It makes me sad to think of the long hours and many years I wasted in those institutions, with so little to show for it. I was lucky to have a father and a mother who encouraged me to learn whatever I found interesting and who struggled, given their modest means, to get me the resources I needed to learn. Besides my parents, I had the remarkable advantage of two loving and talented aunts who stirred my interest in art and languages. I also had a curious model to emulate, a disorderly, wildly curious elder brother who probed everything and deigned to accept nothing. I learned, almost all on my own, ploddingly, stubbornly, determined to know what I didn’t and find my solitary way, however long and forlorn.
Which is why I must pay tribute to a man no one gave the slightest importance and whom perhaps none remembers. I know he did something special for me and it made a big difference.
Father had noticed the poor marks I had received in school for the classical language, Sanskrit, a subject for which most of my classmates had nothing but derision. They saw little point in learning a dead language, something like Latin. Father thought differently.
“You seem to do well in languages,” he said, “and there is no reason you should squander the opportunity to learn a new language. You have a choice. You can continue like this and make do with an indifferent grasp of the language. Or you can make an effort and master the language. If you want to learn the language well, I can get you some help and get you started.”
I wasn’t entirely persuaded, but I said, yes, I wanted to learn the language, mostly to please him. A couple of days later father came home with a tall, large-boned man with large glasses and a small, comical Hitler-like moustache. He also had a comically old-fashioned name, Janardan. He taught in some school and had struck friendship with father through a curious incident. Getting down from a public bus, father had stepped on a banana peel and fallen, and Janardan had promptly dropped the bags he was carrying and pulled father up. I wasn’t half as impressed by the story as father was, for it proved his strength and helpfulness more than his skill with languages.
“You already know enough about languages, and I can see you love languages. I don’t need to teach you anything about a new language. You are quite capable of learning it on your own. I can only help you and guide you a little bit.” After this amazing statement, he added, “I want you to write a piece every week in Sanskrit, short or long, on any subject you like. I will review it and give you my comments. Those will be enough to give you a clue to improve – if you really want to improve your Sanskrit.”
I was astounded. No lessons, no grammar, no boring homilies or correction. Just an essay. That was the good news. But that was also the bad news. I hardly knew anything of the language. How on earth was I to write an essay, however short or simple? In my panic I forgot about cricket, my friends, everything else. With the pathetic little Sanskrit I knew I wrote, rewrote, studied, consulted grammar and dictionaries, and wrote again. For a week, I thought of nothing but Sanskrit, and when my tormentor, Janardan, finally came to take a look, he gulped and choked as he read the piece. He had marked a few parts and briefly hinted at the errors, but said, “You must have been rather absent-minded when you wrote this. Never mind. The treatment is very interesting. I will look forward to your next essay.”
Looking back, I learned the most important thing that became of inestimable value later on: how to learn anything. Give it an intense effort and focus on a concrete result. I also learned how to teach anything. Don’t teach. Just build on the student’s strength and interest. Give your pupil the confidence he or she needs.
Janardan knew how best to draw something out of his student. He was a great teacher.