“Wow! Such lovely greenery,” I said to myself, as our tour bus passed through the beautiful English countryside of Warwickshire.
“Our next stop on the tour is the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of none other than our Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare,” our guide announced with a broad smile, revealing her pride in her heritage.
On hearing the name of the Bard, memories from my school days came flooding into my mind.
I stared with unseeing eyes at the lush green fields and meadows that we passed as we trundled along in the bus, the tour forgotten, the guide’s gentle voice a distant murmur in my ears. I was transported back to my hometown, a beautiful hill station in Southern India.
I did my schooling in a convent school situated in a town about five kilometers from my village. It was considered to be one of the top ten schools in India.
I was in Class Eleven when I first got the opportunity to study under Professor Krishnamachari. He was considered to be one of the best teachers of the English Language in the entire State of Tamil Nadu. He taught postgraduate students at the local college. However, at the request of our school principal, he agreed to teach the Higher Secondary students of our school.
It is widely assumed that if one talks about English Literature, the first name that comes to mind is that of William Shakespeare. But in our town, Prof. Krishnamachari’s name was mentioned in the same breath as that of Shakespeare.
He was known to be a lover of the English language. His house was said to contain hundreds of books on English Literature, both classical and contemporary. He had an extensive library and kept adding to his collection of rare English literary books.
He was an atheist. In his house, there were only portraits of Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Shelley and other great writers and poets. If by chance Prof. Krishnamachari had been a believer, I suspect he would have considered these writers and poets to be his gods. He certainly regarded them as such. When he spoke of them, it was with such deep feeling and adoration that one could imagine a halo around these greats.
He was almost fanatically a stickler for perfection as far as the usage of the English language was concerned. Any distortion of the language would make him furious; he considered it a sin graver than murder, he told us once, in no uncertain terms, looking down at us sternly, his brows joined in a forbidding frown.
He had once refused to attend a felicitation ceremony organized by the Government, in his honor, because the invitation addressed to him contained grammatical mistakes.
I loved his literature classes. I cannot even begin to describe the way he used to read poems aloud, his sonorous voice dramatically rising and falling, rising again, now speaking in hushed tones, as he swept us along with him, on rapturous journeys of poetic beauty, myriad emotions, ranging from the gallant to the romantic to the mystical, simply by his wonderful command over the language. Such was his kinship with the great poets. It was almost as if we were hearing the poet himself read his works.
But I dreaded his English grammar classes. I never could understand or remember the nuances of grammar and often made mistakes. He would never lose an opportunity to ridicule me in front of the other students. Of course, I found solace in the fact that I was not the only one in class at the receiving end of his verbal whiplash.
The professor lived in the staff quarters, next to our Hostel, with his wife. They had no children. But his two nephews, Manas and Suhaas, lived with them. They were his sisters’ sons. A couple of years back both their parents had lost their lives in a tragic bus accident. The professor and his wife brought the boys home, caring for them as their own.
Both Manas and Suhaas were in my class. Though they were first cousins, they were very different from each other. Manas was brilliant but Suhaas was just average.
I once overheard our school principal asking the professor about his nephews.
“Manas is brilliant. He used to quote Shakespeare even when he was in Class Five. By the time he was in Class Nine he had already finished reading the complete works of the Bard and other great poets,” the professor said, beaming with pride.
“But Suhaas is quite ordinary, an immature lad. He once had the audacity to tell me that if Mark Anthony had kept his speech in Julius Caesar short, he could have easily remembered it by heart for his exam,” he sighed.
But the professor loved them both equally and took great care of them. However, when it came to Manas, his love was mixed with pride and admiration. He would beam and nod his head fondly whenever Manas stood up in class to read his essays on the works of classical poets.
The years rolled by and Manas passed out with flying colors. He gained admission into the best B-school in the country. After graduation, he got placed in a reputed MNC in London.
Suhaas, on the other hand, passed out with average grades from a local college. He managed to get a job in a Government bank but his place of work was in a city that was a 5-hour bus journey away from our town.
Every alternate Sunday, Suhaas would travel to his uncle’s residence to spend the day with them. He would readily do any odd jobs around the house and make himself useful to his uncle and aunt. He told me that he was indebted to them for having taken care of him and given him an education and a home. Suhaas never hesitated to show his gratitude. He always said that, but for them, he would have never succeeded in life. I used to accompany him on these trips home as I worked in the same place and had nowhere else to go on Sundays.
On Sunday afternoons, the professor was usually busy having academic discussions with his students who were preparing for their doctoral theses. He would look up and nod at Suhaas cursorily and carry on with his discussion.
Suhaas spent time chatting with his aunt. She would lovingly serve us with delicious homemade food. Sometimes his uncle would give him some personal work of his to be done during the week. But he hardly spoke more than a couple of words to Suhaas.
His aunt would then tell Suhaas kindly, “Don’t mind your uncle. You know his passion for English Literature and teaching. He is especially busy on Saturday and Sunday afternoons with his students. He forgets the world and he hates to be disturbed during these sessions. So he is not able to spend more time with you, even though you travel all the way here to spend time with us.”
One Sunday afternoon, while we were having coffee at the professor's house, the telephone rang.
His aunt picked up the phone and said, “Hello! Oh, is that you Manas? How are you? Wait. I will call the professor.”
The professor came running to the phone and, covering the mouthpiece, said to his wife, “Go and tell the students to come tomorrow.”
Suhaas’s aunt came back after seeing off the students. The professor continued talking to Manas on the phone, oblivious to our presence.
“Manas calls him once a month. They talk for a couple of hours or longer. Sometimes he calls on the weekend. When his call comes, the professor always asks his students to leave, so that he can talk to Manas uninterruptedly. I do not know what they have to talk about for so long. But I think it is definitely something new in the world of English Literature that Manas has come across,” she said with a smile.
Once outside the house, I confronted Suhaas, “Although you do so much for the professor, he has hardly any time for you. Manas has never bothered to do anything for them. And yet, the professor likes to spend time with him. Does this not bother you at all?”
Suhaas smiled and said, “There is no question of comparison. My uncle has done so much for me. I am what I am because of him. It is my duty to take care of his needs.”
Suhaas not only continued with his regular visits but also took leave from office, whenever his uncle or aunt was indisposed. So much so that even if one or the other of them was hospitalized, Suhaas would stay by their side and take a leave of absence until they were well enough and only then return to work.
Five more years went by. One day while we were having lunch at the office, Suhaas got a phone call.
As he finished his call, I noticed that his face was looking grave.
“The professor has been admitted to the hospital. I have to go immediately,” he said.
For the next one month, Suhaas stayed at the hospital by his uncle’s side, tending to him day and night.
But it was all in vain. The professor passed away after all his vital organs failed.
With a heavy heart, Suhaas started making arrangements for the cremation.
He consoled his aunt and said, “I will not leave you alone here. You must come and stay with me, please. I will take care of you.”
It was the thirteenth day after the professor’s death and cremation. I had gone to his place to pay my last respects.
There were quite a number of relatives of the professor who had come to pay their respects too.
Suhaas on seeing me came and hugged me. I could see how saddened he was by the professor’s death and started to say something to console him.
Just then I heard someone near us pointing at Suhaas and asking the person next to him, “That boy is Suhaas, isn’t he? I heard that he was by the side of the professor during his last days. It is rare nowadays to get to see young people taking care of the elderly in their time of need. One always regards the younger generation as selfish. Suhaas is such a fine example of selflessness”
“That’s nonsense. That boy has no career. He is working in some Government Bank and so he has no problem in getting all the leave he wants. Anyway, these bank people do not do any work. At least he is doing something useful here,” the other person retorted in a sarcastic tone.
My friend’s face went red. I felt sorry for him and wanted to give a piece of my mind to the person who had spoken so dismissively about Suhaas. But Suhaas stopped me and said, “Don’t say anything please. This is neither the time nor the place. Anyway, I am immune to all these comments. I have heard such disparaging remarks even from my close relatives.”
The sarcastic one continued, “Do you know the professor’s other nephew, Manas? He has really turned out to be a success. He is a director in an MNC based in London.”
“I don’t see him. Did he come for the funeral?” the other one asked.
“The poor boy is very busy with his work. He is in India right now but because of his busy schedule, he could not come. He has meetings lined up for the whole month. Even so, he has managed to pen a wonderful eulogy. The professor’s wife showed it to me. She got it by e-mail this morning. Oh! He is very eloquent. You will love it. The principal of the school, where the professor worked, is going to read it in just a few moments.”
Just then the principal arrived. The professor’s wife handed him a print out of the eulogy for him to read out to the assembled guests.
The principal after speaking a few words about the professor and his long association with him, said, “Please permit me to read out the eulogy written by the professor’s nephew, Manas, who was also his finest student.”
People listened with rapt attention as he continued to read the eulogy. It was indeed a brilliant piece of writing, beautiful words formed into lovely strings of sentences with perfect grammar and syntax. It was almost as if the professor’s legacy of mastery in the English language had passed on to Manas. It would have definitely made the professor proud of his nephew. Many in the crowd were visibly moved. At the end, everybody nodded their heads in appreciation of the author who had penned such a masterpiece.
“This eulogy shows how much the boy truly loved his uncle, the professor,” somebody said loudly.
The principal said, “Does anybody else wish to speak?”
Suhaas slowly rose up. I could see him filled with grief, his eyes welling up with tears. He started speaking slowly. But he could not utter even a few lines coherently. Maybe it was due to his lack of fluency in English or maybe he was choked with tears; I cannot not say.
“The professor would be turning in his grave if he heard such distortion of the English Language. This speech is an insult to all the values that the professor upheld during his lifetime,” the sarcastic one said rather loudly.
Others joined him and, the chorus of murmurs got louder, as Suhaas continued.
“I would rather have a eulogy that comes from one’s heart even if it is poorly composed, rather than have an eloquent piece, with all the right phrases and emotions in place, a little too perfect and yet devoid of any of the warmth and love that Suhaas displayed and Manas could not.” I thought to myself. I closed my eyes and sighed, feeling sorry for my friend and having a great urge to shout at these shallow people who heard but did not listen, who watched but did not see, that my friend Suhaas was worth a hundred of Manas.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the huge portrait of Shakespeare on the wall facing the professor’s table.
One may consider me fanciful but, for a moment, it appeared as though the Bard of Avon closed his eyes and nodded his head as if in complete approval of my thoughts.
“And here we are, ladies and gentlemen, at Stratford-Upon-Avon, the pride of the British”. The guide’s voice intruded into my thoughts of the past, just as I tried to hold on to the fading image of the Bard nodding his approval at me.