As a teacher, T.G. Vaidyanathan showed batches of grateful students how enjoyable studying literature could be. But his greatness lay in the way he threw himself into their lives, says PRADEEP SEBASTIAN paying tribute to his professor who passed away in Bangalore earlier this week.
HE was cremated with a cricket bat beside him but I wished there had been a book, too several books, in fact, perhaps all his favourites. He loved books and bookshops like no one before him, and collected books with adolescent passion. And so the very thought of burning even one book would have enraged him but I knew right then just as all of us there who had shared books with him knew that the hardest thing for him would be to part from them. We remained a few minutes in his room after his body had been taken away and couldn't help but feel that his books looked bereft.
Hospitalised and in pain, but all he could think of was how soon he could go home to read the book he had just got hold of Martin Amis' memoir, Experience. "There aren't many reasons I can think of to go on," he told some of us visiting him at the hospital.
He was 73 and the doctors had just pronounced him well enough to return home. "Books, yes and watching my granddaughter grow. But that's about it." So death then came suddenly and swiftly and mercifully. Only, in death he was so still none of us had seen him that still, not even in sleep and it was a shock. Bewildering. Because he was an obsessive, magical talker, constantly engaged in conversation. I believe no one has ever seen him not talking at any time: not even when watching a movie only watching cricket on the TV would hush him a bit. Of course he would have wanted to go on ...just for that new collection of Wilfred Sheed essays, another World Cup, write that perfect essay. His sudden death seemed to leave many unfinished conversations, but then I remembered that whenever he met anybody he always liked to part abruptly. He hated a long goodbye.
So who was this T.G.V. anyway? The readers of The Hindu knew him as one of its most stylish and provocative writers, who wrote insightfully and entertainingly on anything from Wittgenstien to cricket to Kushboo. (I was on the phone with him on Saturday, March 23, (not knowing it would be the last time I would speak to him) to tell him I how much I had come to enjoy writing for The Hindu and he said: "Writing for The Hindu has been the sweetest experience of my life"). Some knew him as the author of Hours in the Dark, a brilliant collection of his writing on film, while others perhaps most knew him as one of the country's most original, passionate and stimulating intellectuals and culture critics. But for me and innumerable bewitched, grateful students he was the great teacher, our teacher. The legendary T.G.V. of Bangalore University: blazingly articulate, fastidiously stylish and passionately, fatally, devoted to his students. What did he do that other teachers couldn't or wouldn't do? This: he was personal in a radical way.
He risked walking into our lives and risked letting us walk into his. He made himself vulnerable by laying bare his anguished, impassioned and honestly lived life, asking us to learn as much from it as from his ardent, precise and incandescent words.
I met him first in 1986 in a classroom: first M.A. English Lit. He walked into that class that day and more than dazzled us: he left us enthralled, devastated, provoked and hanging on to his every word not just for that hour or even for those two years but (for so many of us) the rest of our lives.
What Camille Pagilia once said of her teachers Harold Bloom and Milton Kessler is absolutely bang on about TGV too: "Great teachers live their subjects. The subject teaches itself through them. It uses them and, in return, charges them with elemental energy."
He was born on October 21 (a Libran, naturally) 1929, in a village in Tanjore district. When his family moved to Madras the next year, he was sent to the Madras Christian College High School and then college at Loyola. He took a Law degree but did not use it, choosing instead to take an M.A. in English Literature, privately. He did short teaching stints in Madras, Assam, Hyderabad (Osmania University, where he edited the prestigious Shakespeare number for the Osmania Journal of English Studies) before settling in at Bangalore University in June 1967, where he retired from in 1990.
He guest-edited the Sunil Gavaskar biography by Dom Moraes and co-edited An Indian Cricket Omnibus with Ramachandra Guha. More recently, along with Jeffrey Kripal, he edited Vishnu on Freud's Desk: A Reader In Hinduism and Psychoanalysis.
He was a perfectionist when either talking or writing, obsessing until he found the right word, the revealing line or the sense of an ending. He would write several drafts of his essays, all of it painstakingly and neatly written with a pencil, on attractively bound notebooks. He loved Calcutta, coffee, cricket, boxing, P.G.Wodehouse, Carnatic music, animals, South Indian tiffin, sweets, pickles, crowded streets, city maps, On the Waterfront, gangster movies ("I've reached a point where I love film books more than films! Films are like cats, film books are like dogs.") Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Heddy Lamar and Jayapradha,; admired Gandhi, and a CNN anchorwoman by the name of Sonia Ruseler!
His writing heroes were Dwight McDonald, Neville Cardus, John Simon and Wilfred Sheed. He particularly loved the meta-stories of Donald Bartheleme and his favourite in Salinger's Nine Stories was "The Laughing Man".
Teaching was his act of love, though he didn't know it. His past, his secrets, his knowledge, his books, his mind, his time, his passion, his energy and his book-lined room were ours for the taking, along with endless cups of good coffee, prepared patiently and generously by Mrs. Indira Vaidayanathan (Aunty or Mami to all of us) and served at regular intervals. You see, he was one teacher who needed his students as much as they needed him. Sir, thanks for the many hours of heady conversation and your amazing friendship. We miss you.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.
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