among the 15 women in the 389-member Constituent Assembly, while his maternal grandfather Navkrishna Chaudhury was the first elected Chief Minister of Odisha after Independence. Moulded in Gandhian ideals, both of them fought not only against British colonial rule but also against feudal rulers and forces of exploitation.
On a call given by Jayaprakash Narayan, ND joined the Tarun Shanti Sena in 1973. He then worked in Cyprus on a UN-backed project for the rehabilitation of Greek and Turkish refugees. He also volunteered for relief operations in refugee camps along the India-Bangladesh border.
During Emergency, ND along with three other friends brought out an underground bulletin called Ranbheri.
He started his career as a journalist with The Indian Express in 1978 as a stringer and went on to work with Himmat Weekly, UNI, The Telegraph, The Independent, ETV NewsTime, India Abroad News Service, and Dainik Bhaskar, among others, in various capacities over a career spanning more than 40 years.
Proficient in English, Hindi and Gujarati, ND could also speak and read Odia, Bengali, and Bhojpuri, and could understand Marathi. His peers held him in high esteem for his incisive field reports and human interest stories from Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar.
ND said that he discovered Gandhi in his grandfather and father quite late in his life. “For me Mahadevbhai Desai was just Dadaji. That he was also Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary for 25 years was, for me, incidental. During my school days, I took some pride in the fact that Dadaji had translated Gandhiji’s autobiography My Experiments with Truth, from Gujarati to English.”
During his final years, ND reinforced his resolve to counter growing right-wing propaganda about the Independence movement.
A personal note
I met ND for the first time in the newsroom of National Herald in 2018. We became friends within no time, irrespective of the huge age gap. He gifted me a set of books and I discovered later that it was his way of guiding and encouraging young journalists.
ND was deeply disturbed over what he felt was a departure from the ideals that guided India’s freedom struggle in the present-day Indian polity. His book on his grandfather, Mahadev Desai: Mahatma Gandhi’s Frontline Reporter, explores journalism as it was a century ago.
ND chose to work as a freelance journalist and translator in the later years of life. He never shied away from protesting against state repression as an activist. During the anti-CAA movement, he sat on a fast in protest outside Sabarmati Ashram in December 2019.
ND is survived by his wife, Ratna Desai, and two children.
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