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”
13 thoughts on “Professor Kapadia and the Beowulf Effect – A Personal Recollection”
Nice thoughts Aloke. The following year when I reached SXC Eng Hons, Kaps was teaching Romantic Poetry! Then metaphysical … we too had the beers at Olympia! He loaned me all my texts from the Prefect’s Library and flagged pages for me to read in Melvyn Brown’s library! What an amazing man and motivator. I remember a comment he left on one of my assignments: “there isn’t a single grammatical or spelling error in your paper … now all you need is some substance!”
And another time, just before the Part 2, when one of my classmates stole two years’ worth of notes … “Pity the guy. He needs those notes. You wrote them… Plenty more where that comes from!”
I started from scratch … inspired.
Thanks for sharing your memories of Kaps, Les! I loved those little nuggets of his notes on your assignment! Truly an unforgettable teacher!
Written brilliantly. Beowulf and Kapadia have disciplined your sentence construction to perfection. What a wonderful man!
How well chosen words can make beautiful prose, Aloke. Rohinton would be proud of you, I know, I am. Like teacher, like student.
Thank you for this post Aloke. I don’t know you but I can closely relate to your feelings. Prof. Kapadia was my favourite professor too. He taught us Lord Jim in the 1998-2001 batch. I will always remember him as a person who put sincere effort and dedicated service above monetary rewards. I rarely find these noble qualities anywhere else in the profit making world of today. Like you, I too moved out of academia and joined the corporate world to seek sustainance. And I was slapped by a completely new world that seeks monetary and tangible gratification at the end of every selfish effort. I will always hold close to heart my brief exposure to the world that Prof. Kapadia belonged too, with its cherished value system.
Hi Ashmita, I am touched by your recollection of Prof.Kapadia. Yes,he was indeed a one of a kind teacher and friend to all his students. Thank you for sharing your feelings about him and what he stood for.
Thanks for sharing these small stories , stories which have shaped our lives. Lord Jim – Heart of Darkness came alive. We lost touch but we still recall these anecdotal stories of his brilliant classroom teaching.
Thank you Joyeeta!
Dear Mr. Surin,
This is Kaustav, a student of Prof. Kapadia, who recently passed away, after a very tough but well-fought battle with life. I was very close to him, and kept in touch till almost the last day, and never realised that this was the last time I was wishing him Happy Teachers’ Day this 5th September; he was soon after admitted to the hospital, for his deteriorating health, and he never came around.
I came across your piece on Sir on your blog, and was deeply touched. St. Xavier’s College is planning a memorial issue on Sir which would be published by the English Academy in end March or April. I was wondering whether you would allow us to reprint this write-up in that little volume, in which few of his ex-students are writing, along with some of his friends and colleagues. Do let me know.
I belonged to the 2001 class, and have always worshipped Sir who has been no less than a surrogate father to me. Interestingly, all our long lost friends from that class reunited on Facebook through a common conversation box I had opened to keep all of them updated about his health. He reunited us in death, as we all tell each other, tearfully.
When we reached the Ravanah to pay him our tribute on 11 January 2015, it was difficult to recognise him. His health was failing rather drastically over the last two years, signs of which showed on his face.
He did not deserve to suffer so much. We can only pray that may his soul rest in peace.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Thank you so much for filling me in on a little more detail surrounding the last days of Professor Kapadia. My apologies for this late response to your comment. I have absolutely no objection to my little tribute being used in the proposed memorial issue by the English Academy – on the contrary I shall consider it an honour. Best regards.
Aloke–what can I say! You may or may not remember me: Kalyan DasGupta (your classmate at SXC, along with Anil Grover, Vivek Sengupta et al of Rapport “fame”. In fact, you once did an interview of me for Rapport, ca. 1973-74, after Part I.)! Prof. Gautam Kundu came to Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, around 1984, and we met again (I was then doing my PhD from the neighbouring University of British Columbia). Since that time, only thanks to his efforts, we have been able to meet up again–the last time was last year in London (where I live), where he was visiting with his family, leading a team of Summer Study students on an “Experience of Immigrants/South Asian Literature in English”-type of course. (I was a one-off guest speaker.) Prof Kundu is also very frail but continues to teach (I believe at South Georgia University, USA).
I was idly surfing the date for old names and somehow thought of my (our!) favourite prof–and the rest is history. How sad. . .
Many, many thanks for “being there” and writing this piece.
With (or without!) your kind permission, I shall forward this link to Prof Kundu.
My e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good to “hear” (from?) you after so many years! I immediately recognised the face (though not so immediately the upper part. . . !) If possible, please keep this note private–but if not possible, no sweat.
Hope you are keeping well.
All the best,
This is a very poignant tribute and remembrance of a wonderful teacher, a kind man, and a very warm soul. He was meticulous in his teaching and his energy and enthusiasm touched many. He was close to us without being intrusive, respected our privacy, and offered criticism with a gentle nudge. The best part of him was his luminous smile, which clouded over, only slightly, when he was not happy with someone in class. And what a relief it would be when the cloud lifted and he was back in his element… carrying on with his lesson plan. I was honored to have him as my teacher during 1976-80, a true teacher and a great human being. Thank you, Prof. Kapadia, for being such a generous soul.