“Three thousand ducats and three months!”, said Shylock as he paced up and down.
The bitterness in the voice made “three months” sound really long. Mild flashes of lightning showed up through the window, as if they reflected on the knife that waited to extract a pound of flesh…
That rainy afternoon, sometime in 1981, remains etched in memory. Till then, the Shylock of my imagination was surly and bearded, but Prof. Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri who mesmerized us with portrayal of the vile character in the classroom was always clean shaven and soft-spoken. I have often wondered what magical spell he had cast to ensure rapt attention in the classroom, where he calmly presented characters of varied nature, ranging from the Wife of Bath of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Malvolio of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Readers know him as a leading poet in Malayalam -one who believed in poetry bringing tranquility to the reader and often attempted to balance his sense of spirituality with a modern thought process. With his students, his role went beyond that of a poet. To them, he was a guide to the literature of the West and the philosophy of the East. Every dialogue with him was like a window that let in a breeze of Indian philosophy, breathing novel meanings into the texts before us.
The poet had supported us by giving his poems to be included in our handwritten magazine, Forward, issues of which may still be lying in one of those cobwebbed cupboards in the corridors of University College, Trivandrum.
Over three decades have passed, but those classes remain live in memory. A year ago, when he received the Ezhuthachchan Puraskaram for literature, six of us paid him a surprise visit, placed before him a statuette of Vagdevatha and wished him greater laurels. His palms caressed our heads in blessing, with vedic chants flowing in soft murmur…
A piece of furniture in the room caught our attention. It was the poet’s writing chair-cum table. My friend Dr. Unnikrishnan was pretty thrilled, as sir offered him that seat. (By the way, Unni’s students also laud him for the touch of philosophy in his lectures). Anand, Rajeev, Jacob, Raghu and I sat near, listening, like we sat in that class on a rainy afternoon in 1981…
Our conversation was mainly a recollection of things past- little incidents, colleagues and the like. He recalled his stint as the priest in Sree Vallabha temple at Thiruvalla, at the premises of which he had spent his childhood. The Professor, at the time of his retirement, was to choose between priesthood and the offer of the position of Principal Dean (Pro Vice Chancellor) at an upcoming Sanskrit varsity. Since he had no doubts about his future, he chose the temple…
In his student days, he could recite Vedic and Sanskrit verses with perfect diction and clarity . And, as a teacher in later years, he rendered the same clarity and perfection to his utterances in English too. It is said that Prof C A Sheppard, who initiated the young Vishnunayayanan into the learning of English and Western literature, was fascinated by his ability to memorize and recite verses.
Age and ailments had begun to take their toll on him and he held a list of medicines. You have to speak a little louder if he should hear you well. “Lack of memory is a problem…I keep forgetting people, but distant memories are still intact”, he said with a smile.
To prove his point, he told us about another old student who was firm about having been in his class in 1960. The poet- teacher studied his face with a quizzical glance and smiled.
“Are you sure? Wasn’t it 1961?”
And he was right!
Tail-piece : Unni may have derived some inspiration from the poet’s chair, but it was Anand who went on to dedicate a poem to Namboothiri Sir based on his use of a particular word pralayam (deluge). The poem, published in the May -2016 issue of Bhashaposhini marvels at his mastery in combining certain words and meanings to bring out the undertones of a vision.