“ Prins an Yakob comon to seon me….”
Well, that’s how Professor V K Moothathu would summarize our visit. And you would have heard it as ‘Prins en Yakob ko-moan toe seyon may’ , for that’s the way Old English is (and was) pronounced.
My friend Jacob and I had gone to meet our former professor, when he was on a short visit to Trivandrum last week, from Mumbai, where he lives with his younger daughter Anitha. The first thing he did on arrival was to send word through a friend that he wished to see some of his old students. And, here we are, sitting right before him, keenly listening.
Moothathu sir is an unforgettable person to those who studied English Literature at the University College in Trivandrum (till the nineties). His quiet and amicable nature, scholarly lectures, his unmatched skill in linking words by citing their etymology and a subtle sense of humor always made him a favorite among his students. He is one of the very few who are still conversant in Old English, the English language of the 11th Century.
Any conversation with sir would automatically digress into the magical world of words, usages and language in general. One instance was a reference to the Polish word Ta-ta , pronounced as ‘tha-tha’ , meaning father”, automatically bringing to mind the Sanskrit word for father, ‘thaatha’.
‘Why Sanskrit alone ? Think of ‘ thaathan’ in Malayalam’, reminds Moothathu Sir.
Of course, we discussed “family matters” too. But, you know, ‘family ‘ digresses to family of languages– Indo Iranian, Baltic Slavonic and so on and finally we reach Bulgaria, where a lake with colored water is still called ‘Varna‘.
In his younger days, he was asked by his senior professor to teach one portion of Hardy’s novel, Trumpet Major. He ended up teaching almost the entire novel, since the senior never bothered to spend time in the classroom. And when it was his turn to speak at the senior’s farewell meet, Prof. Moothathu recalled with a smile: ‘I had the good fortune to share the teaching of Trumpet Major with him. He did the trumpet part and I did the major part’ !
Today, Prof. Moothathu is well into his eighties and needs the support of a walking stick. And, time has scribbled its designs on his aging face and frame…. Yet, it’s great to listen to him, not just to recall what we once learned in class, but to remind ourselves of how lucky we have been…
Tail-piece: Unfortunately, for silly reasons best known to the then Head of the Department, teaching of Old English was taken away from Moothathu sir and entrusted to a young gentleman, the only Doctorate holder in the English Staff room. I would sum up the experience of the students in the class of this scholar(who had no idea of Old English), in one line from Beowulf , the 11th Century Old English poem : Sigon ta to slape...(pronounced sigon taa toe slaa-pay)
Meaning : ‘Then they sank into slumber…’
When the students finally woke up from the slumber, the optional paper Old English had for ever been replaced by Indian writing in English…
Postscript: When this post was shared on Facebook, many of the former students of
Prof. Moothathu responded with fond memories of his class and stature as a teacher.
The most striking one was by T K Manojan of All India Radio. He responded with
a caricature of a class by Prof. Moothathu. And, in the second row, I spotted Manojan too.