A Memorable Mix of Grammar and Football

M P V Shenoi


Shenoi, a civil engineer and MBA, rose to the rank of Deputy Director-General of Works in the Indian Defence Service of Engineers. He has also been a member of HUDCO’s advisory board and of the planning team for Navi Mumbai. After retirement he has been helping NGOs in employment-oriented training, writing articles related to all aspects of housing, urban settlements, infrastructure, project and facility management and advising several companies on these issues.His email id is mpvshanoi@gmail.com.

Somehow, the forthcoming (2010) FIFA World Cup in South Africa has reminded me of my English teacher in Maharaja’s High School in Mysore in 1948.

Maharaja’s High School, Mysore was one of the earliest to be started in India on the model of English Higher Secondary education, and was one of the prestigious schools of Mysore State. In the pre-Independence days, some of its graduates were absorbed in Subordinate Cadres of the Government of Mysore, some became teachers, and some went for higher studies to Madras and Bombay. Never short of patronage, grants and good teachers, it enjoyed a high status for many years.

The link, weak as it is, is that Mr. Syed Ibrahim, or 'SI' as he was called by all the students, was a great football fan, though naturally his area of interest was local, not international. In addition to his football wisdom, SI had many other interesting attributes that made him the most admired and, at the same time, the most feared among our teachers.

I was in the fifth form (equivalent to 11th Standard today), section B. SI was our class teacher. He was a tall, well-built man – there were rumours that he ate a kilo of meat in a single meal. Handsome, perhaps in his mod-forties, he was not married and stayed alone in a hotel near the Chamarajendra Technical Institute on Sayyaji Rao Road. While he was in the school, he wore a red fez cap and carried a cane. He was unduly reserved, a man of few words. But, when he smiled – which was rare - he looked charming.

He followed an unchanging routine in school. He would leave the teachers’ room exactly five minutes before class time, walk in measured steps, enter the class, climb the steps of the platform, pull the chair and the table together, place his fez cap and cane on the table, and sit down. We did not see him get up from the chair until the class was over, when he picked up his cane, put on the fez, climbed down the steps and made his exit.

English grammar was his religion. He made us study the famous Wren and Martin grammar textbook as if it was nothing less than the Bhagavat Gita! Unmoved from his chair, he would teach us grammar and more grammar. Even prose and poetry classes would turn into lessons in grammar. He would happily step in on behalf of any teacher who was absent. He would not care about what subject he was supposed to teach: he would teach grammar. Occasionally he would exhort us, “Learn, learn, you will write well, speak well in future. No one is going to teach you all this in collage. I am killing two birds in one shot. SSLC and Intermediate.” (Editor’s note: These were the names for the first and second years of college). He would say this raising his hand towards the First Grade College, which was nearby. I am not sure how many of us understood the profundity of his statement, though all of us would nod our heads.

In keeping with his simple living, he liked to express his idea in simple sentences. He would read out a lengthy passage from our prose textbook, and ask one of us “Samajge illa? (Do you understand)?” in a mixture of Urdu and Kannada. He would chuckle. Then without waiting for an answer, he would say “Bombastic.” He would ask one of us the meaning of the word bombastic. Nod his head in delight sideways. “Bada bada mathu namge beda. English namdu bhashe ulla. Yarge artha aagbeku. Navu simple agi helbekuÀ. (We don’t want big big words. Why we do not understand? English is not our mother tongue. If we want others to understand us quickly, we must use simple sentences.) He would then cast that passage into simple sentences, and ask “Iega amajge bantha (Do you understand it now)?”

Long hours of grammar tend to be boring, no matter however interestingly it is taught. But none of us dared to show this or make any sound of dissent. If any student yawned, SI would make him stand up and scold him so harshly that he would never repeat that mistake. He disliked any disturbance in the class and would lose his temper at the slightest noise.

At that tine, most of us students lived in houses of mud and tiles, and suffered from poor nutrition. Illness visited us with regular frequency, especially cold and coughs. But, cutting his class was out of the question. In class, we would make great efforts to suppress a cough. Still, sometimes the very effort to suppress a cough made it burst out as a loud blast. SI would immediately point his finger towards the hapless boy and shout, “Bombada, Galalgala, (stop). Don’t make such horrible noise. Do not disturb the class. Hogu, hogu, finish ninna kemmalu, baa (Go out and finish your coughing) Stop that. Don’t disturb.”

Throughout my stay in the school, I do not remember any one having gone out, apart from a son of a rich oil mill owner. However, if any boy was absent for a long time, SI would make enquiries about his health. Sometimes he would go to the student’s home, accompanied by another student. Being a bachelor and a Muslim, SI was always careful that his entry into a Hindu family’s household was not misconstrued – that is why he always took along a boy known to the family he was visiting. SI would offer his assistance, some times money. He would only speak a few measured words to the family, leave behind the fruits he carried, and make an exit.

His favourite student in our class was T.S. Nagarajan, who went on to become a renowned photojournalist (Editor’s note: Mr. Nagarajan has contributed to this website). He wrote good English even as a schoolboy. But he used to sit in a middle row much, to SI’s dislike. SI wanted him always in the front row, as near him as possible. He would sometimes summon TS to the front row, which TS would immediately do. But, next day TS would be back again in his usual place. The pressure of peers was stronger than SI’s interest!

The class teacher was responsible for collecting the monthly school fees. This was a complex job because some students had full fee exemption, while others had half fee exemption. Even though the monthly fee was only one and a half rupees, it was a large amount in those days. It was common for a few students to fail the bring the fees on the designated day. SI detested this work but could not escape it. So he had come up with an ingenious plan so that he would not have to be directly involved in the collection, and he could continue to teach without interruption.

At the beginning of the year, he would choose two boys who did not like grammar and hand over this work to them. He would selected boys who were a little older and well built, so that the other boys would obey them. Occasionally, there would be a complaint that a particular boy was short of the requisite amount. SI would only cast a glance at that boy, hear his explanation and in some cases allow him to deposit the amount later, and in other cases warn the boy to bring the amount next day. It was rumoured that some boys did not fulfil their promise, and SI made up the difference from his own pocket.

Exactly when the bell rang for lunch, SI would get up from his chair and walk through the corridor to the teachers’ room, and sit in a particular chair in a corner, which no other person dared to occupy. He would remove his fez cap and place it on the table, take out a handkerchief, wipe his face, hands and pate, call the peon, and order a Masala Dosa or a Karabhat from the Cosmopolitan Club Canteen. The peon was entitled to a tip of one anna. (Editor’s note:16 annas made up a rupee.) After this, he would take a nap. He had very few friends among the teachers, and he rarely spoke with his colleagues. It seems that his reputation of being a voracious meat eater kept other teachers away from him.

One of SI’s passions was watching football matches. We could never bring ourselves to have the courage to ask him whether he played football during his youth. In Mysore, in those days there were two tournaments held every year, one of them just before Dussera. Mr. Ananda Rao, a migrant from South Kanara who had become a flourishing printer located in Srirampet (a narrow crowded commercial street), would lease a piece of land in Dodda kere (a drained out water tank bed), and erect a bamboo mat enclosure to hold the matches. The tournament always attracted two or three teams from Bangalore, such as Bangalore Blues, Sullivan police, or 515 command workshop. There were also a few teams from outside the state.

SI would be at the field 15 minutes before the start of a match. He would walk to a grassy patch near the goal post and sit down there. After some time he would call the peanut vendor and ask him to pour half a seer (Editor’s note: A seer was about one kilogram.) of roasted peanuts on the handkerchief he had spread. A friend of mine and I also loved watching football matches. Without tickets, we would slip through an opening in the mat at one of the corners, and slowly move towards the place where the action was. SI would observe us, call us, make us sit near him, and invite us to share the nuts.

He would then give a running commentary on the match in progress. “This fool should have passed ball to centre forward, that son of a widow holds the ball too long and dribbles too much, this Brahmin boy is too frail to play football,” etc. The referee for the quarterfinal onwards was Mr. S. Iyengar, a teacher in Hardwicke High School who had a passion for football. He was a good referee but if the match was drawn, SI would curse, “This cro----son of a----, draw madistane, nodu, nodtahiru (he has drawn the match, just observe).” After some time he would say, half in murmur, “Avnu enu madthane? Collectionge paisa agbeda? Ananda Rao ge duddu wapas agbeda? Loss adre nale yaru munde brthare (What can he do? What choice has he? Shouldn’t Ananda Rao get back his investment? If there is a loss, who will come forward next year to run the tournament?)” Our responses never went beyond monosyllabic grunts. To us it was one more day of escapade through bamboo mat. In addition, as the peanut heap shrank, our thoughts would be on how to slip away. SI would sense this and tell us, “Hogu, hogu, nanu match noodbeku (Go go, I have to watch the game).”

At the end of the school year, there would be Sharada Pooja, a ceremony to invoke the blessings of Goddess of Knowledge. SI, though a Muslim who would not personally participate in this Hindu celebration, was always keen that the pooja performed by his class should be the best. Two months before the event, he would choose three boys to form an organising committee. All arrangements, viz., collection of contributions, arranging the function, keeping the accounts would be their responsibility. He would hold a meeting during lunch hour once a week to review the progress. He knew where the best laddus were available, which supplier gave fresh flowers, etc. He would give his ideas to the boys and they had to deliver the results. His class’s pooja was often adjudged as the best.

After I graduated from engineering college, I went far away from Mysore. Once, when I visited Mysore after several years, I felt like seeing my English teacher. But to my dismay, I learnt that SI had retired and passed away shortly afterwards.

What did I learn from him? Of course, I learnt English grammar – perhaps not to his satisfaction! But more than that, I learnt that one should put one’s heart to work. One should pick up right person for a job and by delegating responsibility, with few controls, one can get the work done better. One can speak less and still can be effective. And these have proved beneficial to me throughout my life.

© M. P. V. Shenoi 2007

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