Autograph of 62 Years
29.01.2020 around 11.45 AM. The place was my office, the Transport Commissionerate. I was having a comparatively relaxed day. The police officer on duty at my office announced that an elderly man has come to visit me and that he introduced himself as my father’s student. I got excited since I have the habit of developing an immense liking to anyone who said or says that he/she knew my father whom I lost when I was sixteen.
I think it would be appropriate to tell you about my father, late Professor N Velayudhan Nair who expired suddenly of myocardial attack at the age of 55 on 11.11.1977. A day I, my mother and siblings will never forget. He had gone with my eldest sister to admit her for MBBS at the Trivandrum Medical College. What started as a happy and proud day suddenly became dark and bleak in the evening and continued as such for years after.
Born to a farmer, his mother and elder siblings blamed him throughout childhood as a person born under dark stars since his father expired before he turned 1. Struggling throughout his youth, he passed matriculation with high marks and went to Bombay where his elder brother worked, to search for a job. He studied typing and shorthand within months from an Institute there. Massive army recruitment for young people was going on in full swing at Bombay that time; he attended it for fun and got promptly selected. He was just 15 then. The British were ruling India at that time and freedom struggle was at its peak. From 1936 to 1948 he served the country under the British rule struggling for freedom till a year after India’s proud independence. During the end of Second World War at the Indo-Chinese border he got a bullet injury on his leg and lost his hearing after falling into a deep trench. Since the injury left him incapable of continuing the service, he took retirement and returned home.
Thereafter he studied History in BA-honors at Kerala University and passed the course with first rank. He immediately got job as lecturer of History at Arts College, Trivandrum. The gold medal he got from the University was our family’s proudest possession till 2001 when a thief broke into our ancestral house and stole everything including this medal. In 1952 he married Radha, the third daughter of Dr. E. K. Raman Pillai, a famous surgeon who did FRCS from England. I am their third daughter. When I was 10, a son was born to my parents much to everyone’s delight. My brother was just 5 when achan passed away.
I remember achan saying often that his greatest assets were his daughters. He was quite proud of us. Though he wanted my eldest sister Geetha, who is still the brightest and most studious in the family to write Civil Services Examinations, he consented to her wish to become a doctor like her maternal grandfather. Achan worked a long time in Colleges outside Trivandrum and came home only once in a while. After I passed 10th (SSLC) barely missing first class, I applied for pre-degree at Women’s College for third group and joined the third group since my ambition at that time was to become a professor like achan. Knowing about it, he came from Edappal where he was working then and forcefully changed me to second (Science) group telling me that I should become a doctor! In the astrological chart drawn up when I was born, it was prophesied that I would become a reputed physician in future! I was doing my miserable second year of science pre-degree when father expired. My two elder sisters and brother became doctors. Though I had taken a vow at my father’s funeral to study well and become a doctor like he wished, my marks were abysmal enough for MBBS (there were no entrance exams then) that I happily joined for BA English to pursue my childhood dream. I thought achan would be as happy to see me as a lecturer too!
So, back to the main story. Mr. G. Shivasubramnia Sharma, the elderly person who sat in front of me was all smiles and seemed excited. “Velayudhan Nair sir taught world history when I was in Arts College doing pre-university studies. He was such an amazing teacher that history became one of our most favourite subjects. I used to sit in the front bench and listen keenly to the classes which he would teach like stories. It was like watching films or dramas. He would draw us into historic events like French Revolution and World War and create role plays for the students. We would be Louis the fourteenth, Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the great etc and he would ask us what we would do in situations they were faced with.” He was telling me as I sat amazed, listening to him.
“I got grade B in first year for history. Sir asked me to improve the grade to A the next year and also advised me to read English newspapers to improve my English. I told him my helplessness. I was born into a poor Brahmin family with many mouths to feed and on days our only food would be the Prasad from the Padmanabhaswamy temple near to the hut we all lived. Getting even a paisa was difficult for a boy of my age that time, how could I read newspapers? He smiled and gave me a 50 paisa coin saying, ‘go to Chala market. Buy old English newspapers with this money from the scrap store there and read them. Once you finish, take them to the same shop and exchange it with other papers. Continue to read like that till your English becomes good’. What a great idea! I needed to improve my English, not General Knowledge, so old papers were fine for that! I heeded to that advice and my English became very good in a year. I got excellent marks for final year and got admission at both Medical College and Engineering College for my graduation. I opted for Engineering since I had no money to pay the hefty tuition fee for MBBS.”
“Oh, very interesting! Thanks a lot for coming here and telling me all this. I am very happy to hear this, but surprised why you did not come to me before. I’m an IPS officer here since past 33 years and you should have come any day prior to today…” I started.
“Wait, wait, I haven’t finished. There is a reason why I came today. I went to Velayudhan Nair sir for autograph after the course, which was a popular practice those days. He wrote two lines in a page of my autograph and signed it. I found those lines to be poetic and with deep meaning and asked whether it was his lines. He replied, ‘no, it was written by someone very famous. Find it out. I know that the CET has a good library. Or join Public library with student card. And start reading as a hobby. Once you find out who wrote it, come and tell me’. I started reading books in earnest since then. After my engineering degree, I got employment at KSEB. Within a year I got so fed up of the corruption there that I wrote UPSC exams and got appointed in All India Radio. I could clear UPSC easily since my English was quite excellent by then. Before going out of Kerala to work for AIR, I went to see sir again. ‘Please tell me who wrote those lines, sir. I have been continuously reading for 6 years now but could not find out the author of those lines yet.’ I had the habit of writing down excerpts from the books I read in a note book so I showed the book to him. He was impressed, but shaking his head, gave the same reply. ‘Continue reading. Find out and come to me.’ I was determined to find out who wrote those lines by the next time I meet him.” He paused.
He took out a huge book from his bag and showed me pages after pages of lines written with different colour inks and quotes from every book he had read in his life, with dates, name of book and author and important sentences from each book. He had beautiful handwriting, I noticed. “I have several books filled up like this. I have been reading for over 62 years now. I am happy to say that in my life, the most happy and enjoyable times were those spent reading. The autograph was written in 1957 by sir when I was just 16. Now I am past 78 years old.” He gave a sigh and a smile and said with pride.
“I found who wrote those lines in the autograph just a few days back. I got so excited and wanted to tell Velayudhan Nair sir so immediately. But I could not, so I enquired, came to know that his daughter is now a DGP rank officer, called your office to check up if you were free and came over.” He delved into his bag as I sat with my mouth open.
“Those times, there were no computers for searching so I had no option but to read till I found the author. I could have searched ‘google’ anytime recently but that would have been cheating. Sir asked me to read, I enjoyed reading so I continued to read.” He took out a tattered sheet of paper. I eagerly took it thinking it was my father’s hand writing. It wasn’t.
“I lost that autograph somewhere down the lane. I worked in Oman for a long time on deputation and at AIR, I was out of Kerala mostly. After retirement I have got a home in Vattiyurkkavu, but we travel a lot to be with my sons and daughter. I never forgot those lines, so I wrote them down once I realized that the autograph is lost.” He extended the paper towards me. Before I read the lines trying to find out if I knew who wrote them, he said in an excited tone, “Marcus Aurelius! It was he who wrote these!”
Though an avid reader myself, I haven’t read any books of Marcus Aurelius, so I wouldn’t have known also. He continued, “I had this urge to tell sir that I found out the author, you know? This uncontrollable urge? Since sir is no more, I’m happy telling his daughter instead.” His eyes glistened. I too felt tears biting my eyes.
“Achan died 42 years back, but I still feel him very near me. I will tell him for sure, he will be happy to know this. And he will be proud of his favourite student. Thanks a lot, sir.” I told him as I handed back the paper for which he had his hands extended. Relieved, he laughed like a child.
“Actually, I may see him before you do; I’m old and full of diseases. Still, I wanted to tell you, that was why I came.” He looked at the tea which my staff had placed before him a few minutes after he came in and which had gotten cold and forgotten. “I will come to see your mother one day. Don’t want to take anymore of your time.” He got up and slowly walked out.
In a rush of emotions, I sat frozen staring at the lines I hurriedly wrote down before giving the paper back to him, in deep thought. Achan was just 34 or 35 years old when he wrote these lines. How much of a scholar he was even at that age! Mr Sharma is so lucky to have enjoyed hours after hours of classes and close proximity with him! I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to ask for his phone numbers or address! I should have at least taken a selfie with him. But those autograph lines and his story had swept my mind away to some other distant and beautiful place far, far away from my mundane office. I re-read those lines conveying precious layers of meaning albeit scribbled in my lousy handwriting-
“Very little is needed to make a happy life:
It’s all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”