Monday, July 7, 2008

To Sir with Love

‘I have booked tickets for you in the Nilagiri Express. We get down at Coimbatore and head straight for school’, declared Sathya over the phone. I was literally being bulldozed into making it to the School after a gap of 26 years. And by booking tickets Sathya, my class mate at SainikSchool, Amaravathi Nagar and Secretary of our Amaravians ’82 batch was just making it all the more difficult for me to wiggle out of it. Did I have a choice? I have learnt that sometimes not having a choice in life actually turns out to be a blessing. Hoping luck would be on my side, I boarded the Nilagiri. And what a trip it turned out to be. It was a trip down memory lane, transporting me and probably others (Kumarasekhar, N Saravanan and of course Sathya) in the group to a time that was the most important period in our life, the childhood days, the period when we get shaped to face our future.

Manoharan our batchmate in school, now an architect, picked us all up at the Coimbatore station and even before the sunrise, we set off to our School, as Sathya had spoken to us about the need to make it early, in order not to miss the morning school assembly. Certainly I too didn’t want to miss the morning Assembly, where I had spoken a number of times on various topics. At Amaravathi Nagar, we were joined by two more of our batch mates, Suresh and V Narayanan. There were a lot more old students, especially from the '83 batch which was celebrating its Silver Jubilee. After breakfast, we were right in time for the assembly and some of the ‘old boys’ were invited to give motivational speech to the assembled students of past and the present. As I sat there listening, suddenly their voices faded and Mu Selvarasan’s booming ‘Thambi antha chunnambhu kattiyai kondu vaa’ (brother bring that chalk piece) rang in my ears. Probably retired long ago, Mu Selvaraasan our towering Tamil teacher was conspicuous by his absence in that assembly. My mind went back to the speech I had delivered in the same assembly almost 26 years back and tears welled in my eyes as I was flooded with memories of Mu Selvaraasan, our beloved Tamil Iyya, who made me feel very special after that speech.

My speech that day was in English and it was about the Disastrous role of religion in contemporary life. It was 1982, Rajiv Gandhi was yet to become PM and unlock the doors of Babri Masjid, vitiating the communal atmosphere and Khalistan was the issue of the day. I, a 12th Standard student began my assembly speech with a quote from Rousseau, ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’, drawing parallels to the role of caste in Hinduism and how it kept the Dalits (then SC’s) enslaved. I spoke of the futility of fighting in the name of caste and religion by quoting a poem of the Tamil poet Subhramanya Bharathi.

‘Vellai nirathoru poonai
engal veetil valaruthu kandir
Pillaikal petrathu appoonai
Paambin niramoru kutti
Vellai paalin niramoru kutti,
Sambhal niramoru kutti,
Vellai chandhu niramoru kutti,
Inniram siridhenrum, inniram peridhendrum yetram kozhalamo?
Thayai porutha mattil avai yavum oru tharamandro
’ from Kottu Murase

In short Bharathi, the great Tamil poet speaks about a white cat in his house that gave birth to kittens of varying colours. “Would the mother discriminate its kittens on the basis of colour? Are they not equal to the mother?” asks he. And that was exactly the point I was trying to make. God, I felt was not going to differentiate his children on the basis of the religion. So why fight in the name of religion, I asked.

Having covered my self with quotes from two eminent men, with confidence I moved on to trickier and problematic terrain by pointing out the deficiencies in each religion as it was being practiced then. The caste in Hinduism was unfortunately bedeviling Christianity too, I observed. Even after conversion one is still known as a Parayar Christian or Nadar Christian and so on. Why carry the stigma of the caste, I wondered. And then it was the turn of Islam, where I lamented the fact that some of the preachers and followers were making very narrow interpretations of the religion, taking it to stone ages.

I concluded my speech with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali
“Leave this chanting, singing and rolling of beads,
Open thine eyes and see where you are.
You are inside the temple with all the doors shut.
God is there where the tiller is tilling the soil,
And the path maker is breaking the stones.
He is with them in sun and shower.”

This was a speech I had prepared well and it was delivered well without any stage fright, as by then I had given a number of speeches before. As I was walking down to take my seat after the speech, I could sense an approval from the principal and some of the students. Before getting into the class a few students, juniors complimented me. However during lunch at the mess, I was curious about the reaction of my English teacher, a man from the minority faith, who used to sit next to me at the head of the table. I asked him out of my curiosity. He didn’t bother to look at me. Without raising his head from the plate and waving the fork and spoon in his hand, he glowered, “I won’t worry about what I have in my hand, whether it is a fork or a knife. I will just kill you, if you speak ill about my religion next time.” I was a bit surprised and disappointed by his reaction. However I was convinced of what I spoke. Having made his displeasure known, the English teacher continued eating as if nothing had happened. Neither did he demand an apology, nor did I offer one. He was generous enough to forget the whole issue immediately and never held it against me. Probably he thought it was a juvenile speech not worth being taken seriously.

On the contrary Mu Selvaraasan, my Tamil Iyya seemed to have a different opinion, but very typical of him, kept it to himself for about three days. Mu Selvaraasan was an extradinary man. He would walk into the class with an authority, place himself in front of the black board and with his back turned to us, with his right hand extended and looking nowhere in particular, he would ask for a chalk piece in his own booming, pure Tamil, ‘Thamby, antha chunnambhu kattiyai kondu Vaa’(Brother bring the chalk piece). We used to be mesmerised by this man, who spoke unadulterated Tamil and seemed immensely proud about his language and origins. It was he who once looked at me and declared that ‘You Tamil Muslims speak the most pure Tamil’. It was news to me and I felt immensely pleased and proud. He never explained as to how come we of all Tamils spoke the most pure form of Tamil. Nevertheless in a school, where occasionally I used to be bullied and taunted and told rudely to ‘go away to Pakistan’, the Tamil teachers certificate of my uniqueness in upholding the glorious Tamil made me feel at home and ignore those occasional barbs. To a teenager living away from his parents, his words were very comforting.

As I mentioned earlier, Mu Selvaraasan did not react to my speech that day when it was his turn to conduct the Tamil class. I too wasn’t expecting any reaction from him. However on the fourth day, as he entered the class, he closed his eyes, and in a dramatic way with his right arm raised and the forefinger pointing upward as if making a point, he announced “Thambi Anvar, 3 naatkalukku munnar naam umadhu uraiyai kettom. Miga nandraga irunthathu. Anal udanadiyaga naam paaratavillai. Karanam ennvendral, ethanai naatkal nam manathil antha urai nirkirathu endrariyave inru varai kaathirunthom. Moonru naatkalakiyum indrum namadhu manathil andha urai pasumaiyaka irukkiradhu. Mika pramadhamana urai. Emadhu vaazhthukkal.” (Brother Anvar, we heard your speech three days back. It was good, but we didn’t appreciate it immediately because we wanted to see how long the speech lingered in our mind. Even after three days, the speech is still reverberating in our mind. It was a great speech. Congratulations.)

I have received many prizes for my extempore and elocution skills but nothing would compare to the word of appreciation that came from my Tamil teacher, an appreciation which he made it clear, came from the depths of his heart, and deliberately withheld for three days to test the power of my speech.

Coming back to reality, as speaker after speaker spoke at the Amaravians Alumni Association meet of 2008, trying to motivate the young students, it was Mu.Selvaraasan who was looming large in my mind. Missing that great man, a big motivator and influence in my life, who was conspicuous by his absence in that special assembly, tears welled in my eyes.


Ravi said...

Looks like you have been profoundly influenzed by Mr. M.S.

It's been too long ago and I don't recollect your speech. But from your recollections of it, it must have been a good one.

I can't figure out who the English teacher was who derided your speech against his religion.

Any way good post and keep writing.


anvar s said...

Thanks Ravi,
For a clue on the English teacher, please look at the accompanying pics. And as I said in my post he never held it against me.

anvar s said...

Chandru saidAnvar,

To Sir with Love - Obviously you have seen that great Sidney Poitier
movie. It is one of my favorite movies for handling so many sensitive
subjects with such ease.

I had to leave the school after 10th because of color blindness. So, I
was not fortunate enough to speak in the assembly or listen to our own
batchmates. I missed your speech.

I am surprised to learn that you all had a certain freedom to choose a
topic that you wanted to discuss in the assembly. I am actually
shocked that you had thought so much about religion and caste at that
age and that too in our school. The reason that I am shocked is that I
never thought people were so divided in the outside world based on
religion, caste, money, color, etc., until I left the school and
learnt it the hard way. Looks like you were way ahead of many others
in terms maturity and wisdom. To quote Bharathi and Tagore in the same
speech takes a certain imagination.

Your comment about the English teacher is not that surprising. Very
few teachers understood the spirit of learning and teaching. Some have
the passion and love for it. Others do it for money. Obviously, the
guy you are referring to worked for money. If he can't undestand the
complicated adolescent life we all went through at that time and help
us through that stage, what kind of a teacher was he?

We discussed our teachers in a different thread last year. Clearly,
there were some great teachers. Speaking for myself, KKK was a great
inspiration to me. I remember Mr. MS in a different light. Since I was
taught Tamil by Mr. Ekambaram, I could not appreciate Mr. MS' Tamil
nor his teaching style. Mr MS had a peculiar accent and in my opinion
struggled a little bit with words ending with 'th'. I am not making
fun of him. I have heard from most of the B class guys that he was a
wonderful teacher. But I am just recalling my own memory of him.

It is absolutely stunning to learn about comments such as 'go away to
Pakistan'. Was this from our batchmates or seniors or teachers? I am
still unable to believe this.

But back to Mr MS, I agree that we always looked to our teachers as
father figures in a home away from home, but most proved unworthy of
that respect. Mr MS was one of the honorable exceptions. Great speech
by the way.


anvar s said...

Narayanans post in the google group


Very nice. I am also amazed at the contents of your assembly speech,
at that early age.

A few of my reminiscences about Mr.MS.

i) He was very good in his English diction as well. He used to talk
mostly in English, when not handling his subject.
ii) In one class, he picked a couple of boys including myself and
asked us to read out a para. In the end, he asked the rest of the
class to evaluate whose reading was the best. Many names were picked
but not a single vote for me. To my utter surprise, he declared my
name. Reason was there was "ZHA" in a couple of places which was
consistently pronounced well.

Much later, when I heard Vairamuthu's song, "Thamizhukku Zha azhagu",
I was reminded of the above incident.

iii) He had a bad temper and was quite severe & harsh with his
punishments. Ask the Cholans. (I remember once we saw a bruised &
battered Thyagarajan, then Chola captain and grapevine was it was the
wrath of Mr MS - For giving a love letter to the daughter of the
school Principal).

iv) Two years after I had left school, I saw him waiting for town bus
in Trichy Town Bus stand, when I was also waiting for one along with a
group of relatives. I hesitated to walk upto him, fearing he would not
readily recognise me. What if his or my Bus comes before the
introduction is over. Suddenly a bus comes and I was shoved to the
entrance. We squeezed our way in but there was no seat. So I moved
forward to stand comfortably and lo, there was Mr MS again, right in
front, but with his back towards me. Throughout the journey, I was
deliberating whether to engage him in conversation but somehow the
hesitation proved strong.

V) He had a son named "Pugazhendi" probably named after Kamban's son.

Anvar, we'd love to have more of your nostalgia flowing.


anvar s said...

Narendran's post in amaravians'82 google mail

Dear Anvar,
I too like Chandrasekar 1134 had to leave to school after 10th on account of my eye power being -3.75D. The regulation was - 2.5D. So I also had no chance of listening to your speech in the assembly. But I remeber an Anvar who was a bit hesitant and bit shy. Seems you became more assertive after the 10th.
My memory of MS is a bit different.

He used to talk about him being the disciple of Mu Kalayanasundaram. His teacher was a student of Mu Ka. He used to very proud of it.

Also I remeber him saying about Thirukkural expressing about everything about life. Someone asked about the two approaching vehicles dimming their headlights. To which, Yaan nokkungal nilam nokkum, nookakaal than nokki mella nagum. (While I look at her, she looks away. While I look away, she looks at me and smiles).

I was in Chola house and MS was my housemaster. Once in a month, I along with a few others were to go to his house for finalizing the accounts for each of the students of our house. Our purchases from the canteen would be marked in a worksheet with rows and columns (like a worksheet in Excel) and we would toil for about a day to arrive at the total. Gurumuthy was our Maths teacher and I was not sure of my arithmetic capabilities. But today while sitting as a Chairman and reviewing randomly the valuations and summing of the marks of the teachers, i remember him with gratitude.

He had some stomach problem and would eat during the tea break.

My thanks to Anvar for bringing out some of the memories about Mr, MS.

SATHYAS, seems you have done a great job in taking people to Amaravathi Nagar.

Today, in my class, I was a bit nostalgic and talked about a few minutes about our school and told my students about the school starring in Rajini movie Kuselan.


anvar s said...

Christopher Prabhuraj on the amaravians'82 google groups reacted thus:

your blog had a nice layout. your experience in being in the
media comes out in the way you have blogged. your fond recollections
of MS triggered some vague memories for me too. But i will get to it
later in my post.

First off, i was amazed by your depth of maturity and wisdom in the
assembly speech you had delivered. I have no recollections of it
though. in fact i have none whatsoever of any of the assembly stuff,
including the ones i spoke on. The one i remember was a screw up i did
in reciting a poem. of course I do remember a speech i did when Mr.
Warriar was in charge of speeches and I delivered something, i don't'
recall what, which got him pissed off and I had to deliver another one
subsequently. But for these brief incidents I cannot say that i
remember the content or the subject matters of these deliveries.

I still have an issue with public speaking in spite of a short stint
as a teacher and lecturer. I was never comfortable standing in front
of an audience. One memorable speech i delivered was in Nagaland, on
Indian independence day, which drew some wild cheers and applause from
the crowd. the next day i received death threats from the underground
Naga guerrillas. I knew i must have delivered one hell of a speech on
that day to have really bothered those arse holes. The irony of that
was, i had prepared for that speech when i was under the influence of
the local brew of choice in a shady watering hole.

I did not have the mental maturity even after a long time after
leaving the school. The 'go to pakistan' comment was really
unthinkable. I never knew that kind of hatred existed amongst us kids.
I would have believed it in the world outside of us coz they were
exposed to all the sewage out there and some of the kids where copying
the adults. I was a minority too, being a christian and having a
difficult first name of 'Christopher' did bring some tease and
ridicule. Mostly silly tease, and i did get irritated coz of that. I
even questioned my parents as to why they named me so, and couldn't
they have named me some thing simple like Ramesh or Suresh or even
ChandraShekar (wink, wink)? They blamed my grand parents for this
naming protocol. Any way, i outgrew this eventually. Years later i did
speak on one occasion about this naming protocol blunders and screw
ups, and what a mess up the parents do naming their children, but that
is subject for another blog.

Coming to MS, he was my Tamil teacher as well as my chola house
master. What can i say. he was a decent and good man. Non
controversial. The cholans would recall, when he was relieved of house
master from chola, (Karuppiah took over) there was a farewell party in
the common room. Muthamizh selvan, who was the house captain at that
time, got up to deliver a speech, ( he was not known for his public
speaking abilities) started to speak, and suddenly broke down and
started to cry uncontrollably. The party had to stop and MS took him
out and was consoling him. Don't know if Muthamizh cried deliberately
to escape his speach.

On the other hand, MS was a good public speaker in tamil. His English
was a little wanting. But still he would try hard to deliver a good
speech. He would make the whole school stand and listen to him before
the evening prep. He would literally keep us all as 'captive audience'
against our will and try and polish his delivery in english elocution.

I used to not pay much attention during his tamil poetry class. But
some how i was attracted to one class where he was teaching
'them'baa'vani by H.A. Krishna Pillai. This was a translation of John
Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress which was also taught in the english
class. Some how some of the verses did register in my dumb immature

Several years later during the 'penn paarkkum padalam' (bride hunting)
i met this ABCD girl in chennai. I went to meet her folks. Guess what,
you guys will not believe this, but it is true. her folks told me that
the girl i was interested in was the great grand daughter of H.A.
Krishna Pillai. I was stunned. I asked them if it was the same as the
author of Them'baa'vani, to which they replied yes. Still shell
shocked, i gathered myself and informed them that he was one of my
favourite modern tamil poets. they did not believe me at all. They
thought i was bullshitting.
Then i started to recite his poem.
"Sathaai nishkalamaai, oru swamiyum unthilaiyaai
Sithaai anandhamaai, therigindra thiruthuvamae
and continued on and concluded with the last verse,

Athaan unnai allal, yenak kar thunai yaar uravuu ! '

It was their turn to look shell shocked and dumb.
They confided that until then they were only bragging on their family
ancestry and that they were in the same blood line of the poet but
never bothered to learn his
writings, and i had put them to shame.
Well thanks (?) to MS. I ended up marrying this damsel who i call as
EX. (All my EXes live in Texas) The rest is history.
This actually calls for whole new blog.

Chris P.

Hitesh said...

nice, i feel nostalgic about my school times now....havent seen my school for past 10 years...ofcourse, it isnt as long as your 26 years of gap. i guess, next time when i am in bombay, i shud pay a visit to my school....morning assembaly included ! :-)