A Pilgrimmage Through language,
Literature & Linguistics
One of my earliest memories of school education is the eagerness with which I used to wait for English and Malayalam classes. Thinking back, in school, the only subjects which I had really worked at learning were English and Malayalam. Another reason for this love of languages might have been the fact that there were always lots of books in our house.
My father had a deep and abiding love for books and he was an avid reader too. Mother also used to read a lot and some of our earliest memories concerned listening to involved discussions between father, Mother and their various friends about books they had read and the cinemas or plays they had seen.
In the midst of my school year when I was in the seventh standard, father was transferred to Kozhikode and thus in the midst of the year I had a change of school. In the new school in Kozhikode, the lessons for English medium students were based on a series of text books called Carnatic English Course. I have yet to come across a more user friendly text book. It was just a bit above the average standard for seventh standard students and hence was challenging. Thinking back, I realize with immense gratitude that those text books did indeed entrench in me a love for the systematic study of literature.
My college years in the BA English Literature class at the famous Devagiri college, Kozhikode was another formative element in my love for languages. It was during those years that I did start teaching English to my class mates who were all from Malayalam medium classes and hence were not quite fluent in English. Later still, I did my masters in Linguistics were I started understanding the ‘whys’ of various ‘hows’ I had mastered through the years through trial and error.
Another aspect of my journey through languages concerned my attempts to learn Sanskrit. One of my earliest memories of childhood in the sixties is the sound of the Venkatesa suparabhatam, sung by none other than M S Subbulakshmi, wafting along with the light early morning breeze from the not too far away temple in my native place, Haripad, then a small village in Travancore. Lying half asleep, I still remember the cadence and rhythm of the rendering of the Sanskrit couplets of the Suprabhatam.
Thinking back, that must have been the first time that the beauty and quiet elegance of the Deva vani, Sanskrit entered my sub conscious mind. Years rolled by. Through the years of schooling, Sanskrit always remained a nearby pilgrim spot that could be visited whenever we wanted. However, the visit was not to happen yet. My second language at school was my mother tongue Malayalam. But all the classic poems that we learned – whether it be Ezhuthachan’s Ramayana or Kunjan Nambiar’s Kalyana Sougandhikam (which deals humorously with the plight of Bhimasena when he went in search of the Kalyana sougandhika flower) - or even modern poets like Ayyappa panikker or ONV Kurup, references to Sanskrit literature were a dime a dozen. Thus Sanskrit was a constant, yet one place removed, neighbor throughout my school and college days.
It was during one mid summer vacation while I was in college, that along with one or two friends, a courageous decision was taken to go in for private tuitions in Sanskrit with the aged Hindi professor in our college. We started out in right earnest; with classes scheduled during the mid day break at the college. However, with each passing day, our enthusiasm waned. The involved intricacies of the Siddha Roopam defeated the avid Sanskrit students in us and gradually one by one, we friends bade good bye to the noon time classes. Next, we came up with the idea of combined study of the famous Raghuvamsa with the help of the Malayalam commentary written by Kuttikrishna Marar. Again, the combined studies started with a lot of enthusiasm but again, alas, it too was short lived. A lot of other activities like arts club, sports, NCC, NSS etc took up our free time and Raghuvamsa had to be postponed indefinitely.
Later, I went for post graduate studies in Linguistics. It was here that I got a fresh out look on Sanskrit. Almost all reputed Linguistics scholars were of one view about the perfect structure of the Paninian grammar. I came to know with awe struck admiration that in many of the famous Western Universities the study of the Paninian grammar was an inevitable part of the study of Linguistics. I also came to understand that Phonetics and Phonemics – the study of sounds and the analysis of speech sounds – even in Linguistics followed the paths laid down by Panini and Sruthakeerthi. It was at this stage that I was able to study about Sanskrit, though studying Sanskrit still remained a “pie in the sky’, an ‘akasa kusumam’.
Going through the theories of Transformational Generative Grammar – the Chomskian revolution that over turned the way of learning and teaching languages – I was over awed to find that the underlying concepts of deep structure and surface structure were none other than the theories proposed in Sanskrit grammar. It was while learning the various view points dealing with learning and teaching languages that I came to realize the magnificence and effectiveness of the structure of Sanskrit learning. The far sightedness of committing a grammar and a lexicon to the learner’s memory at an early age – the learning by rote of the Siddha Roopa and the Amarakosa – has the dual advantages of extending a person’s memory powers as well as augmenting his recall prowess.
Then came the “Udyoaga parva” (the chapter of various jobs, transfers and postings that accompanies any career) in my life and I enjoyed (and am still enjoying) my varied career as a member of the Indian Information Service. It was in the course of various transfers that I came across the conversational classes conducted by the Samskritha Bharathi, a voluntary organization for propagating Sanskrit. It is now four months since I started attending the weekly classes. It is based on simple uses of Sanskrit and slowly working to its grammatical complexities. It is amazing to see how we – there are 9 of us and almost all of us well into the third or fourth decade or more of life – have been able to gradually grow comfortable with the language. Yes, as the well known linguist Bloomfield had remarked “you learn your mother tongue when you try to learn your “other” tongue”. I feel that my experience in the fields of studying, teaching and writing in various languages does indeed vindicate this famous statement. My study of English has indeed help me understand English better and now I am slowly realizing that my study of Sanskrit is helping me immensely to understand both Malayalam and English in a new, fresh light.
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Dr. K. Parameswaran
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