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A glassy-eyed teetotaler

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K S S Pillai
It is high time a group of past students was started, the Facebook post said. It was posted by a former student of my school at Mannar. The school is more than a century old. My father had studied there. I was sure there must be several such groups already in existence.
On closer scrutiny, I realised I wouldn’t be eligible for membership in the proposed group. The name of the school was mentioned as NSBHS (N S Boys’ Higher Secondary School), while its name was N S High School when I studied there. It was a co-educational one, each class having both boys and girls. The school was bifurcated into boys’ school and girls’ school much later.
As the school was established during the British rule, we would joke about the games I played while I was a student there. Whenever we visited my native place and passed through the area, I would point out the school and the playground to my grandson. “What games did you play?” he would ask. “Polo”, I would reply with a straight face. “Could you ride a horse?” he would ask doubtfully. “How does one play polo without a horse?” I would ask and change the subject, throwing a surreptitious wink at others.
When I think of my high school days, the one teacher who stands out is Kurup Sir. He used to teach us English in the final year. He had a few peculiarities. He was never seen smiling, let alone laughing. He was glassy-eyed. The reason, it was rumoured, was that he was a toddy addict. Some of us had tried to get a whiff of alcohol while passing close to him but had failed always. Another factor that terrified the students was the grim expression on his face when he came to the class clean-shaven, once or twice a week.
His method of teaching English was a bit out of the ordinary. The textbook contained prose and poetry sections. After finishing a poem, he would ask us to study it by heart and recite it during his next period. We had no objection to it, as it was a common practice everywhere.
What made us sweat was his instruction to learn a couple of paragraphs of the prose lessons also by heart. Though corporal punishment was prohibited, he had no qualm about practising it. He used to keep a three-foot-long cane for the purpose. If the cane was not available, he would ask the defaulting student himself to go out and bring a suitable stick from the bushes that grew on the school fence.
Parents always sided with the teacher, as they thought what he did was in the interest of students. It was useless to complain to the principal, who was said to be equally in awe of Kurup Sir. The school was managed by the Nair Samajam, in which his family played a decisive role.
When I became an English teacher in a college and came across silly grammatical mistakes made by students, I wondered whether they would not have been better off if they had learnt the writings of great prose writers by heart for a whole year.
To commit a sentence to memory, one had to read it several times, drilling its construction into one’s mind. I thought it would be difficult even for dull students to make serious mistakes after such an exercise.
Years later, I met a classmate, who was a relative of Kurup Sir. He had passed away many years ago. When I referred to his drinking habit, he laughed heartily and revealed he was a teetotaler and never touched alcohol. Confused, I asked him why he didn’t bother to correct the general impression about him. His reply was baffling: “It served his purpose of students coming to the class well-prepared.”
(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to The Kashmir Vision, his articles and short stories have appeared in various national and international publications)


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