It hurts to speak of Neelabh Mishra in the past tense. This is not just because he was a very dear friend, co traveller and mentor to many social movement actors. He was of course all that. But more than anything else, it is because he personified a sense of time and space in which there are no permanent discontinuities. In the span of less than an hour, he could take you on a journey from the thousand cuts of indignities and hundred moments of jubilation of everyday occurrence, through the mythical, civilizational and geopolitical to the species and intergalactic and back again.
He could make you see how the poor hungry old man, in an interior Bihar village 70 km away from the banks of the Ganga, awake in the week hours of the night, mulling over how to respond to the slaughter perpetrated by the upper castes the night – waiting for daybreak – come alive as the human who was trudging along towards that great dawn that everybody has been waiting for. Civil liberties practice for him was deeply enmeshed with poetic vision and historical awareness.
Neelabh was the first person I had ever known who could make words like consciousness and materiality sound as if they actually meant something very personal to him. That sign of a vivid inner life was what endeared him to everyone.
Our friendship began 23 years ago when both of us reached Jaipur seeking new work opportunities as journalists. This was a time when the major print media houses in India were restructuring. In anticipation of the onslaught by the satellite channels, media houses were changing their hiring practices and the idea of the editor and the bureau chief as the wise man who had forethought, conviction and commitments to ideals and principles beyond their own careers was taking a beating.
Starting our work at the edges of these new empires, we were both pleasantly surprised and amused by the city and the region. There were very few press conferences. Approaching the Chief Minister for a comment seemed just so easy. Time simply had a different quality. We roamed the city, and sometimes drove off to other districts. We stayed till late night in the Press Club, and talked about politics till the wee hours and woke up to read out poetry to each other.
It was only many months later that we discovered to our surprise that people around us wondered if we were gay. And it was only many months later that we realised that the Chief Minister’s office was complaining that nasty things began to happen only after we came to Rajasthan.
It was Neelabh who made me realise that this different sense of time and space that was Rajasthan had something to do with the way its history and its location in the successive geopolitical configurations. We were at that time passing through a momentous transformation in the world of journalism and we had only an inkling of what it was. Neelabh stayed on course in journalism, I branched off into a different trajectory. Our worlds kept cleaving away and coming together again and again, at the Delhi Press Club, at his house in Noida and in Munirka, at Kavita Srivastav’s house in Jaipur, at Nizamuddin, at his editorial chambers and at various meetings and events.
23 years later, when I met Neelabh in Apollo Chennai, while he was passing through a severe infection ahead of a liver transplant, I attempted to sound cheerful. I held his thin hand and said “Neelabh, you forced me get my blood grouping done at the age of 55.” He smiled and said “and ?”
I hung my face and said my group does not match with yours. He looked away for a brief second and smiled. Some time later, he smiled again broadly, and said Chalteraho. Chalteraho – keep walking, keep walking. Two years ago, Neelabh wrote his last editorial in Outlook Hindi edition with those words as the title. That editorial had a prescient quality. It was one of his cryptic essays in which he wove together a rich tapestry of stories from the Brahmana texts of Vedic times, the stanzas of the Tagore poem that did not make it to the National Anthem, and travels and travails from the past and into the future.
But even as we keep walking, what can we make of Neelabh’s life and times? Early on in our friendship, he told me one night that there were three things that kept him moving: History, literature and journalism. History for continuity, literature for universality and journalism for the everyday moment. These three came together for him through language and region. Not long after I met Neelabh, I began to feel as if I knew Bihar through history, and through its connections to other regions. His journalism and activism came from this deep and intimate awareness of places and people.
Neelabh Mishra needs no obituary. He wrote his farewell in his last editorial in the Outlook edition invoking his favourite farewell poem by Baba Nagarjun – purajanparijanchedichadi, patalpuraharaphodiphadi– when I asked him to clarify, he said Nagarjun broke the traditional signs of auspicousness, I did not break the finest tradition of journalism in India. It is for those who will continue to walk to do what they will.
Those of us who will continue to walk .... it is these words that will be our talisman. What do we do with our finest traditions of activism and journalism and ways of being in the world? How do we continue to discover ways of reorganizing our world as sentient beings? Social movements for him were just multiple ways in which to befriend ourselves and others, to vanquish the daemons inside and outside. This is why it is impossible for many of us to bid farewell to Neelabh. In one final uncharacteristically mischievous move, he stole that opportunity from us. Even as we gathered to send him off, we realised we were meeting each other in new ways. We will continue to do so.