Salem is perhaps one of the most common place names in the world. There are at least twelve countries having Salem as the name of a locality, the United States placing itself in the vanguard in this regard with as many as 37 cities, towns or villages called Salem. There are Salems in Britain, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Israel, Palestine, Canada, South Africa and Myanmar, apart from India.
I do not know if anyone can say for certain how the name Salem became so internationally popular. In one instance, however, there is a plausible explanation. In the literary world of Stephen King, the king of pulp horror, there is a celebrated place by name Salem’s Lot, a contraction for ‘Jerusalem’s Lot.’ Many of King’s horror stories are based on the imaginary Maine topography that he called Salem’s Lot, especially the novel with the same title. In the same manner, many of the Salems in Europe may have their genesis in Jerusalem.
In the formative years of my life, that is shortly after completion of my education and before reaching my career destination, Journalism, I happened to spend three memorable years in the second half of the 1960s in the laidback rustic milieu of one these Salems, the Salem in Tamil Nadu, teaching English to a predominantly rural student community. The colleges I worked for were all new government institutions and many agrarian families in those localities were sending their wards for college education for the first time. There was the novelty of the huge, imposing college buildings coming up in the midst of vast, desolate terrain or extensive farm lands, away from the town centres and bereft of any infrastructural facilities like eateries and transport. There was also the novelty of a minor influx of teaching staff from different parts of Tamil Nadu and other states descending on these localities.
My first port of call was Salem town itself where I had the privilege of being the first English Lecturer in a newly started Government Engineering College. Salem then was a far cry from the buzzling, burgeoning metropolis that it is today. The college was started in a village called Karuppur just about ten kilometers from the Salem Town centre, but its milieu was such that one had the feeling of being in a distant, detached, barren outback. There was no house or building in the near vicinity of the college. The village where the rural population lived was far removed from the new education centre. There was only a thatched tea shop, run by an enterprising Malayalee Nair, opposite the College Hostel building. Incidentally this was the only place where the students and teachers could have tea and snacks apart from the Hostel which naturally had its Mess timings.
My first day itself in the college was an eye opener of sorts. After the formalities of joining duty were over in the office of the principal, Prof N R Sitapathi, one of the Tamilian ministerial staff took me around the college campus on a familiarization tour. He also took me to Nair’s tea shop, telling me that without Nair most of the students and staff of the college would have a very hard time in this no man’s land. We sat on a bench and ordered tea. As I looked around the shop I noticed a tall, well-built man, very, very dark skinned, with a towel tied around his head like a turban. What struck me as odd was that he appeared to wear nothing else. It was only when he stood up that I realised he was wearing an insignificantly small loin cloth, what Malayalees call konakam, with its end piece jutting out at his rear like a tail. With a rather disdainful look, I ticked him off in my mind as representative of some local variety of aborigines. How far removed I was from reality became clear soon afterwards. He paid for his tea, went out, kick- started a brand new Royal Enfield motorbike with ‘For Registration’ board and sped away in all majesty, like a monarch of all he surveyed.
Seeing my jaw drop, and knowing why, Nair told me that the man was an agriculturist in the village. According to Nair the man was a ‘model farmer,’ and had extensive farm lands, a tractor and a truck, and a shop in Salem town for the sale of his merchandise, mainly onion and chillies. What I saw was his way of dressing up for work. He used to come to the shop for tea in his ‘working clothes.’
So the first lesson I learnt at Salem was that one should not judge anyone by appearance. Appearances indeed are deceptive.
There is always an advantage of being a pioneer in any field. Dr-Ing Srinivasan, the professor of Mechanical Engineering who was in charge of building up the College Library, wanted me to suggest titles of books for the English section of the Library. Funds, he said, were no problem. I embarked on the pleasant job in right earnest, giving him a list that was as exhaustive as I could make. Though I remained in the college for only one year, my contribution to the student community was thus more long lasting.
One of the most pleasant personalities I met at the GCE was Prof MP Namboodiripad, professor of Civil Engineering. Like me he too occupied a room in the Hostel. We would often go to the Mess together, speaking of many things, I always a listener and he a relentless talker. There was an entertaining and very endearing way in which he talked. Though he always spoke of many things under the sun, he was rather shy of speaking about himself. Details of his family background came to my knowledge much later. I gathered that he belonged to a well-known Kovilakam in Palakkad and he was the owner of as many as three elephants. He had extensive farm lands, estates and what not. His wife remained back home to be in charge of family affairs.
It was from Prof Namboodiripad that I learnt the value of food. As a youngster I had the detestable habit of wasting a lot of food during breakfast, lunch and dinner. It never struck me that it was a criminal waste. At the mess one day while sitting by my side he watched me leave a large portion of rice and many of the curries as leftovers. In a subdued tone he told me that one should not waste food as there were many in the world who were starving. Wasting food, he said, was a crime against humanity and a sin against God. It was only after his mild admonition that I noticed his eating style. He ate everything on the plantain leaf in front of him; there was not even one grain of rice or even a miniscule portion of any curry as leftover, except for the kariveppu leaves. After he ate, the plantain leaf looked as fresh as a new leaf. In subsequent years Prof Namboodiripad became my role model in my eating habit.
I was in the GCE only during that academic year as during the next year I found myself in another new institution, the Government Arts College , later christened as Arignar Anna Government Arts College, at Rasipuram, about 35 km from Salem. Construction of new buildings for the college was underway elsewhere even as the college started functioning in a portion of the Government High School there.
Rasipuram provided a more pleasant milieu for me as both the temporary college buildings and my own rented house were right at the centre of the town. Shops, eateries, the post office and other facilities were on hand and I had a much better time here than when I was in the GCE.
The importance that the local community attached to the new college was evident from the amazing manner in which the people of the town showed their respect to the teaching staff. If a college teacher went to any shop or restaurant, he was sure to be welcomed with a warm, affable refrain ‘vanga vaadhyare.’
My stint at Rasipuram was memorable for many reasons. First, I became a teachers’ teacher with some High School teachers coming to me with the request that I take tuition for them in English usage, grammar and good writing. It was a pleasant task and every evening the teachers, in their fifties, would spend at least two hours with me. Initially it was a class of three, and I invariably began the class after serving them thick, hot tea. By the second week four more teachers joined the class, but I do not know if it was my teaching or my tea that attracted them.
The curriculum that I prepared for the teachers included one hour exercise every day on common errors of usage and exercises in simple but elegant writing. To make them appreciate literature and encourage them to further read, I included some celebrated poems and prose passages and read and explained their significance. There was one poem each of important Romantic and Victorian poets but the one that gelled with them was the famous love poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning How do I love thee?
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.’
They were so fascinated by this poem that two of them came the next day claiming to have learnt it by heart.
It was while I was at Rasipuram that I got married. My teacher-students had a good laugh at my expense when I informed them of my forthcoming marriage. Because, that was the day when I was reading them Bacon’s essay Of Marriage and Single Life, in which Bacon had famously given his answer to the question when should a man marry: ‘ A young man not yet, an elder man not at all.’
When one teacher jokingly juxtaposed my marriage invitation to the statement by Bacon, I countered him by saying that Bacon had also said elsewhere in the same essay that ‘Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age and old men’s nurses.’
My marriage was fixed for the 14th of December 1968 and I had thought of availing leave sufficiently early. But my plans went violently awry when I got selected to undergo a month-long training programme in Teaching of English, conducted by a visiting faculty from Oxford and other universities in Britain. The training, from December 1 to 31, was to be held at the Teachers’ Training College at Chennai, then Madras.
I considered opting out of the programme but my Principal was against it. He said this was a covetable training programme and I should not miss it. He was sure it would benefit me and the local student community. He suggested that after joining the programme I meet the course director to seek leave of absence for some days.
The first thing I did at Madras was to meet the course director, requesting one week’s leave from December 12. He said one week’s leave was too long for a month’s programme. He condescended to give me leave for only four days, from December 13 to 16.
This meant fine tuning my plans to find enough time for everything: to and fro travel, the wedding and related ceremonies. Within that constricted time frame I had to leave Madras on the 13th, reach Thiruvanathapuram in the morning of the 14th, get married in the evening of the 14th, spend a night and a forenoon with my wife and board the train for Madras on the 15th afternoon.
Once I got the permission, I rushed to Egmore (only metre-gauge trains were available then) for reservation. Fortunately, I could get reservation for both onward and return journeys. But I was to find out soon, unpleasantly, that getting reservation was one thing and getting into the train was quite another. As it turned out, it was only by the grace of God that I could somehow make the journey to Thiruvananthapuram.
And what a roller coaster journey it was! On the 13th I had reached Egmore well ahead of departure time, but what I saw at the station simply unnerved me. There was a veritable multitude at the station and I had to push and jostle hard even to get to the platform. It appeared as if the entire travelling public in Tamil Nadu had assembled there with no motive other than to prevent me from reaching the train. It was only when the green signal was given and the train started moving that I managed to gain a foothold on it, hanging on to the door railings of an unreserved coach nearest to me, my shoulder bag dangling behind me.
Even after the train crossed several stations there was not much improvement in the situation. Only that from hanging on to the train, I graduated to sitting on the floor, legs resting on the steps below. I was wary of leaving this set up in search of my reserved compartment as I feared that I might lose even this facility. I learnt from other passengers that all the sleeper coaches too were heavily overcrowded. So I blissfully I remained where I was till the train reached Kollam by which time the rush within the compartment had eased to permit me to sit and relax.
I was dead tired when I reached Thiruvananthapuram and was taking a hard earned nap when two uncles of my would be wife, Ramammavan and Krishnammavan, came to pay a courtesy visit. The real purpose must have been to ascertain whether I had succeeded in fighting the odds in reaching here safely, with my marriage scheduled some ten hours away.
After the marriage, I returned to Madras on the 16th and completed the training programme. Back at Rasipuram, my routine was the same. The only incident worth mentioning was the fiasco of purchase of my first gift to my wife, a saree.
One day I asked a colleague, a native of Tamil Nadu, which textile shop at Rasipuram he would recommend to me for purchase of a saree. He not only suggested a name, but went one step further and said he and his wife would accompany me to the shop and help me make my selection.
At the shop my colleague’s wife suggested a saree and confidently said my wife would love it. I did not disagree as I was an utter novice in saree selection and had no idea about texture and colour and fabric and other parameters.
So I bought the saree, appropriately gift wrapped it and during my next trip to Thiruvananthapuram a month later, presented it to my wife, Sudha. I should be thankful to gods she did not throw it away. Because the saree I selected was far too gaudy and too chela like to the liking of a Thiruvananthapuram girl. My wife never wore it, but reverentially kept it in the wardrobe for years as my first gift to her.
During the next academic year I was posted at the Government Arts College, Namakkal, then a part of Salem District. Unlike the other two colleges where I was a loner in the English Department, this college had a full-fledged Department. The Head of the Department was Prof A S Patankar, a genial Maharashtrian. The staff included P A Hareendranath, a Malayalee hailing from Tellicherry who later joined Vijaya Bank as an officer.
In the 1960s transport facilities in all these places were woefully inadequate and the only way people could commute to a place was to hitch a ride in any passing vehicle. Once in a blue moon a passenger bus might come by, but more often it would be a bullock cart, tractor or truck.
After spending a week at the hostel, most of the teaching staff at Namakkal would make a beeline to the road in front of the college, patiently waiting for any vehicle that might carry them to Salem town. Some might get a tractor, some a bullock cart and some others a truck, which fortunately had a long seat behind the driver. On one occasion a truck stopped in front of us but Prof Patankar and I found that the drivers’ cabin was overcrowded. The driver graciously pointed his index finger up, indicating that there was space on the roof of the cabin. We were hesitant. Then, Prof Patankar asked aloud ‘why not’ and briskly climbed the small ladder to reach the roof of the cabin. I followed suit with some embarrassment.
But once we sat there, squatting, an exhilarating feeling took over us. What a ride it was! That exalted position really bestowed on us a feeling of Majesty. I told Prof Patankar we should be thankful to God for giving us a chance to experience what can be described as the rarest of rare travel modes - on the roof of a truck driver’s cabin.
Namakkal is etched in my memory for another reason too, a near death experience that I had, something similar to the ‘hair breadth escape’ that Othello spoke of. It was my friend Hareendranath who inadvertently pushed me to the brink of death and then valiantly retrieved me before it was too late.
Once a young modern farmer of Namakkal; a graduate and a close friend of some of the staff members, invited us to his farm and house to spend a week end. We happily agreed and it indeed turned out to be a memorable week end. He and his family members vied with one another to feed us and make us feel at home.
In the hot and humid afternoon, my friends wanted to have a splash in his swimming pool like irrigation tank that was big and long and deep. All my friends knew swimming and they started to dive into the pool and swim. The best of the lot was Hareendranath whose house at Tellicherry was close to the beach and whose hobby was to have a daily swim in the sea up to a distant rock.
Though I was born under the Zodiac sign Pisces, in water I always felt like a fish out of water. As my friends were frolicking in water and as I had nothing better to do I thought of having a bath and went down the side steps to reach the water in the tank. I just stood on the steps knee deep in water when it happened. Unlike others who dived from the ground above, Hareendranath climbed to the roof of the pump house and jumped. The splash he created was of such force that a huge wave hit the side of the tank and then pushed me into the pool.
And I started sinking. I was so stunned to think of anything and I went down and down and down. It was then that I noticed some movement near me. It was Hareendranath going up after his big dive. One of his legs was close to me and I caught it and, for the life of me, firmly held on to it. But instead of going up I was in fact pulling him down. And Hareendranath’s reflex action was both abrupt and decisive. He gave me a very forceful kick and I lost my grip and went tumbling down. I could feel the water getting colder and my legs almost touched the bottom of the pool, stirring the superfine dust particles and the accumulated silt at the bottom which soon rose and partially enveloped me. My mind was blank and I did not even think that the end was near.
Then I felt someone catching hold of my fair and pulling me up. It was Hareendranath diving again to rescue me. He pulled me up and brought my head above water and steered me slowly to the steps. I waited there for some time before venturing up, a helpful Hareendranath close behind me.
In spite of such a rather nightmarish experience at Namakkal, when, as the Bard said, ‘to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past,’ I have only fond, very fond, memories of the people, places and events that filled my life at Salem nearly half a century ago.