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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII No. 11, September 16-31, 2012
Jayanti's 'Mr. Chips'
By V. Ramnarayan

"God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master." These are words a young student Taplow, hitherto unsuspected of such hidden depths, inscribes in a copy of Robert Browning's translation of the Agamemnon, which he gifts his retiring teacher Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan's play The Browning Version. During my years teaching at the Asian College of Journalism, I often shared an audio cassette of the play with my students (The Winslow Boy by the same playwright was another), eliciting heartwarming responses, I like to believe.

Crocker-Harris is deeply moved by this unexpected show of affection and gratitude, but there is a twist in the tale, quite a few twists, in fact, before the surprise ending, but I always find the pathos, bathos even, of the hurt and humiliation life deals an unattractive, plodding schoolmaster completely devoted to learning and teaching, profoundly moving.

In real life, I came across such an iconic teacher 45 years ago when, desperate to catch up after letting cricket distract me from academics for nearly three years, I joined Jayanti Tutorial College in Egmore. Jayanti Lakshminarayana, the principal and, possibly, the owner of the college, was by no means physically unattractive, but he was unconcerned with the social niceties, or the impression clothes or style made on students and visitors, totally dedicated as he was to his mission in life: that of turning poor students into performing ones.

Lakshminarayana was perhaps in his late 40s or even 50s then. His hair was black and he was quite well preserved. He had a gravelly voice. His full-sleeved bush shirt he always wore out rather than tucked into his trousers. He taught Chemistry and Physics – he really taught us every moment he was with us, not stopping for idle conversation of any kind. He loved Chemistry and knew not only the subject inside out, but also the lives of the great scientists of the 20th Century and before. These stories he related to us with the excitement of a child, an excitement that was infectious and captivating. He literally jumped up and down, thrilled to the core of his being, when he described to us how Kekule dreamt of a serpent swallowing itself leading to his discovery of the structure of the Benzene molecule. He made Mendeleef's periodic table into a suspense thriller and taught us how to draw it up by logical steps in the examination paper to impress the examiner (I actually did that in the exam). He used pens, foot rulers and dusters to explain atomic configurations and the behaviour of subatomic particles, thus making the unavailability of models a non-issue.

Lakshminarayana had suffered a constant cough, sometimes going into paroxysms, which he fought manfully in the classroom. To him, each student was important, and he did not want any slackers in class. Most of the students had failed the examination and were making a second attempt, and he was constantly concerned about the anxieties and aspirations of their parents. I learnt my lesson very early in his class. Though thoroughly enjoying his lectures in his crowded classroom – we used to joke that each of us had only room for half a bum on the packed bench – I was still nervous and diffident, so I bunked the first test he held for us.

The next day, Prof. Lakshminarayana refused to allow me to enter the class. He gave me such a fierce tongue-lashing as I had never received in my life. "Why are you wasting your parents' money? Did they send you here to cut class and go to the movies? When are you ever going to grow up?" The questions flew fast and thick, and I had to really grovel before he let me in with a stern warning that the next time I missed a test I would be sent home with a letter to my parents.

I never missed another class or test, and I never looked back. The professor's explanations of the most complex lessons were so good that we never needed to refer to a textbook He promised us that our notes taken in his class were all the study material we would need and he was absoloutely right. He advised each of us to buy a slate and use it to work out all our problems, and that was a brilliant suggestion. I followed his advice faithfully and never needed to look at any of my textbooks. Sure enough, in the university examination, there was a question relating to the periodic table in theoretical chemistry and I proudly drew up the whole table. My performance that year was easily my best in science subjects.

Throughout the months I spent at Jayanti, Prof. Lakshminarayana never once referred to the unpleasant incident, nor did he dish out any praise for my consistent performance in his tests. He was probably waiting to see if I would maintain my form into the exams. When I went back to Jayanti Tutorials to thank him after doing well in the university exams – I finished highest among his students – he was teaching a class. I tried to leave quietly, but he stopped his class to invite me in and proudly declare to the students how well I had done. That was my first experience of applause outside a cricket ground.

PS: Despite all my effort, I had been so nervous on the morning of the university examination that my parents must have decided I needed some external help. When I reached the college, I was surprised to see my old history teacher from Vidya Mandir, Srinivasan Master, waiting there for me. He slapped me violently on my back as was his wont, and said, "I know you will do brilliantly! (Nee jamaichuduve enakku teriyum!). I couldn't have asked for a better omen or morale booster. He was another great teacher that generations of students worshipped.

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In this Issue

Lurching from crisis to crisis
If Anna Arches, why not other heritage buildings?
China can help us connect
Luminaries of our High Court
Looking back on Madras Week
Tracing the City's Old Wall
New facts learnt...
Zooming in on a changing Chennai
The Murugappa Madras Quotient Quiz 2012

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your diary


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