Finding one’s way in the hallowed portals of the Mumbai university library was daunting. It turned intimidating when the erudite Dr Aroon Tikekar walked alongside, pointing to the hidden treasures in the cabinets, rattling off thematic arrangements and titles, and correcting the library staff in that genial manner of his more than once during those two hours in the library.
It was as if the university library was his very own. In a sense, it was. He had spent months there, traced the development of the institution as few scholars had done, had a family connection to it, and had written its history in ‘The Cloister’s Pale – A Biography of the University of Mumbai’ in a way that was accessible to Mumbaiites who cared to know. Later, he donated a part of his enviable personal collection of books to the library.
That afternoon in the 1990s, Tikekar had taken time off from his onerous duties as editor of a respected Marathi daily to do a walk-through for a national publication I was writing for. He rarely did this, he told me, but had agreed because he had liked my work and on the condition that he would not be photographed. We became friends. He disliked publicity and resisted all forms of it till the end. But books and scholarship were different. He lived for them, lived by them.
Tikekar, who passed away on Tuesday morning was not the archetypal scholar, ensconced in an ivory tower writing tomes that lay unread. Tikekar wore both his scholarship and his remarkable achievements lightly – sometimes too lightly in a world that spun on self-marketing. His affability and self-effacing humour meant he was talking about books, places and ideas he loved to anyone who engaged with him. He loved his tea and savouries. And he loved the nicotine stick – unapologetic about it, unmindful of its impact on health. Pushing 72, he was fine with it, he said last week.
Originally from Solapur, Tikekar held many jobs — from that of a college professor and acquisitions specialist at the US Library of Congress Office in New Delhi, to heading the research unit at The Times of India and editorships of Maharashtra Times and later its rival, Loksatta, from 1991 to 2002, where he set benchmarks that are still revered in Marathi journalism. Through it all, and later, as president of The Asiatic Society for two terms during which he renewed its functioning with new ideas and programmes, Tikekar continued to read and write in the pursuit of pure knowledge. His oeuvre comprises 20 books in Marathi and English. The list of his awards runs into multiple pages. He could hold forth from Maharashtra’s saints to the British colonialists, cricket to culture.
He was unafraid to take political positions. An editorial in Loksatta had brought down the full weight of the late Bal Thackeray’s ire on him in the late 90s. His office and home were given police protection. He was given a guard. But he did not back down. Thackeray, he always held, had given Mumbai’s Marathi manoos an identity, but had de-intellectualised Mumbai, turned learning into a distasteful pursuit and was bereft of a vision for the city (and Maharashtra) because he did not care for their rich and pluralistic traditions.
As an intellectual, Tikekar lived, worked and wrote at a curious intersection of history, culture, politics, language, contemporary issues and, of course, Mumbai. He chronicled the British legacy to the city including its positive aspects. The muscle-flexing threatening voice that screams “sons of the soil” is not the only Marathi voice, it does a grave disservice to Marathi culture, he would often lament. Therefore, his voice meant a great deal to the city, like that of his fellow intellectuals and historians, the late Dr YD Phadke and Sharada Dwivedi. He wished Mumbai would regain its intellectual moorings.
Mumbai and Marathi are poorer without Tikekar, as are his large legion of friends.