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The charmer

By Sunil K Poolani

Draped in a traditional mundu and khadi shirt, M P Narayana Pillai stood with his wife, Prabha Pillai (who is an editor with The Economic and Political Weekly), at Bombays Leela Hotel on the Vishu day of 1998 to witness a capsule Kathakali programme to commemorate the hotels tenth anniversary.

You say that man was the senior assistant editor of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review? I cant believe it, said a journalist acquaintance when I told her who he was. So I introduced her to Pillai, and she not only was convinced but was thoroughly charmed by the way he talked about what else the state of journalism today.

That was the last time I met Pillai. And I will not see him again.

Pillai was always garrulous (no telephone conversation with him ever lasted less than half an hour), always told his friends and well-wishers that he just liked to talk, and hated a meeting. That was when he was not observing a vow of silence, which he was fond of in his last years. The third and the last time he observed the vow was just two months before his death. This time, he told me then, I may observe it till my death. I said: You will not; youll get bored of it in six months and give up.

I was, as usual, wrong. And Pillai, as usual, right. He passed away on 19 May 1998 at his Borivali flat in Bombay, the city he adopted after he bid goodbye to Hong Kong 31 years ago. Minutes before his death, Pillai was reportedly watching the telly (One day I may die watching [Malayalam superstar] Mohanlals face on TV, he once told a friend and no one knows what he was watching on the morning of 19 May) when he felt a severe pain in his chest. He collapsed. And awoke to immortal life. He was 57.

Pillai was never afraid of death. He once wrote in Kalakaumudi, in which he had a column for a decade: Im not afraid of AIDS. I wouldnt be panicked if I were to contract it. I invite anyone who can give me AIDS. No one, though, dared.

Pillai was a person worth watching, hearing and reading. He had a distinctive, lucid voice, and was often rebellious. He was fond of saying that if the whole world were to move north, he would prefer the Southern Hemisphere. Alone. He once challenged the atheist E M Kovoor, who had promised Rs 1 lakh to anyone who could prove the existence of god. Pillai took up the challenge, asking Kovoor to deposit the money first, knowing he didnt have that much money.

Years later, Pillai returned the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award he had won for his brilliant (and only) novel Parinamam (Evolution) and asked the state government to deposit the money in the public treasury.

Pillai had a wide and amazing circle of friends. He cared for those who loved him; he talked to a coconut vendor and to a chief minister with the same intensity. Sans pretensions.

Apart from being a straight-forward citizen, he was one Malayalams finest writers of fiction. If fiction was his forte, business journalism was the arena he chose to express his remarkable talent.

Once he settled in Bombay, he became chief of publications of the Commerce Weekly and later editor of Minerals and Metals Review. He also edited Trial magazine, which ran into trouble after he carried a campaign against M P Veerendra Kumar, former Union minister and managing editor of Mathrubhumi.

The world is duller without him.

Postscript: I forgot to return his novel, Parinamam, which I had borrowed from him in 1992. Now, I never will.







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