The class was in progress. Professor Shantaram Rao had given an assignment to the students. Everybody was busy writing. I could not proceed beyond a few sentences because my fountain pen (Yes, this was in the 1960’s when ball-point pens had not found their way into the colleges) dried up. I had no spare pen or pencils (Remember, those were the days of shortages). Nor did my neighbours on the bench. The only option before me was to stop writing.
The Professor noticed me in my inactive state and asked me, ‘Hey there, you in the blue shirt, why aren’t you writing?’
I knew I was caught and expected to be sent out of the class. Standing up, I stammered, ‘I… I… My … My…’, unable to complete the sentence. I could not converse easily or fluently in English. How do I tell him (in English) that my pen had dried up? I was at a loss for words. Finally I managed my best and said, ‘Sir, My pen is on strike.’
The whole class broke into a loud guffaw as these words tumbled out of my mouth. The Professor too laughed, benignly, I thought, and remarked, ‘That is a rather cute way of putting it.’
And went on to liken me to a student who, when asked to write a poem in Latin on the Miracle of Cana in Galilee where Christ turned water into wine, wrote just two lines: Nympha pudica Deum vidit, et erubuit. (The modest water saw its God, and blushed.)
Decades have passed by after that episode Professor Shantaram Rao may not recall today, but I cannot forget.
I remember my first day in college. One was overawed by the change in the ambience. Instead of the humble thatched school building in the village, it was the imposing decades-old two-storeyed city landmark in the sprawling campus abutting the waterfront.
The college was a melting pot where students from different types of schools – municipal, government, aided, private, convents – converged. Most of my classmates had studied in English medium schools. They were from affluent homes, wore trendy clothes and had a cushy lifestyle. I came from a rural school where the medium of instruction was Malayalam.
My exposure to the city was limited and the awe for the new environs was perhaps writ large on my face. That I wore a low profile befitting my ‘status’ would be an understatement. I was diffidence personified.
The veteran teacher had quickly comprehended the plight of the likes of me. He was not one to accept that we were any less equal than the cityslickers. He had realised that the self-esteem of these youngsters needed to be resurrected, or else, for the whole year if not the entire college life, they would be the butt of jokes and harassment. On the first day, he had encouraged us the country bumpkins to speak up, if only to demonstrate that we were as good as, if not better than, the city counterparts.
Prof Rao’s compliment regarding the ‘cuteness’ of my excuse when I was expecting a (figurative) rap on my knuckles was one of the greatest morale-boosters in my life.