The 66 years of my life, as perhaps the life of everyone else, consist of a series of small lives: infancy, childhood, school days, college life - under-graduate and post graduate - first job, second job , final job, marriage that opened up a fascinating new world, first child, second child, then middle age, gray hairs and finally retirement. And now, in perhaps the last lap, waiting for the inevitable. ‘Anayasena maranam, Vina dainyena jeevanam…’
But if I am asked to make a choice to re-live one of these phases all over again I think I will choose not my childhood, not my school days, not even the period of my early marital bliss, but my college life when I broke free from the shell of my teens and entered the threshold of youth, that age of wonderment.
Sixty- six years is perhaps too long a period for the brain to keep track of all that has happened in one’s life. Many things in life are forgotten, or conversely, few things are remembered as day by day one closes the gap between memory and everlasting oblivion.
But what is very vivid in my memory is the three year period of my under-graduate studies in the University College, Thiruvananthapuram as a student of English Literature half a century ago. In a burst of nostalgia Wordsworth once said : ‘Bliss was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.’ I think in my case I would rephrase it as: Bliss was in that dawn to be in the University College, but to be a student of Literature was very heaven.
That was the time when the English Department had arguably the best of the faculty and perhaps some of the best student communities. And in spite of many other departments having similar claims, the English Department somehow enjoyed a pre-eminent position.May be because of its location in the main building, may be because of the feeling that studying English Literature was glamorous or may be because of the many attractive girls it had who literally bestowed on the department a lot of envious glamour.
When I joined the college in 1961 our principal was Prof V R Pillai, Professor of Economics, suave, fair skinned, very handsome,who in later life emerged as an economic wizard sought after by the state and central governments. Our Professor of English was the respected E P Narayana Pillai , a very good teacher and a very good administrator.
In my second year in the college EP sir was elevated as Principal, a position he richly deserved and thoroughly enjoyed. The elevation saw a sea change in him, both in appearance and attitude. From the very first day he showed his propensity for sartorial elegance, discarding his usual casual wear of trousers and slacks for a flamboyant three- piece suit which, incidentally, suited him well. He used to come in the morning very early and after spending some time in the office make his round of the college to ensure that the stragglers, who were many, who loitered round the old mango tree or at the portico or in the verandahs were herded into the class rooms much before the first bell rang. That was much of a routine almost throughout his tenure as Principal, which ended in March 1964. And since this was a routine and the route taken was the same, most of the stragglers, sometimes including me, knew where to expect him and when. But what we did not expect and , to be frank, did not like, was what happened occasionally at the portico during the fag end of his tenure as Principal. A Raj Bhavan car used to come to the college to drop a first MA student who was the daughter of an Advisor to the Governor. If EP sir happened to be at the portico at that time (as a matter of fact he was there, either by chance or by design), he would sometimes gallantly, or gallingly, step forward and open the car door for the Princess Charming. In spite of such an unprincipled act on the part of the Principal, we greatly respected him and loved him.
Compared to our seniors in the English Department, many of whom later excelled in the IAS-IFS examinations, our class was quite ordinary, mundane, average. Except perhaps in our attitude, in our confidence. We considered ourselves equal to,if not better than, anyone in the college, topper or not. So most of us had a good time, both in the campus and off the campus, whether we scored good marks or not. Attending the classes that we liked, cutting the classes that were considered ‘boring,’ frequenting the nearby Indian Coffee House with its old world building and old world charm, a favourite haunt of the collegians, or the American Library just across the road,or making that almost regular once-a-week trip to Sreekumar, the only cinema house in those times that showed English films, for a matinee at 75 paise for second class.
When EP Sir became Principal, Sankaranarayana Iyer sir became our professor. He was a good teacher though he was not considered as brilliant as the gems of the University College, Ayyappa Paniker , G Kumara Pillai, B Hridayakumari and Dr M Manuel. Of them Dr Manuel and Ayyappa Paniker sir subsequently went over to the University’s Institute of English (where I had the good fortune to continue to be their student during my MA classes). Our other reputed teachers were Chellamma Philip(Joseph), Shanthakumari, J Sudhakaran Nair and K Sreenivasan.
Sankaranarayana Iyer sir was better known in the college by his nick-name ‘Vada Swami,’ a name that stuck to him perhaps because of liking for vada. Somehow most of us in the literature class resented the nick- name as we had genuine respect and regard for him. In his dealings with the students as head of the department he was always extremely gracious and kind though he very well knew what some of the students called him behind his back. A cruel practical joke someone of a previous batch carried out once was to suspend a vada from a thread and lower it from the first floor auditorium through a hole on the wooden floor as he was taking class in the room down below.
One of the great regrets of the students in our class was that we did not have the benefit of lectures by Kumara Pillai sir, one of the best teachers ever. Just to have a taste of his lecture some of us once cut our class and sneaked into his class for our seniors. He could well have picked us up and thrown us out of the class, but he did not. His lecture had a special quality of its own, mellifluous,musical, a constant ebb and flow of words in slow motion. The wordy gems falling out of his mouth were so lustrous, so sharp, so precise that all one had to do was to pick them up and put them down on paper to make excellent copy for the examination.
We were pretty close to most of the teachers but the only teacher whose house we visited as a group was Ayyappa Paniker sir. At the close of the academic year during all the three years we would go to his Kunnukuzhi house ‘Sarovaram’ and spend an hour or two with him. We had a feeling that he too liked the visits as much as we did.
The English Association those days was very active in the department, regularly organising lectures and group discussions.One of the very articulate members of the Association was our senior J Lalithambika who in later life became a top administrator of the state. We were not aware of any college romance involving her but the person she married was a classmate of hers, K Mohanachandran, who later became a fellow IAS officer with her.
Apart from her we had some other celebrities in the making among our seniors and juniors. Such as T P Sreenivasan, who later became a distinguished diplomat, G Krishnan, who became Chief Secretary in the state of Jharkhand, J Alexander,another IAS officer who later became a minister in Karnataka, etc. On the negative side there was Philip M Prasad, that enfant terrible of the Naxalite movement, who was a year junior to us.In later life Prasad not only abjured violence but became a self- acknowledged devotee of Satya Sai Baba.
We had a motley crowd in our class, in tastes, calibre, circumstances and outlook.One who stood out was Sarvadamanan, not only because of his rather unusual name but because of what everyone considered to be his unusual behaviour. Older than most of us, he had been a school mate of the eldest brother of one of us. He has never told us how he lost some years and happened to be with us instead of with our seniors. Extremely intelligent and fairly well read, his forte was argument and no one could beat him at that. Son of a prominent journalist, the late Chowwara Parameswaran, Damanan later joined the Indian Express as a journalist.
The other students in our class included Sreekumar Menon presently working as a senior faculty member and Dean of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, Viswanatha Menon who joined the Central Information Service as an officer, Parameswaran Nair who became an officer in the Kerala University, Rajagopalan, Chithrangadan and Jayalakshmi who all became college professors. Jayalakshmi also had the distinction of becoming a top state leader of a political party. As for me, I spent a few years as a college lecturer and then switched to journalism, hitching my career with the national news agency, UNI.
The obvious leader of the girls in our batch was Vijayalakshmi. A very intelligent and very good looking girl ,she had a touch of the exotic as she had her schooling in South Africa. In the early days of our first year class, we used to listen in wonder, and envy, to her narration of the singing and dancing and dining and what not that went on in a luxury ocean liner in which she and her parents made their passage to India from South Africa. Then there was Zorina Irani, a pretty girl from Kunnukuzhi with her long plaited hair, who was a favourite among the boys. After her graduation Zorina worked for some years in a Bangalore firm and then migrated to Canada. Susy Mathew, who is now in America, Susheela George, Sneha Thomas, Latha,who is no more, and Sukesini were among the other girls in our class.
In spite of the presence of a good number of good looking girls there was no campus romance whatsoever in our batch. There indeed was one such case in the department, which strictly speaking was an inter-departmental affair. It involved a very pretty junior girl of the literature class and a boy from the Economics Department who, like us, was in the final year year. P Madhavan Nair was a close friend of some us and he often used to come to the English Department to meet us. But after the doe-eyed beauty joined the literature class, the frequency of his visits multiplied. We all knew that he was coming daily not to meet us but to see her. The initial one- way romance however turned two-way somewhere along the line and had a happy ending with Madhavan Nair (P M Nair in official circles) marrying Chandralekha after he got into the IAS.
One of the persons in our senior batch we all liked, and treated as an elder sister, was Rugmini, better known as Rani. She was for us a subject of both fascination and frustration some years after our college life. Fascination because she fell in love with and married one of her classmates, the dashing Vijayasree, a close chum of many of us. Rani joined All India Radio and Vijayasree got into the army as an officer. Everything went on well for some years but then differences cropped up, leading to their unfortunate separation. Rani who was a victim of cancer died within an year of the death of Vijayasree.
Death came early for some of my classmates too. Mohan Oommen Chandy was a class apart in our batch. Tall, well-built, darkly handsome, Mohan was a bubbly youth who was immensely popular among both boys and girls of the class. We all envied him when after graduation he went to America to join an MBA course. We used to get tidings from him on how he was making it out in the U S: about his extensive sight seeing trips, about his purchase of a car within six months after reaching that country and a pleasure yacht within one year etc etc. A year later he managed to take his younger brother also to America to join an MBA course.
Everything went on well and suddenly tragedy struck. He went missing. The local newspapers and the TV stations there carried stories about the disappearance of both Mohan and his car. It later turned out that Mohan was done away with and the car disposed off in a case of contract killing. No one knew by whom and for what reason though there were some rumours involving a Malayalee doctor.
Another classmate who died before reaching the prime of his life was Ramachandran, known throughout the college by his nick-name ‘Japan.’ Some years after his post-graduation Ramachandran got a job as a school teacher in Lesotho, a landlocked kingdom in South Africa. He constantly kept in touch with some of us through letters. And the impresion we gathered was that he soon became an influential person in that country, not only teaching but also functioning in an advisory capacity for the powers that be. But then tragedy struck. He died in a traffic accident, but given his proximity to local power politics no one knows if the accident happened or was caused.
Another early death was that of Latha, daughter of Prof Konniyur Meenakshi Amma. After her marriage she had been managing a school belonging to her family in her home town. She had cancer and died some years ago.