You read N. S. Jagannathan's articles on something as prosaic as taxation because they were so exquisitely crafted. Language is all that we have, he once said to me; we should not be casual about it.

To have had one guru is usual. To have two is not. But to have three is plain dumb luck.

And while many may have thought me dumb, none, I hope, will begrudge me my luck, for I have had the great good fortune to have had three gurus, all masters of their craft.

N. S. Jagannathan (NSJ to all who knew him) was one of them. He passed away on December 24 after a period of being unwell, the second of them to do so. The third is still alive.

If I learnt what I know of the Indian economy from Sharad Marathe who passed on last year, it was from NSJ, over the whole of the 1980s, that I learnt the craft of writing about it.

You read his articles on something as prosaic as taxation because they were so exquisitely crafted. Language is all that we have, he once said to me; we should not be casual about it.

NSJ started his working life as a member of the Indian Revenue Service, a calling that soon palled on his finely developed senses. So he quit and became a writer for a small economic journal in Calcutta. From there he moved as Assistant Editor to the Hindustan Times in the late 1960sand to Delhi. He used to write a fortnightly column and editorials. Both were taken seriously by the government of the day.

But in the mid-1970s the paper made a series of misjudgements, one of which was the summary removal of the Editor, B. G. Verghese, because he had the temerity to utter some home truths about Indira Gandhi's style of governing.

NSJ was appalled and chose to quit as well. He joined the Statesman and stayed there till 1980 when he retired.

A few months later, he became the editor of the Financial Express where he stayed till he became the editor of the Indian Express for a few months preceding the death of Ram Nath Goenka, the owner.

Then, instead of hanging around Delhi's seminar circuit, he went away to Bangalore where he lived ever since.

Man for all seasons

NSJ was an old style liberal — the J. S. Mill, Gladstone, Annie Besant sort — and a stylist par excellence. His extensive vocabulary and his ability to pick just the right word for the nuance made even his often none-too-sharp copy a connoisseur's delight. After all these many years I am not able to quote any but those who knew him will not disagree.

He was also a litterateur. He read and wrote in English, Tamil and Bengali. There was nothing he enjoyed more than a comparative discourse on the literature in one or two or all three of these languages. If there was no one around to join issue with him, which was most often the case, he would simply treat you to one of his tutorials.

He was also deeply aware of his Tamil Brahmin heritage. He once wrote an extraordinarily perceptive article on it (http://arvindsdad.blogspot.com:80/2008/02/interesting-mails-received.html). In it you can find the quintessential NSJ. I read the article merely in order to hear him speak.

The voice is no longer there but the word is around.

I hope someone will publish some, at least, of his thousands of articles in book form.

(This article was published on December 26, 2011)
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