Word has just reached me by a circuitous route that N J Nanporia is dead. Somebody saw an advertisement announcing the sale of his art collection and told someone else who told me. It’s typical of the reclusive Nanporia that he should slip out of life so quietly. He would have endorsed my mother’s favourite lines of poetry, “And may there be no moaning of the bar/When I put out to sea.”
He was unique, the only half Indian (Parsee), half Japanese editor I know of. No one else since Robert Knight founded The Times of India in Bombay and The Statesman in Calcutta edited both papers. No other Indian I have known in 54 years in journalism has been so reluctant to push himself into the limelight. He was already editor when I returned to India in 1970 after a stint as the first Indian to represent The Statesman in London. A prominent citizen said to me, “At last you have a gentleman as editor!” Who was the last I asked, and he replied without hesitation, “Johnson.”
George Arthur Johnson, my first editor, and Nanporia were both silent men whose power lay in their pens. Neither was a pretentious phony prancing around the country and world. Both knew everything that happened without venturing out of the editor’s room. Nanporia’s editorial maturity, wisdom and breadth of knowledge were sorely missed in the vacuum after he was pushed out in 1975.
One manifestation of his catholicity was the expansion into other fields of his collection of Chinese porcelain. A Ming vase needed a carved table, so he bought one. The table couldn’t stand on the bare floor. He got the right period carpet. The wall behind called for suitable decoration. And so it went on. I didn’t see his treasures. But he showed me photographs and letters from Christie and Sotheby authenticating his pieces.
Hilarious stories about not recognising colleagues were untrue. Once when Nanporia was in my room, a colleague, who had just received an award, walked in, spoke to me and left. Nanporia stared unblinkingly out of the window. He recognised the man, he said, and knew of the award. But congratulations would have raised expectations of a salary rise. Nanporia was a canny soul.
We corresponded after he retired to Pune. “Nice to hear from you,” he wrote in his last letter dated March 23, 2006. “Nicer still that you very kindly keep in touch.” No one else did. Although no paper wanted his columns, he had other interests. “I keep busy reading hard as never before, collecting in a very modest way, eating well whenever we can, more in Bombay than here in Poona (sic), and keeping up my collection of scrap books. These contain all the clippings on various subjects that interest me, letters I want to preserve, reproductions of pictures I like to look at, photos of antiques and so on.”
The letter took me back to our long conversations after office hours. We talked of books, pictures and objet d’art (Nanporia found me my first antique French carriage clock in a flea market) and his childhood in Kobe. He had left Japan when World War II broke out to escape internment as a British subject. Recalling the jeering Japanese crowds through which he had to walk to his ship, he thought Indira Gandhi’s Emergency a mild essay in dictatorship. Office managers who kept close watch on him through the peons were convinced we were plotting a coup!
I would never have taken to “serious” writing but for Nanporia. I was a reporter in England before joining The Statesman. In India I wrote mainly features. Back in London I was a foreign correspondent. But when I returned he gave me a typed list of major subjects to specialise in and write leaders on. They seemed dreary but gave me a firm anchorage in mainline journalism.
He had been suffering from prostrate cancer for four or five years by 2006. He mentioned his medicines, treatment and the cost. “I suppose in old age – I am eighty-two – one must reconcile oneself to whatever comes along.” The letter ends with “I look forward to hearing from you but things being what they are I can’t assure (you) of an early reply.”
I probably didn’t write back. Nanporia would have understood. But he would have flinched from my comment that no succeeding editor of The Statesman (including the present writer) has been able to hold a candle to him in analytical skills or virile expression.