Maniettan died last night.
He was my cousin, several times removed. I knew we were cousins only because elders told me. We must have been precariously perched somewhere on the family tree. More than cousins, we were friends. Maniettan was a good fifteen years older than me. He taught biology in our village high school. That was for a living. His interests lay elsewhere – in literature, music, puzzles, riddles.
My memories of him date back to primary school days. My uncle and he went to the same college and spent weekends together, ostensibly for 'combined study'. On such occasions, Maniettan used to spend a lot of time with me. He would ask me to 'recite' our class attendance register. I would oblige: Abbas, Aravindan, Bharati, Bhaskaran, Chandran, Damodaran, Ebrahim, Geeta, Govindan, … till Yashoda, Zubair and Zuhara.
Then he would ask me to list them in the order we sat in the class, which was: Parthan, Mohamed, Chandran, Hari and so on. Much later, when I had grown up, I realized that it had been his home-grown method to sharpen my memory.
Maniettan would make me recite the multiplication tables. When I nearly reached the end, he would pretend I had made a mistake and challenge me: 'Thirteen sevens make …?' And I would have to recite the whole table all over again – his method of making sure that I had the tables pit-pat.
When I grew up, I learnt that Maniettan used to pen poems and short stories. He read a lot – from Nietzsche to Bhasa. He sketched and painted too. His rendition of 'Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen' on the mouth organ had enlivened many a night I had spent with him. He would also sing the Saigal numbers in his deep baritone.
Teaching was Maniettan's passion. He was a great organizer too. He would take his students for treks in the nearby hills and forests where they would see for themselves live specimens of aerial roots, alternate leaf arrangement, multiple fruits, chameleons, warblers, weaverbirds, camouflages, …
The school biology lab was always in his thoughts. Immediately report instances of any snake having been killed, he had told his students. Come hell or high water, he would rush to the site with a glass jar and formaldehyde and return with the prized catch.
A few months after joining the school as a teacher, this natural leader mobilized the senior students and exhumed the skeleton of the temple tusker which had been buried a couple of years earlier. The bones were then joined together with thick copper wires. Koodali High School lab must be the only one with the massive skeleton of a pachyderm occupying a place of pride in the lab.
He smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish. When elders said he was a bad influence on the young, he brushed it off with a 'They had said that about Socrates too.' It was he who lit my first cigarette. It was he who poured me my first drink. It was also he who stoked my interests, showed me the world beyond academics and made me what I am.
Maniettan was my professor at The University of Life.