The Alliance Française campus in Nungambakkam, Chennai was abuzz with movements of staff and students, and their soft conversation. The tree-lined campus area in the heart of Chennai city presented a sylvan look in the middle of a concrete jungle. The summer heat faced a “No Entry” sign inside the campus.
The class had just begun with Mrs. Cécile Bissette greeting all of us, “Bonjour.”
Pallavi and I were sitting side by side in the classroom. We were working in a private banking and finance organisation, which had its headquarters in New York. Our organisation insists that its employees, especially the senior ones, learn at least one foreign language. As a ‘fall out’ of the policy, Pallavi and I found ourselves enrolling for French lessons in Alliance Française for weekend classes. Needless to say that Pallavi and I were in love and had been going steady for two years.
A few minutes into the lesson we heard a cough at the door and a soft voice asking, “I am sorry I am late, madam. May I come in?”
“Please come in, Mr. Iyer,” Mrs. Cécile Bissette invited him in.
“Thank you, madam.”
Mr. Iyer slowly shuffled to a vacant seat and sat down. After carefully placing a two-quire, hardbound exercise notebook and an old maroon coloured Waterman fountain pen on the attached writing tablet he looked up at Mrs. Cécile Bissette.
I looked at him in wonderment and whispered to Pallavi, “Who is this Mr. Antique?”
Pallavi looked at me disapprovingly and concentrated on the lecture.
Now, having expressed my feelings for Mr. Antique, I must describe his appearance.
He was short, plump, slightly swarthy, and must be touching eighty. He was clad in a white, soft cotton veshti and a light brown, khadi half-sleeve shirt. He had a white, cotton uttariya on his shoulders. Three stripes of vibhooti, a large sandalwood dot with a smaller vermilion dot inside, adorned his forehead. He wore rubber hawai slippers.
My laughter rang across the cafeteria. Several people looked at me disapprovingly. Continuing to laugh I bent my head and spoke in a low tone to Pallavi.
“My, God! He is an antique piece. Learning French, at this age?”
“What’s wrong with it, Ashok?”
“Everything, dear. Frankly, does he belong here, in this class?” I sniggered and continued in a sardonic vein, “Maybe he is going to Paris…”
“That’s enough, Ashok. Don’t ridicule anyone. You know nothing about him.”
“OK, OK, let’s not fight over him. Time for next class; let’s go.”
We hurriedly finished our coffee.
It was evening and the classes were finished for the day. Pallavi and I were walking to my Maruti Swift. I saw Mr. Antique slowly shuffling towards the gate. I did not want to let go of the opportunity to tease him a little.
“Mr. Iyer, good evening.” I greeted him.
“Good evening, sir.” His soft voice was full of courtesy and politeness.
“I saw you in the class. Going to France or something?”
“No, sir. Just wanted to learn.” He smiled.
“I thought you may be going to France and that’s why you enrolled,” I said, suppressing a chuckle.
“I have to catch a bus, sir. Bye.” Mr. Antique shuffled towards the bus stand.
“That was rude, Ashok, very rude.” Pallavi was glowering at me.
“Oh, come on, Pallavi. I just had some fun. What’s wrong in it? The man is clearly an antique, isn’t he?” I laughed and started the car.
From that day I did not miss an opportunity to tease Mr. Antique. While Pallavi’s reaction of disapproval did not bother me, his benign smile surely did. This made me adamant and I increased the intensity and frequency of my teasing.
A few weeks into our course we had a new faculty, Mr. Ramana Rao. He entered the classroom, walked to his desk and placed his books on it. He turned around and greeted us. Suddenly, an expression of surprise broke out on his face as he saw someone behind me.
“Good morning, sir,” he said and hurried to that person. It was Mr. Antique!
That was not all. To my utter consternation Mr. Rao bent over and touched the feet of Mr. Antique.
“God bless you, Rao.” Mr. Antique blessed him.
The lesson for that day went over my head. To say that I was agitated would be an understatement.
Pallavi seemed to understand my discomfiture, for I found her smiling at me.
“I don’t believe it! Our faculty touched Mr. Antique’s feet and took his blessings!”
“Maybe they know each other; maybe Mr. Iyer taught him in the past; maybe many things. Why does it bother you?”
“Mr. Ramana Rao is an expert in French. I can’t understand his touching Mr. Antique’s feet.”
“Don’t strain your grey cells. Finish the coffee. Got to go back.”
My curiosity got the better of me. I dragged Pallavi along and met Mr. Ramana Rao after the classes that day.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Good evening, Mr. Ashok, Ms. Pallavi.”
“I’ve to ask you something, sir.”
“Go ahead.” He said with a smile.
“Morning, in the class, I saw you touch Mr. An…Iyer’s feet and seek his blessings.”
“Yes. Why do you look surprised?”
“Sir, you are such an eminent person, an expert in French, but you…” my voice trailed away.
Mr. Ramana Rao nodded his head and smiled.
“Come, let’s have some tea.” He invited us to the cafeteria.
We took a long sip of our tea before Mr. Ramana Rao began speaking.
“Mr. Iyer – his full name is Subrahmanya Iyer – taught me English in the college. I have been in constant contact ever since. He is a double post-graduate – M.Sc. in Mathematics and M.A. in English – and has Ph.D. in English. Besides, he is extremely proficient in Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil. One can tell his mother tongue only by his name. It is Tamil. He taught all these subjects even at graduate level in colleges.
“He is a very erudite savant. He has read all major epics and has to his credit several treatises in these languages. He is invited as a visiting Professor in many Indian Universities. He hasn’t visited any foreign colleges or universities although there are some long-pending invitations.
“After retiring from active teaching he has written innumerable books on various topics. He was honoured with the Sahitya Academy Award about fifteen years ago for his work in Sanskrit. His work was also nominated for Nobel Literature and Pulitzer Prizes but he missed them by a whisker.
“In the morning, after the class I asked him in a humorous vein why he joined the French classes at his advanced age – he is over eighty, you see. He simply said ‘Thirst for knowledge knows no age, Rao’.”
There was silence for a couple of minutes.
Mr. Ramana Rao asked, “Why did you want to know all this?”
“Just like that, sir, curiosity, I guess.”
We thanked him and left.
Neither of us spoke for a long time. Finally, Pallavi broke the silence.
“Things are a little different, aren’t they? Mr. Antique isn’t what he seems to be, is he?” She smiled.
Chastised, I concentrated on getting my driving correct.
The next week in the class…
“Good morning, Mr. Iyer,” I greeted reverentially.
“Bonjour, monsieur. Comment allez vous?” Mr. Iyer accosted in return.
...Shyam Sundar Bulusu