Kolkata’s ‘Barefoot Historian’ made the City of Joy prouder of its history and heritage

Kolkata: Parameswaran Thankappan Nair, who passed away at Chendamangalam, a small town in Kerala’s Ernakulam district on Tuesday, will forever be remembered as the “barefoot historian” of Kolkata, the city where he arrived in 1955 from Alwaye in Kerala and left only in 2018 on the insistence of his extended family ‘back home’.

Nair, who graduated from the University of Calcutta, started life as a typist in the office of a little publication, but he was so enamoured of the city’s storied streets that he started digging deeper into their history. From there, he began to discover previously unknown facets of British social life in the city as well as its South Indian diaspora, and also produced a wealth of information on the Calcutta High Court and Kolkata Police.

Never taken seriously by established historians, but loved by the people and revered the by people of Kolkata, Nair’s reputation was such that in the early 1980s, Umesh Anand, then a young journalist reporting on the city, and now the publisher and editor of ‘Civil Society’ magazine, was told by a municipal official that if someone possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s sewerage system, it was Nair.

Speaking to IANS, Anand said, “That was the beginning. I got the details of Nair’s contacts, contacted him and slowly came to know how he travelled throughout the city to find out the hidden history even behind every lane and bylane. The best part of Nair was that all his research was based on thorough fieldwork.”

Nair wrote as many as 61 books, the most famous among being of course ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’, but his subject extended from mangoes to the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, from the peacock to Indian national songs and symbols. In short, if anyone had any question about Kolkata and beyond, Nair most likely had the answer.

According to Anand, in his initial days, Nair was not taken very seriously by the academic community, but he went on to be appointed senior research professor the Asiatic Society and was awarded an honorary D.Litt. by Burdwan University.

“He started his career as a typist and he used his old Remington typewriter to pen his books,” Anand said. “He was known for his unassuming style, walking around in a bush shirt and cotton trousers. After his wife went back to Kerala, he continued operating from Kolkata from the same little house where he lived surrounded by books at Bhabanipur in the southern part of the city.”

Another typical characteristic of Nair was his health and diet consciousness. He realised quite early that his extensive footwork to collect gems of information required him to be in the best of health.

“He used to consume a self-cooked meal just once a day and that diet used to be very simple,” Anand recalled. “Some rice along with lentils and one item of vegetables was all he ate.”

After a 63-year relationship with the City of Joy, Nair went back to Kerala in November 2018 because his extended family was justlifiably concerned about his health and well-being.

Before leaving the city, Nair went to the National Library to personally thank all those who had helped him when he was conducting his research for his many books. The books included a biography of B. Kesavan, India’s first National Librarian.


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