Those who have not attended Prof Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri’s English classes, may not probably miss the melodic lilt of tongue, the cadence of words and the fluidity of expression that was like ice cream topped with honey, for his students.
“I sat down to write an article today morning and found that I could make no progress. There was grit in the machine somewhere and the wheels refused to revolve.”
The voice reading the opening lines of A G Gardiner’s famous essay “On Habits” to the First Year Degree students in University College in 1980 was like that of a BBC World Service broadcaster.
For us in the Seventies, the radio staple was from Bush House, London. The Professor’s pronunciation was no different from that of Martin Young or John Edmunds, popular BBC newsreaders of those times. His English was mellifluous.
Our English teacher, was a delight to listen to, a sight to behold and a personality to look up to. There used to be a rush to be in the front benches in his class. When he spoke, the language blushed, probably. And for bonus, there was matching “theatre” from his gestural hands.
Around that time, Aparna, his daughter, had come first in a University level Kathakali competition. We used to say she would not have had to try hard because Dad was a “natural aritste”. She just had to copy him.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” was meant for those times when Professors ONV Kurup and Vinayachandran were teaching Malayalam and G N Panicker and Narendra Prasad, English, for us.
“Anybody who has understood,”? Prof Narendra Prasad would ask after speaking for about 15 minutes turning the conventional pedagogic question on its head. G N Panicker used to be serene. And then there was Dr P S O Stalin, the most popular, in whose over flowing class, students used to sit on the floor and window sills.
But Prof Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri was a class of his own. Those were the heady days post-1977 when, to paraphrase Subhash Chandra Bose “the freshness of the fragrant rose of liberty had wafted in after much suffering and sacrifice”. Jayaprakash Narayan had died but his spirit lingered somewhere. Briefly in the air, there was the flavour of “Sampoorna Kranti” or Total Revolution.
Our dear Professor was an admirer of J P. And of course, Gandhiji, whose life he also lived.
A custodian of the highest values, as an ideal teacher should be, he was an inspiration for most of us on campus.
He wore khadi — kurta and mundu. The Raleigh bicycle was his favourite transport to college. Simplicity was his leitmotif. And quite a few of us thought we should be like him though I should admit, that idealism was lost as soon as we left the arc of his gaze and influence.
What set him apart from his contemporaries was that he mixed the best of the Orient as well as the Occident. It is this trait that we see when he became priest at the 5,000-year-old Sree Vallabha temple and then went to London to present an English thesis on the Vedas in 1997.
Prof Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri was at ease both upon Westminster Bridge in London as well as around the Vallabha temple at Thiruvalla. Men like him are from mankind’s Limited Edition stable.
(The author is a top Indian bank executive. Views expressed here are personal)