Prof Madhukar Rao was one of a kind. He free-wheeled in his classroom sessions, unfettered by the rigour the syllabus imposed. Only the discerning students knew that he was indeed broadly guided by the syllabus. By the end of the academic year, all the students would have learnt what needed to be learnt – and much more!
Lean, tall and very fair (His cheeks were pink, I recall), Prof Rao was always immaculately attired. His gait, demeanour and clipped accent set him apart. He stood and walked erect, surveying the surroundings rather closely. Snatching the initiative to wish those he met a cordial ‘good morning’, he would move ahead towards the teachers’ room in the English Department.
My first brush with Prof Madhukar Rao was in the year I joined the college. He used to teach us what went by the nomenclature ‘General English’. This paper was supposed to familiarize the students with the nuances of grammar and composition. That there was no specific textbook prescribed for the paper gave him greater leeway. He believed that parsing and scansion would ‘come’ naturally to students.
He was extremely creative when it came to teaching. We were not yet one week into the college. In the first interaction he had with our class, he picked one of the girls at random, gave her a piece of chalk and asked her to write the words he dictated. The words were simple enough – college, chalk, money. Then he called one of the boys and asked him to write the same words – in Malayalam this time. Prof Rao turned to us and asked, ‘Do you all agree?’ The chorus of ‘Yes’ met with a ‘But Madhukar Rao doesn’t.’
Drawing himself to his full height, Prof Rao said, ‘The fact is that none of these words can be written in Malayalam.’ That was the first lesson that he taught us – no English word can be written in Malayalam, or for that matter, in any Indian language. The point was driven home. This was just one of the innovative methods in his repertoire to send messages loud and clear.
We would learn the subtle nuances of grammar and style through stories and jokes in the Professor’s collection. His favorite story was the one about the wife who told her husband she was ‘surprised’ to find him in bed with the maid, prompting the husband, a stickler for correct words, to reply, ‘No, my dear. I am the one who is surprised. You are astonished.’
It was not very difficult to learn the difference between the pronunciation of the words ‘pray’ and ‘prey’ when he pointed it out. But I have not, for the life of me, been able to catch the distinction between ‘prayer’ and ‘prayer’. The way you pronounced the word, he told us, would determine its meaning – the act of praying or the person praying!
Had there been a few more of his tribe, the several ‘Spoken English’ shops that have sprouted in the State would have been out of business. And there would have been fewer phonetic jokes like ‘Why was the Mallu bissi? Zimbly because his ungle in the Gelff had come on leave’!