To Sir, with respect

As he walked down the lane that midwinter afternoon to the memorial service, suitably solemn, one thought kept coming back. How ridiculously easy it was to lighten one’s burden of gratitude.

But this is not an obit. You don’t write obituaries after four years when most have moved on from the personal loss of a handful of people who themselves must have moved on.

This is a tribute to a memory — a reminiscence rekindled by an unrelated item that made news earlier this summer in April.

St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, it was reported, had figured among the top 10 colleges in India, according to the latest (2019) National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF).

Proud alumni rippled on social media, screenshots of the rank waltzed across continents on WhatsApp groups in the celebration of an idea that had lent Calcutta’s academia some stalwart men. Like Professor P. Lal, iconic high priest of higher literature; Professor Arindam Sen, eccentric and eagle-sharp, clenched fist over trademark cough, whose students still recall how they had been initiated into an entirely new subject called “Senonomics”. Or Father Albert Huart, faded blue shirt on grey trousers when not in his Jesuit’s robe, as tall and upright as they come, a man whose clipped accent accentuated his missionary aura.

No, this piece isn’t about any of them, walking colossuses though they were and now long exited from the intellectual stage. This is a personal tribute to a man who was more plinth than pinnacle. Professor Rohinton Kapadia died in January 2015 and, if anyone the college’s Department of English owes the most to its brand value today, it is him — a modest, unassuming man who had cradled and nudged an idea to its fruition and towards the NIRF’s wider if long-due acknowledgement of national endorsement. This write-up is about him.

But how do you begin about someone who is one huge reason this writer has achieved whatever little he has?

It’s difficult. Memories don’t travel down tramlines. If they did, writing reminiscences would have been easy.

It was the summer of ’86. A young man stood outside the St. Xavier’s College staff room waiting for a gentleman to turn his head. The few others in the near-empty room looked at him once before going back to what they were doing. Callow young men didn’t deserve a second glance.

The gentleman remained lost in a book.

Finally, he looked up. “Looking for me?” his eyes seemed to ask.

“Yes!” the young man nodded.

The gentleman gestured him inside. “Tell me.”

The young man told him. Poured his heart out, as much as his stutter would let him. He had just given his Class XII exams. Wanted to study English, loved to write, loved the language, but didn’t know where to begin. Then he lost his tongue.

“Start with Hardy,” the gentleman told him. “Come back after you have read at least two of his novels.”

That was Professor Kapadia — head of the department of English at St. Xavier’s and “Kapi” to his adoring students. Needless to say, the young man kept going back, and back, and back. First, for the three years that he studied English at St. Xavier’s and then the years he did his master’s.

What was it about Professor Kapadia that made students, long graduated and well into rotund middle age, return to meet someone who taught them years ago?

He was not one who strode the academic stage, like some of his contemporaries. Nor did he have the quirky gait that some men of academia are still remembered by — long after they have faded into the archives of student memory.

Professor Kapadia was dapper and dependable, of middling stature, deep observant eyes and an unhurried walk at ease with the world. It’s this ease that he brought to the classroom, a sober, thinking man who unwrapped, layer by layer, the veiled secrets of literature.

He was particularly good at something else too: he knew how to draw low-on-esteem underdogs out of their self-locked kennels. He would do that smiling, making you feel as if you were doing him a favour.

But make no mistake. The smile didn’t mean you could cross the line with Professor Kapadia. The young man, by then an MA student, did once, when he brought up the merits of another professor. Mind you, only the merits.

Swift came the warning. “I don’t discuss professors with my students.”

“Yes, Sir.” Point taken.

The next lesson — unspoken this time — came a few months later. The young man, now preparing for his MA exams, needed reference material.

“Keep these books till the exams are over,” Professor Kapadia told him one day, handing over a couple. “You’ll need them.”

The pile grew and grew, till it crossed two dozen. The books were from his personal collection. If you want to help, open your heart and fist.

He taught us Lord Jim. Somewhere — between his classroom lectures and staff-room remove — he had morphed into Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s empathetic narrator, to the “Lord Jims” hanging on his every word.

No wonder, so many of these by-now established “Lord Jims” turned up for his memorial service, different in years, varied in their waistlines, but all bound by a shared memory — of Freud made simpler, Lawrence unravelled or a fascinating glimpse of Joyce and Bergson.

The older ones among them were fortunate to have got Professor Lal but missed Bertram Da Silva. The younger ones missed Professor Lal but got “Bertie”, the brilliant, versatile musician-professor with a rock-star appeal.

Professor Kapadia was the constant. A man who shaped young minds, introducing them to the delectable inscrutability of existentialism as he drew them out of their shells.

The memorial sevice had ended. A low hum had broken out in the buzz of renewed acquaintances as people stepped out into the comfortable late-afternoon sun. How ridiculously easy it is to lighten the burden of collective gratitude.

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12 thoughts on “To Sir, with respect

  1. Thank you, Amanda. “He knew how to draw low-on-esteem underdogs out of their self-locked kennels.” Only yesterday, I was boasting to a colleague how I am adept at leaving baggages behind, including school, college and my previous workplaces. Professionals cannot afford to have backstories, I thought. You have proved me wrong. I am glad you did. As I read this, so many faces I have forgotten but I should not have, flashed past. That is the power of writing, especially if you can move cynics like us. In fact, I tracked down a long lost college friend just now and I hope to speak to him after 29 years and relive the Eid days I had spent at his home and how his mother had predicted I will leave home in a matter of months. She was right. Who knows, I may even go to his home now. What can I say other than “thank you”!

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    1. Thank you so much, Raja. This endorsement means a lot. Actually, I believe, the heart never lies. And I wrote with my heart on a person I would remain indebted to as long as I live.

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