A good thirty years ago down Sterling, campus courtesies in vogue as between professors and students depended much on the context, characters and their chemistry. The cultured as well as the cautious lot of quick witted students, would not lose a moment in greeting their professors with a “Good morning” or “good evening”.
A few professors would, as a rule, choose not to respond. Some others would respond with a cold, cursory and dismissive nod. A select few would, mutter something under their breath, leaving you guessing whether they were cursing or calling you names. The kinder lot would, of course, respond with a cheerful smile and a warm wish.
While that being so, my thoughts trail back to the year 1990, the month of January to be precise. It was perhaps the first fortnight since the College resumed after the Christmas vacation. We were in between our mid morning break, battling our Monday morning blues over coffee and biscuits , right after the first session of lectures. Students were still lazing about the campus when a car drove right across the main drive way, swerving alongside the semi circular row of bushes lining the path leading right up to the main entrance in the campus .The car pulled up beside the wooden stairway and a fair and formidable looking lady alighted. Appearing sure of her way about the campus, she proceeded down the main corridor. The wooden stairway was the usual hangout for students of the Arts courses as the departments and class rooms were located beside each other right across the same corridor.
A few minutes later the bell rang for classes to resume after the break. For the second year students, it was the hour of second language as students across the campus made a half hearted dash back to their respective classrooms. As I had chosen Beginners French, I was waiting along with the others for our professor to arrive.
The study of French, as a second language, had particularly much appeal for beginners and the enrollment of students for the ‘Beginners French Course’ ranked among the highest across various other courses offered in the campus. The Department of Foreign Languages was short staffed and had to conduct the Beginners French classes in multiple classrooms to handle the big numbers.
My reasons for choosing the Beginners French Course in Loyola had much to do with the promise of a French lifestyle – easy going and relaxed – something much longed for in the classroom. I had reliable information that the Beginner French Students were a pitied and pampered lot- Pitied because the professors treated us with the compassion ‘those slow on the uptake’ deserved and pampered because the faculty was charitably disposed to us with marks which had a direct bearing on our grades. We could not ask for more. Life was good for us for one academic year without much sweat. Scrolling down the mark sheet of any Beginner French student, the scores in French topped the charts. No wonder why people raved so much about the French and their lifestyle.
Little did we suspect that with the onset of the new semester a surprise was held in store for us. The Head of the French Department walked into our classroom, ushered in the lady whom I had seen a little while before, introducing her as Professor Radhika Madhavan who had joined the Foreign Languages Department. We were also informed that ‘Madam’ as we addressed her, was to handle our class for the next semester.
Our first French class commenced right away. The new Professor lost no time and got her message across in no uncertain terms that she meant business. She sported a tough, no-nonsense look and was matter of fact in her approach as to what she expected of us in terms of reading and writing assignments. Since this was not our understanding of the French lifestyle, we were all at sea. Having to deal with characters like us, I presume the poor lady was feeling equally lost. But one thing for sure was that the lifestyle, we longed for, was going to be taken out of our study of French.
New to the campus culture, Madam would on arrival, alight from her car and warmly wave out to any French student in sight. In my esteem, few statesman could have matched her poise and grace. At that point of time, a Professor, more especially a lady, waving out to a student in sight was deemed ‘a public honour’ and no less. The Beginner’s French students were, indeed, an edified lot.
While that being so the corridors of our college campus were more appealing and alluring than the classrooms. The corridors were brighter and breezier than the classrooms, some of which were claustrophobic. I for one, was more at home strolling along the corridors than sitting in the classrooms. It kept me fit in mind and body. However my day of reckoning was to arrive earlier than expected. One fine morning soon after I had taken off from class on some “official duty“, Madam suddenly arrived from nowhere. Sharp as ever she spotted me at one end of the corridor and waved out to me. I was not sure whether she was beckoning me back in the direction of the classroom under a bonafide impression that I had lost my way on the corridor. While I had a well planned agenda “on official duty” for the day outside class and not knowing how to react, I recall nodding back to her from a distance in a very reassuring manner that I would not be gone for long. Madam was quick to note the evasive response.
The next day I entered her class and took my seat with the hope that memories are short and the past would be, as always, providentially forgotten. The lecture began and she invited me right royally up the elevated dais. Anyone would have deemed such an invite as a mark of honour and respect and so did I. Unsuspectingly I ascended the dais thinking some rare honour was in store for me. She generously handed me her piece of chalk and invited me to conjugate a verb – a price I paid for having skipped her previous class.
Days later she looked at us, half amused and half puzzled ,as if she was facing a class of aliens and what followed was a very pointed question directed at one and all :“Why is it that when you guys are wished , you do not know how to respond and your jaws drop ? There was a proverbial ‘pin drop’ silence in the class. Seldom would a class of students fall silent and when they did, it was the silence of the lambs.
In the course of the year, she redefined the French lifestyle with a lot of underlying human values. She invited us home, gave us tea, heard our stories out, even if that meant staying late in the department and more than anything treated us as family would.
The academic year soon came to a close. We were all sad as it was time to part ways and bid adieu. The French course was done and Madam had also decided to call it a day. We had a modest farewell function and I invited each student to come forward and share his experience as a Student in the French class. Much to my surprise, every student came forward and had a fond story to tell about their experience of learning a language with Madam.
When my turn to speak came, I quoted the first few words she uttered to us in her first class which went as follows: “I have been told I have a class of bright, smart, young men”. Apologetically as ever I added: “That was the first time she said it. And that was also the last time, she said it “.
There was an uproar of laughter in the class as the farewell function ended with a vote of thanks proposed by Madam herself. She responded with as much appreciation and warmth as her students did and pulled me up for quoting her out of context. It was a sad day as we parted company not to meet for a long time to come.
Three decades later I had word that Madam was planning to move into the neighbourhood with her family. Delighted at the prospect of seeing her again, I was counting the days, weeks and months but it didn’t seem to happen. I lost hope thereafter.
It so happened one evening on a drive back home, I suddenly caught sight of that familiar figure. I immediately pulled up and slowly approached her gate hoping she would recognize me. Absorbed with her gardening, she was bending over an array of pretty potted plants, moving her gaze gently, from the pots to the plants, plants to the flowers, flowers to the creepers, attending to each, one after the other. In all these moments, she took her time, almost one to one with every bit of nature right around her whether it was watering some, nudging a creeper in its climb up the wall, pruning a shoot here and there, plucking a wilted leaf with that parting glance saying: “thanks for being around for us”. In all she did, be it the pots or the plants, the flowers or creepers, the twigs or thorns, she treated each with a great sense of care and concern.
While she was totally oblivious to my presence, I stood by an inconspicuous corner beside the gate, biding my time. My thoughts could not but drift back in time, reminiscing the way she handled each one of her students – some were like the pots which needed watering down, some were like the creepers which needed a bit of nudging in the right direction, some were like twigs which needed a bit of pruning, some were lifeless like wilted leaves- she endeavoured to bring them all back to a life of learning.
It took her awhile before she realised that somebody was waiting beside the gate to meet her. I was not sure whether I needed an introduction given the long passage of time with age writ largely on my face. On seeing me she suddenly shot her arm out and waved with that warm welcoming smile as she did thirty years ago. I stood there grateful as ever.
(Nirmal Roy Sanjeevi is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court for 28 years)