Felicity of Language
Ramaswami Iyer learnt Kannada within three or four months of moving to Mulbagal. A few Kannada words were already familiar to him because he hailed from the Coimbatore region. The Kannada pronunciation is similar to Tamil, so learning Kannada was quite straightforward for him. Initially he became fluent with speaking in Kannada. In about four or five months, he also learnt to read Kannada. Then he became comfortable with teaching in Kannada. It appears that he had mastery over Tamil as well. Often he quoted lines from Tamil poems. After he became a pensioner of the government, he worked as a Tamil pundit in a high school in the gold fields region of Kolar.
After he moved to Mulbagal, Iyer also learnt a bit of Sanskrit. He held deep reverence towards Vedas and śāstras as well as the traditional practices and rituals. The first few books that I read on the Upaniṣads belonged to him. They were English translations by A Mahādeva-śāstri that were published along with explanations. Dakṣiṇāmūrtyupaniṣad, Bhāvanopaniṣad, Kaivalyopaniṣad – these were the books. Ramaswami Iyer would perform pārāyaṇa of the Śrīmad-Rāmāyaṇa. The Rāma-navami festival was extremely dear to him. I’ve mentioned all this just to illustrate his nature.
Based on my experience, I have formulated this theory. Whoever has been taught Kannada well will be able to learn English quite easily. The rules of grammar and constant practice are the two fundamental elements of language. When these fundamentals are mastered in any one language, it becomes easy to understand them in another language. Someone who is well versed with sums in the system of Rupee-Anna-Pie will not find it difficult to calculate in Pound-Shilling-Pence. Someone who has learnt to make a chair from wood will not find it difficult to build a table. This is indeed the law of languages. Chandrashekhara Shastri’s proficiency in teaching Kannada [to us] made the English lessons by Ramaswami Iyer fruitful and successful.
A couple of points about Ramaswami Iyer’s English lessons must be mentioned. He had four students in the first year. A person named Vijalapuram Venkateshayya was notable among them. He subsequently cleared his BA, BL and worked at the Revenue Commissioner’s office before moving to Bowringpete as a practicing advocate. He was Ramaswami Iyer’s pet student. (Iyer himself had clearly stated that it wasn’t me.) Another one was Ganjigunte Subrahmanya. Later on he worked either as a Sanitary Inspector or perhaps as a Veterinary Inspector. The third one was Balasa Venkatarama Shetty.
One day, Ramaswami Iyer asked Balasa Venkatarama Shetty, “Why are you standing there?”
Shetty replied, “I am standing still.”
“Why are you standing still?”
“I am standing still still.”
After a hearty laugh Ramaswami Iyer explained both meanings of the word ‘still.’ Iyer’s intention was to illustrate the structure of English language.
The accessories for teaching that the government had given him was just one: A dictionary by one [Charles] Annandale. Ramaswami Iyer had neatly wrapped it with a piece of binding paper—which is now called ‘craft paper’—and took great care of it. His binding of books was itself so elegant. His policy was to maintain his books clutter-free, without any wrinkles or folds.
Our headmaster had assigned a wooden trunk for the use of our English teacher. All six faces of the box had been given a tin lining to protect it from termite-infestation. Ramaswami Iyer used this trunk to keep his textbooks, the Annandale dictionary, and copies of the Educational Review, a monthly magazine. All these materials were a part of his daily use. He had three practices in his classes –
1. Reading the lessons out loud. This included reading out sentences from the [English] ‘Reader.’ Pronunciation of the letters, the modulations of the voice, pauses, and full stops – students must not go wrong with these. The pronunciation must be clear. A terminology in English that is referred to as ‘accent,’ which is a structure of systematic emphasis of letters, should not be dissonant. If a student went wrong with any of these aspects, Ramaswami Iyer would observe it carefully and correct the student. He wouldn’t overlook even the slightest of mistakes.
2. Meanings of words. A student must translate the meaning of each of the sentences into Kannada. When the teacher felt that a particular word seemed difficult, he would then elucidate its meaning. If it had multiple meanings, he would explain the meaning of each of its usages and provide examples for each type. He wouldn’t conclude unless the students had clearly understood the examples.
3. Meaning of sentences. A concept isn’t clear if only the meanings of individual words are understood. Words must be articulated in sentences to know their exact meanings. This is a special feature in English. What does ‘get’ mean? What does ‘on’ mean? What is the meaning of ‘get on’? This ‘get on’ is called an idiom. An idiom is a habituated usage of words. It may be called the practiced usage. This is an important concept in English. Ramaswami Iyer placed great emphasis on this concept.
The Practice of Using the Dictionary
When Iyer had any doubt [about the meaning of a word] he would never resort to casually using it in speech. Never did he hesitate to consult a dictionary. Our students must develop the practice of looking up a dictionary.
I’ll narrate an instance that I have heard. A person by name H J Bhabha was a teacher when he first came to Mysore. He was to teach a class. When he had to explain a certain English sentence while he was teaching, he would place his finger on the dictionary that lay on his table, close his eyes, and open a particular page. When he did so, a particular word that had to be explained would precisely be on that page. The thickness of the pages that must be turned to reach words starting with “M” and thickness of the pages that should be turned to reach words beginning with the letter “K” – he was capable of gauging these just by brushing his fingers across the side of a dictionary. To such an extent he was well-versed with using a dictionary. Apparently it is possible for a mother to recognize her child or the child to recognize its mother simply by touch. Bhabha shared such intimacy with the dictionary. Ramaswami Iyer also belonged to the same category. The English word, its root form, multiple derivates coming from that root word, their pronunciation, their varied usages – he would observe all these details, assimilate them, and imprint them on to his mind.
To be concluded...
This is the second part of a three-part English translation of the sixteenth essay in D V Gundappa’s magnum opus Jnapakachitrashaale (Volume 8) – Sankeerna Smruthisamputa. Edited by Hari Ravikumar.
 Reading and recitation of sacred texts; often undertaken as part of a ritual.
 The erstwhile system of currency in India; it was in force during the British rule and was decimalised in 1957. A rupee was made up of sixteen annas and an anna was made up of twelve pies.