Babu Beckers : Reminiscences

•March 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The bright industrial grade lamps mounted on the ceiling high above the milling crowds cast a Dickensian light on the faded carriages of the train we were trying to board. A railway station anywhere in India is always an assault on the senses, and Sealdah Junction in Calcutta was no exception. The heat and humidity of a tropical summer, the indistinct and constant babble of the crowds, people jostling each other as sweat poured from their bodies and soaked their cotton garments, random dogs and sometimes a cat who would join in the melee – it was a scene beloved of film directors who want an effective opening shot for their movie, a frame that promises a bounty of action to follow.

With my fellow students from St.Xavier’s College I managed to squeeze into the crowded compartment of the train that would whisk us north through the night towards Murshidabad, the once glorious capital of a kingdom of Muslim rulers in North Bengal. There was not a single seat vacant in the unreserved compartment. The tall white man dressed in a white kurta pyjama whom we were trailing looked around, pulled out a few sheets of old newspaper and laid them carefully and meticulously on the floor of the carriage. The attention to detail was second nature to this professor of Chemistry who also happened to be a Jesuit priest. Since I was not a student of chemistry but a “gentleman of leisure”, as the Rev. Lewis (another of the Jesuit professors who taught us English Literature), referred to those of us pursuing a degree in the liberal arts, I had never seen the Rev. Beckers in the laboratory. Now, surrounded by a sea of brown faces who looked on curiously at this well built foreigner from Belgium, he began to converse with them fluently in Bengali. As he spoke with a twinkle in his eyes the ice was broken and smiles filled the carriage and no one was really surprised when he sat down on his bed of newspapers and prepared to sleep on the floor of the carriage. I followed suit after rummaging for a couple of sheets of newspaper as well.

The guard leaned out of his carriage at the rear and blew his whistle, waving a soiled green flag, the steam engine hooted in the front and with a menacing display of hissing steam and billowing black smoke, it pulled us into the night and into a different world.

It was a fitting introduction to the world that the Rev. Gerard Beckers, S.J. inhabited. He was born in Belgium in 1924, joined the Society of Jesus when he was 20 years old, obtained a Doctorate in Science from the University of Louvain and arrived in India in 1954.

In 1972 my life’s compass had gone haywire when I quit the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla (near Pune) which I had joined in the hopes of ultimately becoming a pilot in the Indian Air Force. What was I to do with my life now? Frankly, I was without a flight plan.

Physics as a subject did interest me, but my poor showing in the math department in High School deterred me from applying for that. An easy solution was to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature since I found it fairly easy to navigate the waters of the Queen’s English!

And so it came to pass that I became a student of St. Xavier’s College in Park Street, Calcutta. In the portals of that hallowed institution I met Babu Beckers for the first time when he made a little presentation about the National Service Scheme of which he was the coordinator. He persuaded me to join their summer work camp in the village of Sherpur where student volunteers would help build a school while living and interacting with the local youth. My rudderless life suddenly found a focus, even if it was to be short lived and temporary.

Over the next three years Babu Beckers became like a father figure to me, helping me to find accommodation in the hostel in the college premises, which saved me from the painful and time consuming commute from Liluah where I used to live. His integrity and passion for empowering the disenfranchised sections of our society was never in any doubt. His commitment to the cause of the youth of Bengal led to the founding of the Student’s Health Home in Calcutta, a landmark achievement during that time. The medical facilities at the Health Home (staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses for the most part) even came to my rescue when on my second stint at the work camp in Sherpur a brick fell on my foot and the wound became septic.

Babu put me in a cycle rickshaw which brought me to Murshidibad railway station from where I hopped on to a train for Sealdah Junction. Once in Calcutta I made my way to the Health Home where doctors promptly and happily attended to my infected foot!

When I completed my university degree and began applying for jobs he was kind and generous enough to provide me with any amount of character references that I needed. Even though he might have hoped in his heart of hearts that I might take up a profession in which I could become an effective agent for social change, he never once let that get in the way of his wanting me to succeed in whatever I wished to pursue. For him it was enough to have planted the seeds of critical thinking and social analysis in a very practical manner. Some of my fellow students who also came into contact with him during that time would go on to achieve great things to effect real change in the institutions that they worked in and to slowly change the way the social fabric draped our different lives from different layers and strata of Indian society.

I moved to Bombay in 1977 in search of greener pastures and slowly began to lose touch with Babu, but certainly not enough to prevent him from officiating at my wedding in 1981 held in my grandfather’s village of Barutola in what is now Jharkhand. He felt at home in this Munda tribal village – he already had a great deal of experience working with the Santhal tribals in the district of 24 Parganas in West Bengal.

When he retired from active teaching in the college he moved to a Santhal village and spent many fruitful years with the people he probably loved the most.

I met him once briefly in 1993 in the little town of Gudalur in the Nilgiris at the house of Stan and Mari Thekaekara – two of his disciples who he had every reason to be extremely proud of – who have over more than three decades made a radical difference to the lives of the erstwhile hunter-gatherer tribes that inhabit the wide swathe of wilderness encompassed by the Bandipur and Mudumali wildlife sanctuaries and the adjoining areas. He was still tall and strong and wearing cotton kurta pyjamas and his feet were shod in a pair of cheap rubber sandals. He greeted me with a twinkle in his eyes and the years melted away. At night he changed over to a lungi to sleep in and I recalled the dark green lungi he used to wear in Sherpur while studying the Koran in Sherpur….. nothing had changed! His commitment to India was never in any doubt – he had given up his Belgian identity and devoted his life to learning and adopting the language and culture of the people that he worked with. He never ever preached religion and this endeared him to people of other faiths where his admirers numbered in the hundreds – he was a true man of God and his actions were enough to convey his spirituality.

More than 10 years later, in 2005, I climbed the stairs to the floor where his room was located at St. Xavier’s college to meet him – he had been advised to move back to a room in the residential part of the building as his health had been fading rapidly in the last couple of years. When my older brother Niral and I passed through the wooden slatted swing half-doors to his room I was more than a little shocked at what I saw.

Babu was propped up on his bed, a shadow of his former robust self. Whatever had been ailing him had taken a physical toll and he was looking gaunt and feeble, not at all like I remembered him. A lump formed in my throat as I greeted him. I said my name aloud to him and in a split second recognition dawned on his face and the wrinkles creased in that familiar smile. The decades of separation seemed to magically melt away and it seemed I was back in college as an eager scholar with my whole life ahead of me. Babu chuckled as he talked at great and detailed length about all the people we knew in common. He updated me on their various lives and professions. He talked about the giant strides of progress made in the village of Sherpur, how the little seeds of change that we had planted through the work of the NSS had borne bigger and better fruit. His memory was acute and he surprised me by dredging up details about my family members that I could hardly expect anyone to remember!

Babu and Aloke

My last meeting with Babu. August 2005.

As we talked the late afternoon light was fading outside his room, slanting sun rays illuminated his animated blue eyes which he had already pledged to donate when the time came, and I sensed that I was witnessing the slow fading away of a life which had touched and changed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who had come in contact with Babu.

Soon the time came for an attendant to dress him up for the evening mass to be held in the chapel on the ground floor. We said our goodbyes to Babu as we went down in the old elevator. With the help of a walker Babu made his way slowly to the front row of the chapel to sit among his fellow priests. As the chanting of prayers began to fill the church and the murmur of the faithful assembly rose up to fill the rafters, I could just about see the back of Babu’s head from where we sat in the rear pews. His silver hair reflected the dim lights above him as he bowed his head in reverent contemplation. It was the last I saw of him.

In December of 2006 I received word of him having passed away. A life well lived had ended, leaving a vibrant legacy of social change through the many dynamic souls whom he had inspired.

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Babu donated his body for medical research in a final gesture of generosity. The hearse, wreathed in flowers by the National Service Scheme, makes its way to the appropriate building (Photo courtesy Mari Marcel Thekaekara)

In the words of Shakespeare, these lines from the speech by Marc Anthony sum up Babu’s life perfectly :

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mixed in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, “This was a man”

Babu

(Photo courtesy Betty Marcel Secchi)

 Further reading : the following book, published in May 2011 can be ordered from

Goethals Library & Research Center, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata 700 016, India.

http://www.goethals.in/

Confessions of a Chaiwallah

•November 22, 2016 • 5 Comments

Two leaves and a bud”, declared Ravi Puran as he escorted us through the maze of tea bushes on a hillside in Mauritius in May1982.

That is all it takes,” he continued enthusiastically as Margaret, Raj Rani, and Durga Prasad tried to keep up with him as we wound our way around the tea estate.

Ravi was the manager of the tea estate: we had met him through the kindness of Sunil Arora, one of my colleagues in Air India. Margaret and I had been married for just about a year and this 6 week posting in Mauritius was like a honeymoon gift from the company! Raj Rani and Durga Prasad were my fellow crew members.

I had been drinking tea ever since I could remember, but this was the very first time in my 30 years that I had come to the source!

Ravi went on to explain that the workers who picked the tea harvest would focus only on the most tender trio of “Two Leaves and a Bud” which they plucked nimbly with their fingers before tossing it into the wicker baskets on their backs which were suspended with a tump line on their foreheads.

So for the first time in my life the faded monochrome images I had seen of tea gardens and their industrious workers came to life in a colourful three dimensional way on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from Kolkata, the hub of the erstwhile British Empire’s at one time global monopoly on the tea trade.

Napoleon rightly dubbed the English as a nation of shopkeepers. Their merchants ventured to the far corners of the globe in search of spices, timber, mineral riches, silks and textiles and all manner of commodities through which they enriched the coffers of their monarchs and their country.

I had been drinking tea for as long as I can remember : even in the food shortage days of the early 1960s when India’s hungry masses were subjected to the rationing system, our family somehow allocated the sugar quota for drinking tea. Unlike the Chinese we Indians always add sugar and milk to this beverage, thus producing a brew which was rightly described by William Cowper as the cup “that cheers but not inebriates”!

That may be so, but as far as I am concerned, I was hooked. It was an addiction I embraced and have nursed all my life. Since sugar and milk were ingredients unknown in the tribal diet in the village of Barutola (in the Ranchi district state of Jharkhand) where we would go for the summer holidays, I became used to drinking “Lal Chai” – literally “Red Tea”, lightly flavoured with a few sparse leaves of black tea. Decades later I came to appreciate the Chinese practice of always having a jug of mild sugarless “Lal Chai” as a handy beverage when dining. On a chilly and windy evening in 1979, my friend Padmanand and I cupped large mugs of tea in a cafe at Silvermine Bay on the island of Lantau, waiting for the ferry to take us back to Kowloon after an invigorating hike to Lantau Peak. Watching the waves whipped up by the wind I was glad that I held my comfort drink in my hands.

Having been brought up as a typical Indian male child, I did not learn to make my own cuppa until I moved to Bombay in 1977 and began to live on my own. Then when I began to girdle the globe as a Flight Attendant with Air India, the need to invest in a small immersion heater became paramount! Like my colleagues, I bought and used these little coils of metal to boil water in hotel rooms around the world and make myself a cup of tea whenever I would wake up from my jet-lagged slumber: the brew would work its magic and the fatigue of long hours and crossing multiple time zones would begin to fade. The warm soothing liquid would help to combat the rapid changes in climatic zones that the profession imposed on its workers, like flying from a pleasant 10 deg Celsius in New Delhi to a numbing -30 deg in Moscow in the space of 6 hours!

This tea making ritual would also help in getting the crew gathered in one room in a social setting where we would swap stories, getting to know one another better, relate hilarious or annoying and frustrating incidents on board. Though the brew may be light, it acted as a great bonding glue!

Most Indians that I know, with the exception of my South Indian friends, need a cup of chai to nudge them out of bed and yes, it is a mild laxative which helps the bowels move!

The process of making chai is as varied as the cuisine of India – in Kashmir they are fond of adding fragrant herbs and spices to the brew while Gujaratis have their own little bag of tricks to produce value added concoctions. This habit extends even to the ubiquitious tea vendors who dispense tea along the length and breadth of India’s massive railway network, sometimes transferring themselves and their wares from carriage to carriage by swinging nimbly from one door to the next from the outside as the train hurtles through the countryside at 100 km an hour! Once, when I had just bought and drank a cup in a train, another vendor passed by. When he asked me if I would like to buy a cuppa, I told him that I had just drank a cup from the previous seller. He gave me a winning smile and said, “Sirji, give my tea a shot – I make it with cardamom!” Needless to say, it was an offer I could not refuse.

In the eco friendly decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the tea was sold in clay cups which were then thrown away by the consumer out of the window and eventually became part of the soil once again. A few years ago when I travelled across India by train, the tracks were lined for hundreds of miles with the plastic cups that were being used now. I believe in the years that the peasant politician Laloo Prasad Yadav was the Railway Minister, he had made it mandatory for the railways to re-introduce the humble clay cups : which was a great move in the right direction.

Drinking chai in the mountains is of course beloved by anyone who treks, climbs or just travels at altitudes where the air is guaranteed to be chilly. I took chai drinking to a personal high when Ravi Wadaskar and I made the first ascent of a modest peak in the Chango Glacier of Kinnaur in 1998. We brewed a flask of tea for the climb and for the summit.

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Drinking my chai atop a 6100m peak in the Chango Glacier ( Kinnaur, India)

I can do without a lot of things in this life, but the one thing that will be the absolute last luxury that I will sacrifice will certainly be chai, the humble ambrosia of millions around the world!

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Brewing up at Singing Pass near Whistler BC.

Why I Love Living in Richmond

•October 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

 

 

3 – Walking the Line

We were taught in school that parallel lines never meet, except as an optical illusion when you are looking at a railway track: at this moment, magic takes over and the thin ribbons of steel recede into infinity and appear to merge.

 

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As my dog Baby and I walked along the infrequently used tracks that run between No.4 Road and Shell Road, a meeting with an officer of the CN (Canadian National Railway) Police was the last thing on my mind. The single line track connects the warehouses of Crown Packaging at the southern end of Garden City Road to the freight terminal of the CN Railway past Highway 99, at Riverport.

I was lost in contemplation as the breeze stirred the tall grass on either side. I could hear the twitter and chirping of birds among the blackberry bushes, the occasional hum of a barge on the Fraser as it lumbered upstream, the cyclists on Dyke Road, and the distant purr of small aircraft as they headed towards the airport. Across the fields to the north the gentle outlines of Cypress Mountain was flanked on the right by the more impressive ramparts of Crown Mountain and the familiar silhouette of my favorite North Shore hill – Mount Seymour.

The unmistakable shape of a cop car hove into sight on the north side of No.4 Road and I quickly leashed Baby : she had been trotting happily, darting in and out of the bushes, investigating any smell that piqued her curiosity, happy as a lark.

The policeman was a big man with a dark skin and he hollered,”Excuse me sir, please get off the tracks. You are not allowed to walk there!” He was standing outside his vehicle and leaning on the bonnet.

As I walked onto the road, he said,”Can I see some ID please?”

While I fiddled in my wallet to extricate my driver’s license, a woman appeared from the other side and he turned his attention to her.

He then proceeded to reprimand us both, reminding us that what we were doing was dangerous and unacceptable.

“Do you know that at least 5 people are killed every year walking on railway tracks in Canada?” he informed us. I kept my mouth shut, even though I was dying to tell him that I had lived in Mumbai for 28 years where the death toll on the railway tracks in a single day would make him faint! See  freepressjournal.in/…-track-record/897697

He issued me a ticket for violating the Railway Act, which I disputed later on the grounds that there were no signs indicating I was breaking the law – and my fine was considerably reduced! The woman turned out even smarter than me: she told the officer that she did not have a driving license, so he could mail her any notice of violation if he so desired…. I still wonder if he ever did that!

Many Richmond residents walk the line…. especially in the summer months, many with their dogs as well. Baby made friends with Banjo on the line, a large Malamute older than her. She would hurl herself at him repeatedly in an effort to induce him to play; most of the time he would ignore her, finally giving in just to get rid of her unwanted attention – it reminded me of some young women who stalk older men for their own motives! (Please don’t sue me for this remark!!)

Since I had discovered the delights of the line in 2008, it had yielded a fruitful harvest of bird watching and bird photography. Others thronged the line in the summer months with plastic buckets in which they collected their blackberry harvests, some youth sat on the tracks and drank beer at sunset, a couple would balance their way gingerly on the steel like tightrope walkers, a man rode his mountain bike between the lines over the sleepers, a man jogged with his dog running alongside.

Right or wrong, it seems that everyone has a ticket to ride!

 

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Why I Love Living in Richmond

•September 18, 2016 • 2 Comments

2 – Delights of the Dyke

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Francis Road was deserted early that morning at the end of January 2001 as I headed west at the break of dawn. The air was cold and crisp, my exhaled breath forming small clouds of fog before my face. Walking a few hundred yards brought me to the West Dyke, a raised bank of earth beyond which lay the wide open expanse of the Georgia Strait which separated Richmond and the rest of the Lower Mainland from Vancouver island whose shadowy hills defined the soft horizon.

Turning left, I began to jog slowly on the gravel track on the dyke towards Garry Point, a couple of kilometers away, reveling in the sense of space and the feel of the chilly air against my skin. The approximately 2.5 km to Garry Point was a great introduction to the delights that I was to discover over the next few years on and off the dyke trails of Richmond.

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Cypress Mountain wears a fresh coat of snow in November. View north from the West Dyke across the middle arm of the Fraser river.

Margaret, Sanal and I had arrived at Vancouver International Airport on 26th January as Landed Immigrants full of anticipation and curiosity – for details on that story, see : http://taccidentalimmigrant.blogspot.ca/2012/07/welcome-to-canada.html

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A gaggle of Snow Geese stop off at Terra Nova in October on their annual migration from Alaska to the south for the winter

We lived close to the West Dyke for 6 years and in that time I was privileged to witness some spectacular sunsets, double rainbows, nesting bald eagles, sharp shinned hawks, Great Blue Herons, turtles, the occasional grass snake, red winged blackbirds and hundreds of people walking and jogging and cycling . Once, on a cold winter morning, I stopped to chat with Leonard, a mature retiree who would cycle religiously for miles every day on the dyke trails. With his breath condensing into small clouds he told me how once he and his buddy had cycled about 80 km one morning!

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A Great Blue Heron takes flight along the Dyke

Since Richmond is basically a bog that was settled for agriculture, the low lying area had to be protected by dykes to prevent it flooding by the waters of the Strait of Georgia and the south and middle arms of the Fraser river which effectively makes it an island – in fact there is a sign on the west side of Russ Baker Way at the east end of the runway at YVR (Vancouver’s airport) which proudly proclaims : “Richmond – Island City by Nature”!

On the other side of Russ Baker Way, before the new campus of BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology) was built, were empty fields where coyotes used to roam freely in the early 2000s!

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The crowd warms up on the steps of the Richmond Oval, facing the West Dyke, during the annual fund raiser run organized by SOS Children’s Villages

On the south side of the Middle Arm of the Fraser, you can watch the float planes land and take off. This corner, where the river flows into the Strait, is very popular with Richmond residents. One year, I watched a spectacular display by migrating snow geese here. Even more intriguing birds like the Hooded Merganser hide in the reeds along the waterways of the Terra Nova Nature Park nearby.

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Robyn, a raptor expert from the Pacific Northwest Raptors on Vancouver island shows off a Peregrine Falcon during a public demonstration at Terra Nova

The areas bordering the dykes – especially the one in West Richmond – have undergone great changes in the last 15 years, with new houses creeping ever closer to the edges. Change has been less drastic on the dykes bordering the south end of Richmond, where the quaint little settlement of Finn Slough is situated.

Finn Slough, as the name suggests, was primarily settled by people from Finland. Over the decades though the constituents have become quite mixed. Two years ago I met a woman who lives in a picturesque shack who was from Quebec but had spent a lifetime traipsing around the world. Finn Slough appeals to the free spirited and the unconventional. The downside of this is that every weekend tourists and painters and photographers come to gawk at the dilapidated structures in a kind of (in their view) artistic homage!

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Finn Slough basking in autumn sunshine

Further east, the road along the dyke affords extensive views across the broad expanse of the river. Anglers sit in their chairs and fish all weekend long while cormorants and herons and the occasional bald eagle look for meals in the water. On a clear winter day, the massive bulk of Mount Baker, a hundred kilometers away, soars more than 10,700 feet into the blue sky. Runners and cyclists flash by in groups, practicing for various competitions, while massive container ships move slowly upriver to their unloading docks further upstream.The waters lap gently on the shore, giving life to the ebb and flow of life, and stir the tall grass on the banks before serenity settles once more on the Dykes of Richmond.

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Mount Baker rises majestically to over 10,770 feet – a hundred kilometers to the south in Washington state. Seen here from Richmond’s South Dyke near south end of No.5 Road

Why I love living in Richmond

•September 11, 2016 • 4 Comments

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I was born a long time ago in Khunti, a small village about 50 km from Ranchi, the capital city of the state of Jharkhand in India.

Our family moved to Calcutta when I was still a toddler and before I went to High School we began to live in Liluah, an industrial suburb of the city.

In 1977 I moved to Bombay in search of greener pastures – and a job in Air India – where I spent the next 28 years of my life.

My soul must have yearned for the open skies and spaces of my rural roots, which perhaps explains why I took to hiking and trekking and mountaineering with a vengeance!

Life does come full circle, and in 2001 my wife Margaret and I, with our son Jeremy, landed in the City of Richmond, one of the cities which comprise the Greater Vancouver area in the beautiful province of British Columbia in Canada.

In July 2008 we moved to our present location, at the southern edge of Richmond, bordering on farmland. I had the open spaces and the big skies back in my life!

Every time that I go out for a walk with Baby our lovely dog, or ride my bicycle on the miles and miles of bike trails that Richmond boasts of, I consider myself blessed. And as icing on the cake, the North Shore mountains are forever on the horizon, beckoning me to set off on another mountain jaunt whenever the spirit moves me : needless to add, the spirit does stir very frequently!

I hope to share with all of you through text and pictures the very real joy that I experience living in Richmond!

 

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Cherry Trees line the eastern periphery of the Minoru Park complex. Every spring they draw in the crowds to admire their fragile beauty… just as immigrants from Asia are drawn to Richmond to settle down in this lovely city.

 

 

Professor Kapadia and the Beowulf Effect – A Personal Recollection

•January 15, 2015 • 10 Comments

Professor Rohinton Kapadia died on Sunday 11 January 2015. I owe this information to Ranjan Roy, my fellow student, who posted it on Facebook. Kapadia was suffering from cancer and must have been in his late seventies. His age is an educated guess. To me, this man who taught our class English Literature from 1972-1975 in the hallowed classrooms of St.Xavier’s College on Park Street in Calcutta, shall remain forever young in my memory.

The first thought that came to my mind during his introductory lecture was – “This guy looks too young to be a professor!” I soon found out that youth was no barrier to his incredible drive and enthusiasm as he plunged our young Indian minds into the epic battles of Beowulf in a land far removed from the fertile plains of Bengal. With his vivid imagination and choice of words, the over 3000 alliterative lines of Old English came to life and I could visualize the mythical landscape where the hero Beowulf battled the monster Grendel in the land of the Norsemen. Since that first contact, Professor Kapadia remained forever associated with Beowulf in my mind.

He was a friendly person, armed with an amiable smile. I found it extremely easy to approach him when I was struggling with my assignments. The three years spent in his company certainly moulded my taste in prose and poetry and even though my working life took me far away from the groves and relevance of academia, I would like to think that my sensibilities had been honed by exposure to the aesthetics of the written word analyzed and dissected in the Kapadia classroom.

He would stride along the aisles between the old wooden desks reading a few lines, then stop abruptly and hurl a question at us. Our class size was fairly small and we would spread ourselves around. He would weave in and out between the spaces, head back to the blackboard and scribble the keywords that we must grasp. Discussion followed. Not once did he berate us for our ignorance or lack of diligence. My classmates will agree with me that he was the only professor whose lectures we did not sleep through!

More than a teacher, he was a friend and guide. He would go out of his way when the situation demanded. A case in point: at the end of two years, the results of the B.A. Part I examination was declared by the University of Calcutta. But my mark sheet failed to arrive at our college. Professor Kapadia volunteered to go with me to the College Street building where these things were handled.

After negotiating a series of interminable desks with seemingly clueless clerks behind them, we were led into a dimly lit room with cobwebs dangling from the high ceiling, catching the faint light in gossamer threads. There were mark sheets lying scattered on the floor. Kapadia and I went down on our knees and began to carefully sift through pages and pages of paper with strange, unfamiliar names on them. It was nothing short of a miracle when I found my name. We both shouted out in relief and excitement and the cobwebs trembled…

He sympathized with me when after graduation I was struggling to find work. I remember one afternoon when he told me, “Aloke, let’s go have a drink! Let’s talk things over.” We walked into a cafe on Park Street. He ordered a couple of beers and listened to my woes as I unburdened my soul in between sips of the cold libation. We conversed like two equals and he gave me some practical advice regarding a job that would have taken me to the remotest corners of Bhutan on a paltry salary. I realized that in spite of being an incurable romantic at heart, Kapadia’s character was also rooted in pragmatism, thanks to his Parsi character! I listened and did not go.

Instead, I moved out of Calcutta and headed west to Bombay where I would spend the next 28 years of my life. We corresponded briefly for some time and I remember him writing to say that the college, an exclusive male preserve since its inception, was now accepting female students in the English Literature course. He sounded quite thrilled and I am sure that he was extremely popular with the ladies who might have found his intense character quite attractive. Regrettably, I lost touch with him thereafter and it is totally my fault.

The fact that I always instinctively key in “Kapadia” in response to the password recovery hint question “Who was your favourite teacher?” on many websites is a clue to how indelible an impression he has left on me. Quite simply, no one else comes to mind.

One of the poems that we studied in his class was Sea Fever by John Masefield and through the decades that I have abandoned the reading of verse, these lines have always resonated in my head at odd moments. They constitute the perfect epitaph for him:

“I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”

It is only appropriate that the creators of Beowulf should have the last word. The concluding lines of the epic best describes how I remember Professor Kapadia :

“Gentlest of men, most winning of manner,
Friendliest to folk-troops and fondest of honor”

Wild Rose

 

 

 

THE BANYAN TREE by Lalita Noronha

•January 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Superb piece of writing!

3QR: The Three Quarter Review

Still, my journey was rooted in botany. Photo: Kim Seng

Much of what I’ve learned about life comes from plants—the seemingly endless varieties my father planted around our homes in towns along India’s west coast. Each time we moved, my father yanked us from the ground, tap roots and all, and replanted us elsewhere, he in the center, the trunk of a great old banyan tree, my mother at the base, her arms about the main trunk, and we, seven children, sprawled around them. I, the oldest child, settled tentatively into the earth nearby. One little root, the third child, never did thrive; she lived in a silver frame on my mother’s dresser, a little girl of five, never growing older as we did.

My father was a professor of botany, a lover of the natural world. The shelves lining his room held an assortment of books (The Origin of Species, Mendelian Genetics, A 

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