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Farewell SPM: Whose farewell is it anyway?

SPM: (looking straight at Amol, 1st year) Give me an example of an adjective. Amol: (confused at the sudden attack) A red ball. Red here, is an adjective. SPM: (visibly, infinitely irritated at the example and quickly changing his dissatisfaction into a teasing smile of a man who knows how to do it) A beautiful girl. That should be the answer of an English Honours student. Have I confused you? (Sophocles Gallery, July, 1999)

Sati Prasad Maiti, due to the pressure of the small square time table boxes, better known to us as SPM, has been, to my experience, an out an out, perhaps the last romantic and one of the most politically unconscious post-colonial of English teachers our college has ever seen. The intellectuality of the educated figures and the cultural wave were made, shaped and quickened by the ever growing British Empire in and around Calcutta in late 18th century and the next one hundred and fifty years saw the continuation of the trend. This is precisely when the city of Calcutta gained its unprecedented and never-to-be repeated-again status of an international metropolis, second only to London, worlds first city. Calcutta with all its promises of a ready, bright and assured future allured numberless young minds and muscles not only from remote districts within Bengal but also from neighboring and distant states in India at large. By the early 19th century the strong presence of an indigenous reading public with its hungry interest in whatever is English is widely felt and the Hindu College, soon to be reformed as Presidency College, became the centre of intellectual discourses. The aspiring, quasi-European edus of the day most commonly displayed their intellectual interests, reading and writing, not just in one or two but three linguistic frames--English, Sanskrit and Bengali, strictly in that order. This trilingual trend among intellectual Bengalis continued till as late as first two and a half decades after 1947. Sati Prasad, as a bright young boy travelled some hundred miles to Calcutta from a remote village in Midnapore, to study English literature at the hallowed Presidency College in 1970s, having secured the highest marks in intermediate final all-Bengal school examinations, in Sanskrit! With his long hair often teased by the blowing winds, his aggressive reading habits, and a phenomenal ability to reproduce verbatim whatever his eyes met in print, he came to be known as Khudiram among his contemporaries. Sotti ! Having finished his enviable academic career as a student, securing top positions both for his BA and MA at the University, he joined Ramakrishna Mission Residential College, Narendrapur as a junior lecturer of English, from

where, today, he is retiring as the Head of the Department, after decades of dominating the classrooms with his awe inspiring delivery and ever reliable knowledge of literature in its classic form. During his tenure as the Head of the Department, with the help of his able colleagues and students he was successful in putting the name of Department in the academic map of the country. When I came to study English literature in this college in the fast expiring last year of the last century, the first thing I noticed about SPM was his vocabulary that could easily put the popular edition of Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary to shame and a strong desire on his part to weigh the sound of each and every exact word in perfect English sentences each time before its delivery. His prose, so ordered with the best possible classic expressions, often swiftly slipped into the symphony of poetry and the music echoed in our memories, Long after it was heard no more. Readily, for us, we found in him an English teacher. But as the years passed by, gradually one could see how this English teacher was practising something within the classroom, which the theorists of history, literature and culture studies across the globe outside would recognize as post-colonial. In those days, when the rigid graduate syllabus of Calcutta University had no or little room for anything outside British literature, SPM would stretch the boundaries. It was he who would voluntarily tell us countless Bengali stories, often at the cost of whatever English text he taught us, (never quite managing to finish the syllabus in time) and introduce us to our own literary tradition and devices, picking up the finest of lines from the finest of poems, relishing every inch of it and effortlessly injecting the love for the same in our veins. Together with Milton and Keats, in his voice, Tagore and Kalidas enjoyed an equal music. Come September, his sudden romantic divergence in the middle of the class into Chandi stotras offered in perfect energetic Sanskrit accent, took us by delightful surprise and happily prepared us for the coming event that divides the Bengali calendar in two-halves every year. In the galleries, named after the greats of the western literary culture and tradition, SPM smilingly, often unconsciously, turned the table of monolingual monopoly of the Other, subverting the coercive dictates of a most colonial curriculum of literature. Unknowingly, with and for him we fell in love with literature beyond the limited horizons of a colonial language. SPMs sense of beauty found no better example than in his elegant handwriting which we vainly attempted to imitate out of our vaulting ambition and incurable jealousy. Later, we were taken aback to discover how his ts and is got into our hands whenever we cut and dotted them. A couple of years back SPM wrote a letter of reference for one his students who came to study at the University of Delhi. When the letter fell into the intended hands of Shirshendu Chakraborty, one of the finest Professors of English language and literature in the country, Indias first INLAKS scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, he, having a first glance at his hand-written letter, swiftly remarked, Isnt there a fine sense of aesthetics here?

Now, when his career comes to an end, I can see the struggle he had to undergo all along. The suffering that perhaps all failed romantics had to endure. On the one hand, there was an indomitable desire to break free, on another seeking the comfort of acceptance with the authority. SPM, throughout his career, however a quixotic, worked within the institution--be it in rejecting editorials with romantic overtones for the college magazine, be it in placing his hands reflexively around his shoulders down below where his palms met each other to form a good boy image in whatever photographs he ever appeared. With the bizarre combination of lily gold full sleeves against black trousers with brown shoes on, he was a fashion disaster of note. But we loved him for all that. (Have I confused you sir?)

In 2002, Ashish Nandy, in his homage to T. G. Vaidyanathan, a phenomenal Professor of English at Bangalore University who charmed the academic globe for over four decades, wrote that his death marks the beginning of an end of a particular style of teaching and scholarship. Intellectual work, too, is getting steadily professionalized and the days of grand amateurs and rounded Renaissance figures seem to be over. With SPMs retirement and the remaining last days of a few teachers alike here and there, we are, today, perhaps reaching towards the end of that grand tradition. I have every reason to suspect that this farewell-note may turn out to be an epitaph on a culture of knowledge and scholarship.

Saswata Bhattacharya Delhi, 2012