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As sharp as ever

Should old age come with cynicism, hopelessness, and resentment for all things contemporary? Not if one is Nittoor Sreenivasa Rau.

A life lived in full.

NOT MANY have the honour of living on roads named after them. "And not many have the good fortune to live close to a park named after one's maternal uncle either!" points out Nittoor Sreenivasa Rau, former Chief Justice of the Mysore High Court, and nephew of Dewan Sir M.N. Krishna Rau. "And I am fortunate that I'm being interviewed by the grand-daughter of my late friend, Hindu K.S. Ramaswami," says the man fondly, regaling me with stories about their days as students of law.

People who know him are used to his quick replies, his incredible memory, and his practical approach to life. For others, meeting the frail man, who has stepped into his 100th year with the enthusiasm and hope of a much younger person, can be quite a revelation. "I'm just fortunate," says Nittoor. "Living for 100 years is not an achievement in itself, but living well and letting others live well is more important."

Our conversation is interrupted several times by calls on the telephone, which he picks up at the first ring. Around him are several newspapers and some books for which he has been asked to write the foreword. A plumber is at work elsewhere in the house, but the centenarian continues to talk, perturbed. "Life has its ups and downs, but it is best to continue to see what we have to do next," he says. Isn't he upset or angered with all the news he reads in the newspapers about the state of our country? "Anger is a useless emotion. If we can help bring about positive change in any situation, we must act. If not, it is better to channel our energies in other directions." It must be this clarity of thought that has made Nittoor Srinivasa Rau a household name in Karnataka.

Apart from his legal work, he continues to be actively associated with several organisations such as Gandhi Smaraka Nidhi, Gandhi Seva Sangha, Vigil India, Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, and B.M. Sri Memorial Centre. "Suddenly, all the organisations that I have been associated with want to felicitate me, and that's why you see my photograph in the papers so often these days!" says an amused Nittoor.

An unfortunate slip has forced him to use a walker. In spite of this and his age, the man does not hesitate to step out of the house. He is a regular at music concerts. Is this what keeps him agile even at this age? "We think it is his interest in every facet of life that makes him such an impressive person," says his daughter, Jayaseetha Premananda. "I remember how he used to point to stars and constellations and take us into the fascinating world of astronomy. He introduced us to Kannada literature, and opened up a beautiful world of words. And at an age when it wasn't even fashionable to educate women, he coaxed our mother to study, and encouraged us to take up higher studies." Dr. Jayaseetha recently retired as professor of mathematics from a college in Minnesota. "She did her masters in Canada and followed it up with a doctorate in the US," says the proud father. "My chemical engineer daughter Lalitha Sudarshan teaches at the Austin Blind School. My sons, one a lawyer and the other a corporate executive, have both retired from service."

Perhaps, the most important work of Nittoor Srinivas Rau has been the introduction of Kannada medium in schools. "Language fanaticism is pointless. Any language has to be seen as just a means of communication. We worked to start Kannada medium instructions in National high School because we felt this would make school education accessible to thousands of Indian children who did not know English. The importance of English in the world cannot be underestimated." A lover of English literature, Nittoor has always been partial to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. He thoroughly enjoys Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Browning, but always finds whodunits a great joy.

Translating Gandhiji's writings into Kannada was another of his pet projects. He started the Sathyashodhana Publishing House to bring out these books, while his wife, who passed away 20 years ago, translated from Hindi to Kannada.

Just as we begin to talk about the milestones of his long and eventful life, it is time for his lunch - a cup of vegetables, a cup of rasam, and a cup of buttermilk. No rice for him, though he occasionally takes a chapathi. His day starts at 5 a.m., with a walk in the locality, followed by a couple of tumblers of coffee. "Appa has a sweet tooth and will happily have a chocolate or a burfi in the afternoon, but he has never been a fussy eater," says his daughter. "The importance of discipline in our lives can never be underestimated, but I have tried to lead a balanced life. During the years I served as a judge, I never ate out, even though we did meet at hotels such as MTR to discuss national issues."

Age might take its toll on the body, but Nittoor has a mind that is astonishingly young. "I don't see why everyone is finding fault with the young. There has been more development in these 50 years than in the past 2,000 years. And all the young people I have come across are sincere, bright, and hardworking. We have to learn from them," he says, and quotes a Sanskrit salutation: Narnoh arbhakebhyah (Let us salute the young).


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