‘God does not make them anymore,’ said my wife, desperate that the obvious errors our son had made in his exercise book had escaped the attention of the teacher who had checked the homework, ‘I mean English teachers of yesteryears’. With those words, she lapsed into a reverie that took her back to her schooldays in St Thomas’ Girls High School, Calcutta where the glaring eyes of Mrs Turner could burn a hole on the paper which had the mistake.
I too was transported to my college days in Alleppey when we had our share of meticulous professors. Professor Baliga who taught us English was one such. Despite his area of specialisation being the language of the Empire where the sun never sets, he was not enamoured of the western attire. Out and out a nationalist and a Gandhian, the venerable Professor always wore starched khadi – a Gandhi cap, an ochre kurta, white pyjamas and a long shawl neatly folded and draped around his neck, much like a dupatta. Complete with that flowing salt-and-pepper beard and the grey umbrella which he carried wherever he went, the unshod teacher looked every inch a caricature. In short, he was an antithesis to the archetypal English professor. Every morning and evening he would walk the two miles that separated his austere home from the college.
For him, English was a passion and he had a phenomenal memory from which he could quote extensively from Verity’s commentary on the Bard. And the way synonymous words would flow from his tongue had to be seen to be believed. Much to the delight of those who shared his passion, he would kneel on the platform and taking on the mantle of Iago, he would say, ‘I request thee, Desdemona,’ and add, ‘I entreat thee, I beseech thee, I implore thee, I beg thee, I supplicate to thee, I appeal to thee, I plead to thee’. He would go on and on.
Expatiating on the theme that the course of true love never runs smooth, he would cite the case of the Montagues and the Capulets who did not allow the romance of young Romeo and Juliet to come to fruition because of ‘the feud, the enmity, the acrimony, the hatred, the ill-will, the vendetta, the hostility, the antagonism, the hate, the bad blood, the quarrel, the row, the rancour, the bad feeling, ….’ which the two families had harboured for each other.
Professor Baliga would get highly involved with the theme being dealt with. According to the college folklore which is replete with interesting episodes featuring him, when teaching ‘Alice in Wonderland’, he would ‘become’ the Queen and shriek, ‘Off with his head!’ accompanied by an action which saw his umbrella flying out of the window. Classrooms would be packed on the days the assassination scene in Julius Caesar was being taken up, for, legend has it that countless are the fountain pen nibs had met with untimely demise when he played the role of Brutus and stabbed the blackboard (Caesar to the learned Professor).
He loved his students so much that he would ignore the tittering in the backbenches which would have triggered off any other self-respecting teacher into throwing them out of the classroom. Not so Professor Baliga. The only lapse that he, deeply in love with the language, just could not tolerate was bad English. One incorrect usage by any student in the classroom and he HAD it!
Our mathematics lecturer, not too strong on his grammar, was teaching the students how to find out the locus of the centroid of a triangle formed by the intersection of a plane at a constant distance from the origin with the three axes. He began, ‘If suppose let ‘d’ is equal to the distance of the plane from the origin…..’ Story goes that Professor Baliga who was passing through the corridor and had heard him, barged into the classroom and corrected him ‘Let ‘d’ be the distance’ and left as fast as he had come in, allowing the mathematics teacher to proceed with the lesson.
One inclement morning, on his way to the college, he offered shelter to an undergraduate who was waiting for the drizzle to subside. They got talking and things progressed well till the lad apparently said something like ‘The members of the football team of our college does not have the stamina …’ The Professor could not stomach this solescism on the part of his student, and shouted, ‘Get out of my umbrella!’