When I finished my schooling in my home town Kayamkulam with a first class, my father, K. Parameswaran Pillai, decided that I would go to a university and that too in Thiruvananthapuram. Many had advised my parents to put me into the one-year teaching course. But my father, a school teacher, has always set the goals for me and my siblings and my mother, N. Chellamma, ensured that we could pursue them.
Thus I joined the Intermediate College in 1960 – new place, new surroundings, and a new medium of instruction. It was a total culture shock for me as I had studied in Malayalam medium schools till then. I didn’t understand most of the things the teachers taught because except my second language, Malayalam, everything else was taught in English. Later I realised that it was good that they didn’t use Malayalam in class because that’s how I picked up English.
There was this outsider tag always associated with me and that continued even after I joined University College for BA English. I was tempted to take up science, but my father was adamant that I should take up English since he believed that I was destined to join the foreign service. The reason behind this dream of his was Shankar Pillai, a teacher of University College, whom my father had met. Shankar had cleared the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) exams, but was killed by a mad man at his office in Canada. My father thought I would replace him one day in the foreign service.
Things changed for the better within two years at University College especially after I got high marks in the second year examination of my BA course. Though I was still an outsider for those from the capital city, it did not take long for the situation to improve. In fact, I should thank one of our teachers, Sudhakaran Nair, who took all of us around and brought us together.
I can go on and on about my teachers, which includes people like G. Kumara Pillai, Ayyappa Paniker, Hridayakumari, Santhakumari, Chellamma Philip, K. K. Neelakantan, K. Srinivasan, John and Vaidyanathan, among others. Ayyappa Paniker sir has been the one who left behind a lasting impression on me. Though I couldn’t understand his brilliance and sense of humour while in college, in my later years I was fortunate to get to know him more. His intelligence kept me in awe. He introduced me to the world of global literature and encouraged me to read more. As for Hridayakumari teacher, it was my dream to speak like her!
We did give nicknames to a few teachers. Sankara Narayana Iyer sir was called ‘Vada’ sir, probably because he used to bring vada for lunch. It is learnt that once some of the students tied a vada on the fan when he walked into the class. Then there was ‘Punchiri’ Mathai, who always had a strange smile on his face. Vaidyanathan sir was called ‘Vadi’, because was very tall and straight like a stick, and looked more like a soldier.
Another major influence has been my principal N. S. Warrier sir who instilled in me a liking for foreign affairs. He was very much interested in what was happening around the world and used to call me to his office to discuss that with me. He believed that I have a future in foreign service. In fact, as I was active in Students Congress then and decided to stand for the post of Chairman, he immediately wrote to my father about that. I had to withdraw from the move.
I used to move around with a group of four, some of them my seniors. We used to watch English movies at Sreekumar Theatre, where a new movie was released once in every three days. Then the charge was 24 paisa!
The five years on the University College campus, pursuing BA and MA in English, have been the most formative and memorable years of my life. I am deeply hurt by the fact its days of glory is now a thing of the the past.
After passing out, I taught at Mar Ivanios College for over a year. By then I had cleared IFS and it was time to explore new pastures.
T.P. Sreenivasan (IFS batch, 1967) has served in the foreign service for 37 years. A former Ambassador of India he is currently executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, and Director General, Kerala International Centre.
(A column to commemorate the platinum jubilee of the University of Kerala. Eminent teachers and people from different walks of life talk about their student days in various colleges under the University.)