Col. Manakampat Kesavan Unni Nayar (1911-50)

A Revered War Correspondent

This young daredevil from Parli, near Ottapalam, charmed men and women alike, hobnobbed with royalty, prime ministers, presidents, Nobel prize winners, and generals, was articulate and not only spoke well, but was also a popular writer, a journalist, and a news reporter before ending up with the Indian army. A dapper and handsome, young man, he was liked by everybody he came across. Courting death, he was present in every war zone, be it in Africa, Europe, Kashmir, Burma, Indonesia, China, or Korea, reporting fearlessly. He was none other than the Col Unni Nayar, Unni to many, Baby to his friends, Kesavan to some, and Nayar to others. He was the lone Indian who lost his life during the Korean War of 1950 when his luck ran out.

During those British Raj days, many of the educated lads from Ottapalam and nearby towns such as Parli (where Unni hailed from) were well positioned at all important offices, not only in Delhi and Bombay but also in Madras. Some traveled farther, to Malaya, Singapore, and of course Rangoon. M Sivaram the eminent journalist once said – People from Kerala were dominant among Burma’s white-collar workers, governmental and commercial. It was a common joke that every other man in this category came from Ottapalam!! So many from that era, personalities such as VP Menon, KPS Menon, the Chetturs, Shivshankar Menon, MGK Menon, Lt Gen Candeth, etc., just to mention a few, hailed from this little town near Palghat.

Unni’s life was incredibly busy, and left him little time to write a diary, though he did publish a few accounts and short stories early on, revolving around his younger days in Malabar. It was in his mind to pen a slightly more detailed account of his village, their customs, and times, but he finished only four chapters published in a small book titled ‘My Malabar’, which I perused. The book was completed posthumously, together with some of his short stories, and is quite a charming read. His hurried life was to take him for studies to Madras and propel him into a journalism career at Madras, Calcutta, and Delhi. Joining the army, he became a war reporter during WW II, present at Malaya, Singapore, Burma, Indonesia, Egypt, North Africa, Germany, and Italy. Later he was a roving journalist and the Armed Forces information officer in Delhi and troubled Kashmir, working hand in hand with VP Menon, Mountbatten, and Nehru during the partition months, and later across the Atlantic as the Public relations officer at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC with Vijayalakshmi Pandit, before taking a final challenge as the UN delegate and observer at the Korean war front. As it was destined, he met his end there. That was his life in a nutshell, for those who have no time to read this sketch. But for those who want to go on, let me try to paint the story of this man in flesh and blood, who as I learned from my aunt just last week, came from a family connected to ours, like most Nair families, through marriage.

Unni’s ‘Manakampat Tharavad’ was originally at Ponnani, it branched off (a very colorful and filmi story by itself) and relocated to their 1920s home some 2 miles from Parli RS. His father’s (an affluent Appan Namboothiri (Unni says they had elephants at home)) abode was a three-story house at Tadukasseri, near Mankara. Unni’s book provides a fascinating study of life in the 20s, his experiences during the 1921 Moplah rebellion, and ends well before he goes to college. All reminiscent of other Tharavad stories which Malayalees are used to, is narrated in a style of writing similar to that of his contemporary SK Chettur.

KS Thampan, the headmaster of the Ottapalam school where Unni studied remembers the day Kochunni Nayar, Unni’s uncle brought him to join the school, in 1921. Not outstanding in any way, the boy was self-confident and outgoing, and after six years of schooling, moved on to the Madras Christian College, to major in English Honors. Dr. AJ Boyd, the MCC principal recalls him as the skinny fella with a long tongue, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and a gruff voice, who eagerly participated in the University training corps and was called ‘Corporal’. He noticed at the outset that Unni had two likes – reading and writing on the one hand, and soldiering, on the other. Five years later in 1934, after graduation, he launched himself into a journalistic career, continuing to hobnob with his college mates at the Parrys’ corner college house, cheroot dangling from his lips and sipping a drink, talking sense and nonsense, as Boyd recalls. It was in the college magazine that Unni started writing little articles covering his day-to-day life.

Though he worked with the Merry Magazine for a while, the Madras Mail (highly rated in those days) was the newspaper he chose to start his career (Rs 50/- per month). Before long, his counterparts, many of them native Englishmen, noticed his fluency and skill with English, world history, as well as English literature. His days at the Mail where he became an exemplary reporter are brought to life in R (Mail) Parthasarathy’s memoirs. RP mentions that it was Unni a family friend and the Mail’s sub-editor who asked him to apply for an apprentice’s post, in 1936. RS mentions him as an outgoing, westernized man with a soldierly attitude and bearing, who was frequently sent out on special assignments, a favor typically reserved for white men! PJ Joseph, of the Malaya tribune, his MMC classmate, was his colleague at the Mail.

Interestingly, Unni was to write one of the first film reviews for the then-fledgling Tamil film industry, and the story itself is quite amusing, for the film was bad and the costumes and makeup preposterous compared to Western standards. Unni ridiculed the film and many film producers teaming up took umbrage and refused to advertise in the newspaper. The newspaper then decided to stop reviewing films and stopped giving just the brief particulars of the films, from then on!! His sports reports were well-read, and soon he headed the newsroom as the senior sub-editor. In 1938, he moved on to the Statesman in Calcutta, and Parthasarathy took his place as the Sub in the Madras Mail. 

His days at Calcutta do not seem to be quite detailed anywhere, but we know that he joined the Indian army reserve officers when chance presented itself, in 1940. In 1941, Capt Unni Nayar was sent to Malaya, to report on the defenses and the troops, with WWII around the corner. Another matter was foremost in his mind, and that was his courtship with the lovely Dr. Vimala Nayar from Thekkekurupath. I would assume here that it was all arranged by the family, and his colleagues mention his numerous letters to the lady. As destined, they would get married only after the war, in Jan 1947.

In Dec 1941, the Japanese took Burma, and Unni was off to Burma, to cover the British Army’s abject trek back to India. He was seen to take care of the sick and dying, and not afraid of providing armed cover to the retreating columns. His acts of bravery, courage, and risk-taking, his brilliant reports, and meticulous report filing were noted by so many officers and reporters, and soon, he was known as a fearless war correspondent. Eve Curie (daughter of Nobel Prize-winning scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and the sister of another, Irene Joliot-Curie) and Maurice Ford, mention him in their reports.

When the Duke of Gloucester toured India in 1942, Unni was asked to cover the tour and drafted many speeches for the Duke. Pretty soon, he was commissioned to the Mahratta light infantry, then moved to Delhi and was quickly posted to Singapore as an observer. Here he had an interesting task, to interview and clear his old friend PJ Joseph of collusion with the Japanese.

His travels with the army to the Middle East and Europe are legendary, though not too well known to India. Replacing another gallant officer Motilal Katju, Sarojini Naidu’s nephew, and well-respected for his reporting skills, was Unni Nayar. Capt Nair did not want to warm the chair in Cairo, but wanted to go to El- Alamein where the action was, a region where Rommel and his panzers were wreaking havoc. For a while, he had nothing much to report on, and he spent his time living with the Indian troops, namely the 4/16 Punjab Regiment, and the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles. He accompanied them to Tunisia when the action started, bucketing happily across in his jeep. His reports were precise, terse, colorful, and always truthful. Pretty soon, Nayar was hit, a close brush with death, when a round passed through his mouth! Red as a pumpkin, with a hole in his cheek, and a monstrously swollen head (as reported by his boss Lt Col Stevens), Unni refused evacuation to Cairo and pleaded with his boss to let him get back to the battlefront. As the Indians arrived at Djebel Garci, Nayar was with them, with a bandaged head. Unni’s African reports were considered brilliant, especially his report on the breakthrough at Medjez el Bab.

His next stop was Italy, with the 8th Indian - If I were to say that the saving of some of the finest paintings and artwork in Italy included Unni’s efforts, you will be astounded. When it was decided to move the Uffizi paintings so that they could be hidden at the Montegufoni castle, Unni Nayar arranged extra personnel from the army for their guard, recalling Vimala’s love for paintings. He proved to be incredibly popular with the troops, who considered him their biggest morale booster and it was here that he escaped from death once again, when his jeep received a direct hit and had to be written off. The unhurt Unni had no difficulty in securing a replacement when the supply corps heard it was for ‘The Unni Nayar.’

Stevens says that Unni was a special type, for he only wanted to be at the front lines and anything else was undignified. As I mentioned before, his actions had been noticed by many and recorded, for some months later after the fact, Field Marshal Auchinleck chanced upon Stevens who had by then completed a book on Wavell with Unni’s support (on the last chapter), and asked ‘what has become of that fine little chap Nayar?’ Unni Nayar received an MBE for his Middle East war efforts.

Promoted to Major and later to Lt Col, Unni Nayar was now back in Burma, in the thick of the battle, sporting a red beret jauntily and wearing his khakis (while others wore the jungle greens). Can you believe it, he decided to undertake two parachute jumps with hardly any training and did them with aplomb at Burma and Rangoon, to earn the para badge (he later said the jumps were heavenly!)! As a correspondent, he made notes on the run, listened carefully to the chatter in the mess, and was always on the move, dodging mortars, bullets, and mines. It was, as another observer thought, he possessed a charmed life. Cheerful, adventurous, and unassuming, he went about his business.

Sadly, it was in Burma that the illustrious correspondent Katju met his death. 29th April 1943 - Captain Motilal Katju volunteered to venture into a native village to look for boats. For several days he had a premonition that he would not get out alive and had asked Major Jefferies to carry his diary, which contained a day-by-day account of the campaign. He did not return, killed by the Japanese. Unfortunately, only a small part of his diary survived the war, a huge loss!

When the war was over, Unni was much sought after by various newspapers, but he rejoined the Statesman who sent him to New Delhi as a special representative. Stevens advised him that he should position himself well, as India would soon be independent. Reporting on political affairs was however, a different cup of tea, but it is said that he took to it seriously and was very popular in the political circuit, especially among foreign correspondents.

The disturbing days of 1946-1947 were tough. When the army created a public relations office, Unni rejoined the army as an armed forces information officer. Handling refugee news, troops used to quell disturbances, Hindu-Muslim riots, etc. daily must have disturbed him a lot. A poignant story is that of Tayyeb Hussain and his family, Muslim friends of Morris-Jones, who were forced to flee their home on Lodi Road, how they took refuge at their friend Unni’s house. In 1946, we see a mention of his visiting his old alma mater at Ottapalam and presiding over the school day functions.

In Jan 1947, he got married to Dr. Vimala Nayar but was back in action soon, when fighting flared up in Kashmir. Though disallowed from joining the front line with the first wave of soldiers, Unni went in later and reported reality to the world (many had believed India to be the aggressor, until then). It was at this juncture that we see his participation in trying to quell the mobs, wielding a megaphone riding his jeep, exhorting peace, and doing the very work others should have done (Some writers even mention that Unni did what Sheikh Abdullah should have done).

All this was being noticed by the bigwigs. Nehru who came across him many a time, makes it clear – The very first time I met him, he produced a vivid impression in my mind., That impression deepened as I saw more of him. He was a type, rather uncommon in the present-day world, bubbling over with enthusiasm and vitality, always showing an eagerness for the work at hand., able and generally bringing in a breath of fresh air wherever he went. To all those qualities he added real courage to the point of daring, which is also not very common. It is not surprising that he was liked by all who knew him….

As the situation became unbearable in the post-partition period, Unni, Campbell Johnson, and BL Sharma, as agreed with Mountbatten, manned the ‘Public Relations Committee ‘to provide daily reports, bulletin boards, and press conferences, though it was all in no way sufficient. VP Menon, his compatriot from Ottapalam, felt that Unni had the potential to go to any height he desired, knowing him well from the cabinet deliberation days, and confesses that he had far more affection for Kesavan than many of his near relatives. Interestingly, Unni and VP were in regular touch through letters, for Unni wanted to write an article about VP, but could not as VP had not provided him with the requested background information. 

Before long, in May 1948, he was deputed to the Indian embassy in Washington DC as its Attach̩ Рmore formally, the press and public relations officer. Within no time, he had established a large circle of friends, as many Americans were to later mention, and became a lynchpin for Indian news, which in America until that time, was not too flattering for India. Unni tried his best to get the right tilt, but geopolitics and the Cold War made it quite difficult. For many Americans in the DC press and diplomatic circuit, Unni was India and as the PRO for the Indian delegation at the UN, Unni proved to be a great asset.

Even in the middle of all this, Unni had yet another brush with death, narrowly escaping a shootout at Sunset Boulevard in Los Angles, he had taken an Indian dignitary to show him a bit of the Hollywood nightlife.

A big event to work on was Nehru’s visit to the US, which Nehru himself has written about, in the form of a book. Unni arranged the trip, took him around, and was present with Nehru during most events. He also arranged for Nehru to meet Albert Einstein, and the picture of the event though mentioning him, has him fully covered by Nehru & the great scientist! A mention in Nehru’s memoirs tells us that Unni used to write directly to him, and when someone in the external affairs ministry tried to suppress those letters from the PM, much to Nehru’s annoyance, Nehru forbade it.

It was a heady period in the US, all of five years, Unni and Vimala became proud parents to their daughter Parvathy – Ammu, but as one can imagine from all the words read so far, Unni was itching for action. It came in the form of the Korean War, a matter we had covered in past articles. Vijayalakshmi Pandit the Ambassador, who was quite close to Nayar family, eventually permitted him to go as an alternate UN delegate to Korea. While many sources mention that Unni volunteered for the post, it becomes clear from the reminiscences of Y D Gundevia that it was due to the latter’s inability to travel that Unni was chosen as the ‘alternate’ delegate.

July 1950 - Unni took leave, after eating a lunch of his favorite Rice and Sambar at Gopala Menon’s house and left for Seoul. Something was not right this time though, for Unni called Menon’s wife from the airport and asked her to keep an eye on and look after his wife Vimala since she would be lonely in Washington and call her often.

Col Unni Nayar’s three weeks in Taegu Korea again show him as a charmer, be it giving away his accommodation to another military dignitary, with an offer to sleep on the floor, or his diplomatic skills and the handling of Korean prisoners. At Taegu, he had a routine, visiting the press billets, 8th Army HQ, Korean ministry, and the battlefront during the afternoon. By August the battles were raging. MacArthur was around and some Americans wanted to know when India would send its vaunted Gurkhas. On 5th August, Unni mentioned to his friend Kondapi that he was itching to end the tour and get back to Delhi to join his wife in N Delhi on the 25th.

Watch a video of Unni Nayar in action in Korea  

12th August 1950 - Unni woke up late, quite uncharacteristic for him. At breakfast, he heard about the execution of some Korean political prisoners and was furious. Later that day, Unni’s friends Ian Morrison and Christopher Buckley were to accompany him later to the Waegwan front. His friend Sivaram had flown to Japan for R&R. Coming back, he slipped into his white dhoti, had a curry rice lunch, and took a quick siesta. As it was time to get to the Nakdong river front, he rushed out but came tearing back as he had forgotten his camera, picked it up, and ran out again to his jeep.

Unni was accompanied by his journalist friends and a South Korean lieutenant, and they headed to the North of Waegwan, 9 miles from the front. The jeep had to edge through six separate swathes of land mines and cleared five, only to hit a landmine on the sixth. Morrison (37) and Unni Nayar were killed instantly. Buckley (45) survived for a few more hours in the American field hospital before succumbing to his injuries.

Three young and brilliant journalists and revered war correspondents had met their death doing what they liked. Unni was just 39 years old, the only Indian causality in the Korean War. His body never came back home, and his remains were cremated at the Juil Valley. The governor of Kyung Buk collected funds and erected a monument in his honor in Dec 1950. The Unni Nayar memorial pillar and monument is today, a S Korean National monument.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit took a personal interest in caring for the young widow during the next few days. Nehru spared no efforts in ensuring that all support and a pension was provided to Vimala. Vimala Nayar returned to India to continue her neglected profession and became a well-known gynecologist & obstetrician. Their daughter Dr. Parvathy Mohan and her children continue the lineage as doctors in America. Vimala on her death aged 94 in 2011, had desired to be reunited with her late husband and so her ashes were taken to the memorial in Taegu and scattered around the memorial, the two of them thus finally resting together, for eternity.

Han Suyin’s acclaimed Cold War novel ‘The Mountain is Young’ published in 1958 has the protagonist Unni Menon cast in the mold of Unni Nayar (Han and Ian Morrison were together those days) and covers the tale of a writer Anne Ford falling in love with an Unni Menon, a charismatic engineer in Calcutta.

A portrait of Unni by Maree Beck hangs in the library of the Indian embassy in Australia. The US national press club established a memorial fund in his name to bring Indian journalists to the US for training and study.

Many of his Indian contemporaries mention the short shrift they received from the white Anglo-Saxon, be it European, British, or American. But studying the life of Unni Nayar, I could not come across a single adverse comment about him from any officer or soldier, bureaucrat, or journalist who came across or worked with him. Likewise, there is not a single mention of prejudice from Unni. The sheer number of accolades tells me how popular he was, and how quickly he made a name for himself. It makes it clear that Unni transcended any discrimination, with his simple demeanor, his professional go-get open attitude, his devotion, his smiling face, and his desire to learn and keep himself well informed. He needed only 12 years, to make an everlasting name for himself.

Unni has this to say to all of us, in his little book, ‘My Malabar’. Though a little dated, his words are something every Indian must note and is a dictum I have always followed, in my own life, thus far – The India to which I belong, I know, has her problems, but they matter less to me than the people. To Europeans and Americans, we are Orientals or inhabitants of a country mysterious, romantic, or filthy and diseased (according to temperament). Our way of living is different in externals; but having had some acquaintance with both Europe and America, I cannot see how an Indian is vastly different in essentials from a European or an American.

From being constantly derided, many Indians have gone on the defensive, and become almost apologetic about Indian institutions or thought. The type of British poseur who has curtly dismissed the Hindu way of living as semi-barbarous or has lampooned it for the diversion of shallow-minded bright youths is legend in India; the species wandered through Government houses to Residency and Yacht Clubs as late as the forties. We Indians would be foolish if we cared for their stings.

Talking to another writer, Eric Linklater, Unni added – Make fun of us, but write of the people, not the problems. Several articles in international newspapers these days are written by Indians working at back offices in India. I hope this little advice from a man long gone, will be read, and heeded to by these young journalists and writers.

Unni Nayar, leading by example, proved in just 12 years that he could be a good Indian, a great newsman, and a fearless soldier, second to none.


Colonel Unni Nayar Commemoration volume Aug 12, 1951

My Malabar – Col Unni Nayar

Memories of a news editor – R Parthasarathy

Visit to America – Jawaharlal Nehru

Various other accounts & Newspaper clips


Pics – Courtesy UN, Nehru book, Youtube video, Korean War Memorials in Pictures – acknowledged with thanks.