Rajan-C-Mathew : Auto Biography [ Part-1]
My Childhood Days
I belong to a village called Elanthur, located in the Central Travancore area of the southern state of Kerala in India. Before the formation of the Independent Indian Republic and the many states constituting India based on the regional languages, Travancore was a prosperous kingdom ruled by Malayali royals with reasonably modern outlook and vision.
I was born as the eldest son to my parents almost after ten years after India became an Independent country in modern era, freeing itself from the British rule.
Both my parents belonged to middle class Syrian Christian families of Travancore and as was customary at that time for people of such backgrounds, they were reasonably educated and had chosen teaching in local schools as their vocation.
My father was the only son of a local business man of that pre-independence period and was a little bit attracted to the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, that he chose to be a pure vegetarian by self determination while he was probably in his teens- a thing not common to Syrian Christians- and a 'Khadardhari' [ wearing only hand woven white clothes called 'Khadi']. He was also influenced by the Indian Nationalism that he became a proponent of Hindi and Sanskrit languages. For decades, he was a Hindi teacher and an activist of a movement in South India for the cause of propagating the use of Hindi as a national language of Independent India. He was against the religious bondage created by religious institutions like the church, but he did not have the courage to fight the institutionalized church alone. So he chose to be a non church-goer, but remained regular in paying all that was due to the church. However, he was a firm believer of God and used to read the Bible and pray every day at home. Towards the end of his career as a renowned and respected teacher, he was pretty agonized over the growing deterioration of values and ethics in all walks of life, even in the fraternity of teachers. I remember occassions when he shared those concerns with me.
As a child I used to admire some of my relatives- though for various reasons. One was my paternal grandmother. She took care of me in my childhood as my mother didnot have enough time for that, being employed a teacher herself. I used to admire the capacity and efficiency of my grandmother to manage the household without any grumbling.Though there were reasons to find fault with her rich siblings and relatives, I had never heard her doing that. She used to visit the homes of all her brothers and sisters and other relatives and most often, if possible, used to take me also with her during such visits. Visit to the house of her eldest sister at Kumbanad, was the one I used to like most, as this grandma and her family members were very affectionate and royal in their acts and deeds, with their richness quite visible during those days when such things were not so common. An younger brother of grandma was an ex-Royal Airforce pilot and a Wold War-II veteran. He was another person of this lineage who was close to me.
My maternal grandfather and grandmother were also of influence during my childhood days as I used to spend a good part of my time those days in my mother's house not very far from my own home. Grandfather was the founder head of a reputed school and the thing most remarkable about him was the perfect dress sense he had at those days. Grandma too matched him in this sense and her hobby used to be guiding the servants and others in cooking, especially tasty snacks and sweets dear to children. Both were strict disciplinarians, though the same didnot apply to me as a special concession to me as their eldest grandson.
My Primary School Days
In those days, many enlightened individuals from upper middle class families in Kerala, regardless of their religious affiliations, had considered it their social responsibility to start formal primary education facilities in their respective localities, without waiting for the government to do that. In our village though a government school existed, much more was felt as necessary by some such people. Mr. K. Kumar was one such man from our village. We called him Kumar ji out of respect. Kumarji hailed from a reputed Hindu Nair family of our village and spent his youth days in the independence struggle launched by Mahatma Gandhi. I remember him as a pleasing oldman always wearing Khadi clothes and a characteristic Khadi 'topi' [hat] and a charming smile on his face. I remember my parents telling me about his involvement in the political movements during the independence struggle and his association with the Mahatma. He had participated in the ' Salt Satyagraha' movement launched by Gandhiji as a devout disciple and such revered leaders like Gandhiji and Vinoba Bhave from the North had visited our village in Travancore, on account of him. He could have been a minister in the post independent era, but for the treachery and cunningness of ambitious politicians without principles.
Any way, Kumarji as known to me, was not a national leader any more, but had retired to his home village attending local social issues. Perhaps with the ideologies of Gandhiji and Vonobaji he had taken the pains to set up a primary school to cater to the poor lower caste children called the ' Shri Gandhi Sarvodaya Lower Primary School '. This school was located in a prime location in our village on a piece of land owned by Kumarji's family. It was not exactly a private school, but a state government aided school- means the teacher's salaries were provided by state funding. The school had classes from One to Four, imparting government prescribed curriculam in Malayalam medium.
So, at the time of my school admission, my parents decided to get me admitted to this school, though they could have very well gotten me admitted to schools with better ambience and name, such as the ones where my parents were teachers. But they thought it otherwise and I salute them for that. Though this school no longer exists on account of the mushrooming of the so called English Medium Public Schools in my state and elsewhere in India, founded by business minded trusts and societies of men with little character for gullible and over ambitious parents, I am proud to be educated by this school during my childhood days.
Shri Gandhi Sarvodaya Lower Primary School was a long improvised building with un-plastered cut laterite bricks forming its pillars and half-walls with the upper wall portion made of cheap wooden panels. The roof was thatched with woven coconut leaves. There were no partition walls that separated the four individual class areas. That made the children seeing and hearing the other classes without any hinderance, except for the ever attentive class teacher whose presence guaranteed the childrens' attention to their respective classes only.
There was however, a partitioned enclosure at one end, which acted as the office cum teachers' room. Though the building was not up to the mark in today's standards, to my young mind, this school and its surroundings were quite impressive and to this day that impression remains. The school had a pretty large play ground and two roads running almost parallel in front. At the boundary there were also some remarkable horticulture efforts visible.
There were five teachers in all including the headmistress, two of them gents. Regardless of their gender, we called each one of them ' Saar' - a word evolved in Kerala to address people of respect, perhaps from the english word 'sir'. I remember all of them with respect, though none of them to my knowledge is still living. They were, Janaki Saar, Gowri Saar one, Gowri Saar two, Raghavan Saar and Kuriakose Saar, the former being the HM. Raghavan Saar was my class teacher in class four. He had the special skill of quickly copying Kerala and India maps on the black board with the help of a piece of chalk.
That was the time when the government wanted the children to learn practical lessons of democracy at the schools. So at that time the concept of electing the head boy of the school designated as ' Pradhana Mantri' [ Prime Minister] got implemented. During that time I became a prominent and influential boy of the school surrounded and protected by a large group of boys including some well-experienced senior boys capable of doing anything. So naturally in class four, I became the 'Pradhana Mantri' by democratic means of campaigning and voting. I remember, printed notices pasted in all nooks and corner of our large village, inviting the public to the annual day of the school, in the name of the Pradhana Mantri and the Head Mistress. The school annual function at that time used to be a grand gala event attended by a large number of people from the general public.
These were days of the early nineteen sixtees with the First Prime Minister of independent India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru still in command. For us children, Independence day and Childrens' day [Birth Day of 'Chacha' Nehru] were of much color and festivity at that time. I remember the day, in 1964, when the news came about the death of Chacha Nehru.
I donot remember me studying anything specially for the purpose of our school examinations. I was a voracious reader of malayalam books , news papers and periodicals at that time. In the beginning of the school year itself, within a few days of receiving the new text books, I used to finish reading all those text books and the ideas presented in the lessons used to be in my mind. Coupled with that the attention in the class was sufficient for me to write the exams effortlessly, often scoring the highest marks. I also had a neat and tidy handwriting which my teachers and friends used to admire. In short I was a star attraction kid during those days. I donot remember the names of all my friends of those days. But Jose, Sathyan, Rajan, Ravi, Thomas, Abraham, etc are still in my mind. Out of this Jose keeps that friendship even today. Though the school was co-ed, I was a pretty shy boy to talk to girls, not to talk of befriending them. I hardly remember an occasion where I had talked to any girl. Incidently I have no sisters either. Yet, I remember occassions where my opponents at the school trying to malign my 'political image' by associating my name with a pretty girl. Those malicious campaigns had made me wishing for a friendship with her, but my shyness prevented it from happening.
I had many elderly people as my childhood friends- people who are 10-15 years older.The eminent orator, writer, teacher and local political leader, late Mr. Elanthur C T Mathai was one among them. When I was in Primary school, he probably might have completed his graduation. He himself was a writer and had a large collection of books in his possession. He used to give me both- his original writings and his books- for me to read. All in Malayalam. I remember reading classical unabridged translations of massive books like Monte Christo, Odyssy, Eliad, Three Muskateers, Ben-hur etc at that time from his collections.
From Shri Gandhi Sarvodaya Lower Primary School my parents decided to get me admitted to Mar Thoma Upper Primary School, Karamveli, for further schooling from Class Five to Class Seven. MTUPS as this school is commonly known in our locality is a reputed Malayalam medium school under the corporate management of the influential Marthoma Syrian Church of Kerala, and was founded by my maternal grandfather. Hence, it is also known as 'Aikuzha School' , Aikuzha being the family name of my mother. This school was about 2-3 KM away from my home and was located at a higher elevation from the main road by the side of a hillock. My mother's home is just 100 meters away as the crow flies, but the actual distance by foot is a bit more. At the time I joined in this school, my grandpa late Mr J John was the Headmaster of this school, though shortly thereafter, his eldest son Mr John John (immediate younger brother of my mother) took over from him as the HM. Initially my parents had decided that I would stay in my mother's house and attend the school. Though I stayed there for some days, I developed home sickness within a short period. Thus I happened to be walking all the distance to and from the school to attend the school after a few months. Nevertheless, lunch was to be at my mother's home together with my grandpa, uncle and others, tastefully prepared under the able guidance of my grandma.
During the days when I stayed there at Nellikkala- that was the place name of my mother's Aikuzha family homes- I happened to join the Public Library that existed a short distance away at a place called Karamveli. The membership fee was less than a rupee, sixty paise to be accurate. To my knowledge, there was nobody younger than or of my age there as members. Besides, I also got a chance to be the first reader of all Malayalam books that used to be purchased for our school as the books used to come to the HM's house first before actually carried to the school library.
In those days, out of the six younger siblings of my mother, only my HM uncle (Joychayan-that is what I call him) and the youngest one were the ones present in my mother's home besides my grand parents. Others had all migrated to other states, mostly to Bombay, in connection with their careers. The youngest sister, Ms. Elizebeth ( Moliammama- that's what I call her) was a college student and was more an elder sister to me than an aunt. We therefore had all the love, affection and perhaps the fights, which occassionally required intervention from grandma's side, mostly decided in my favour. Incidentally, Moliammama now lives in Trivandrum, leading a retired life together with her husband, after years of service in the central government holding important positions. It was during this time that I got the opportunity to attend grand family events like marriages of my mother's siblings during which time the house used to be filled up with relatives for days together.
I was a good student at MTUPS also. But there were one or two children who used to get more marks than me in the school exams and hence in competition with me. The boy who used to outsmart me was Yeshudas- though I have not seen him afterwards. My best friends here were one Rajan Samuel and one Radhakrishnan. Rajan Samuel was my friend not only here, but in later days too, up to higher secondary level. I have not met him afterwards, though his whereabouts are known- He was working as a bank manager in Kochi when I last heard about him. School elections were there in this school also, and here Yeshudas was elected as the Prime Minister and I had to content with the post of 'Education Minister'. I remember participating in 'cabinet meetings' regularly in the HM's chamber and taking salute at the school assembly, in the capacity as the said ' Education Minister'.
My High School Days
After completing Class Seven at MTUPS, my parents decided to admit me in a reputed school with medium of instruction in English language. They could have chosen the Mar Thoma High School, Pathanamthitta, located at our district HQ town and where my father taught Hindi. But, the St.Thomas High School, Kozhencherry was also considered as equally good and finally decided for my further studies. Thus in 1969 I joined Class Eight A-division of this school. Incidentally this was the year in which the Americans landed in Moon for the first time.
Change over from Mlayalam to English was not that easy. Though I had good command and skill in my mother tongue and was able to write the exams without much preparations, using my own style of language, the whole thing changed with this English Medium. Moreover, me and my friend Rajan Samuel were the two boys who got admitted in the English Medium class at High School level, all others being boys experienced in this foreign language from their primary school days. Social Studies covering history, geography,civics etc could have been the easiest subject in Malayalam medium, but that turned out to be the most difficult one for me in English medium. The effect, I failed in that subject in the first term exam - my first failure in life. But there was some thing soothening as well. That was the fact that my rank in the class of 30-35 was 10 or so and I had been proved much better than my experienced classmates. This had also made a small change in the attitude of the boys of the class to me. They no longer considered me as an alien.
The school was a boys' school and the only females around were a few teachers. The school had Malayalam medium instructions as well and those were conducted in other divisions; division-A was for English Medium. The boys in our class mostly came from rich families or from upper middle class families.A few, were good in western music and skilled in handling musical instruments like guitar, organ, etc. My friend and class mate Mr Jacob George (Achukkutty-now an engineer settled in the USA) used to be fairly good in guitar.
It was during this time that our school adopted a new experiment in teaching. The teachers under the able leadership of our Headmaster, Mr.Unnoonni Saar, had decided to make our english medium high school class (Class VIII-A) as an experimental class. The gist of what they had decided were: (1) the class teacher and the main subject teachers in this class would be the most senior and eminent teachers of the school and that the same teachers would continue till the group passed out from the school after completing the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examination of the Kerala State Education Board. (2) The students would not be caned or punished for mistakes and errors as was commonly done elsewhere, but would only be advised or coucelled instead (3) The teachers would be like friends to the boys (4) Science subjects would be taught by demonstration and practicals in the science room and not to be lectured (5) Boys would be encouraged to learn by themselves as far as possible (6) Scoring marks in the examinations would not be considered by any one as a priority.
No one really thought that this experiment would go uninterrupted and with all its sincerity for the three years that we were to be in that school. But it was a success as far as I consider it now. The HM and our beloved class teacher Thomas Mathew Saar literally followed the experimentation!
I remember an incident that happened when we were in Class-IX. There was a period in which the regular subject teacher was absent. So the HM directed a young lady teacher, who was new to the profession engage our class. This lady- I should not quote her name- happened to be very beautiful and the rarity of the female species in our school added additional weightage to her beauty and charm. So she came to our class to our delight. Some time killing was found necessary. So she told us that she had heard of the musical talents of some boys in this class and that some are practising members of a renouned orchestra group of the locality. She wanted to hear some of these renowned vocalists sing for her.
Most of the boys were charmed by her beauty and was not in a mood to talk, but to gaze her avoiding any eye-contact with her. But we were amazed when one of our naughty friends volunteered to sing a song. Our delightful young teacher gave the permission to go ahead. To our surprise, he began to sing a contemporary malayalam filmy song, considered a bit sexy at the social standards of that time! The starter lines meant something like ' I love you my dear' or so and he was using all the facial and body actions, mostly oriented towards the lady. The song went for a few minutes like this and at its climax, to our utter dismay and surprise we found the lady crying uncontrollably, shaken by the adventure by this teenager. There was a commotion that followed forcing the senior teachers reaching the class in no time and escorting the lady to the teachers' room. We all expected a severe punishment for our friend. But keeping with the spirit of the experiment, he was not given any such punishments, but was only advised, that too in the class in our presence. (this boy, Mohan Thomas, incidentally lost his life a couple of years later in an accident at Kovalam Beach. He was a good swimmer and had gone for swimming in the shallow sea there with another friend of ours during a picnic. The other friend saw him disappearing behind the waters as if pulled by some thing from behind-perhaps a shark. Since the tourism authorities were trying to promote this beach as a safe spot in the international arena, this aspect of the news was prevented from getting publicity at that time!)
Barring such incidences, the school life at St.Thomas High School, Kozhencherry was smooth. I used to travel the 5-6 kilometer distance to school from my village, Elanthur, by regular private bus service that is part of the public transport system in our state. The commuting to school used to cost 20 nayapaise [ or one fifth of an Indian Rupee] a day. During the monsoons, every year, there used to be a few days of floods and the nearby River Pampa used to overflow with the many riveluttes too overflowing, submerging some of the roads leading to the school. We used to enjoy such occassions.
Another memorable occassion was the time of the famous Maramon Christian Convention which used to be in the month of February every year. The convention used to be held in a vast pandal roofed by woven coconut leaves with bamboo poles acting as trusses and supports, erected on the vast expanse of river sand that used to appear on Pampa river due to receding waters with the river shrinking to a side as a fast flowing stream. As our school was managed by the largest Syrian Marthoma Church Parish at Kozhencherry which was part of the Syrian Marthoma Church of Kerala, responsible for organisaing this convention for more than a century, we senior students from the school used to get an opportunity to work as volunteers to work and help in the making of this vast convention pandal. I remember working on one or two years in such voluntary work, along with my local friends from Kozhencerry. The famaous Christian missionary from USA, Mr Stanley Johns used to be the regular preacher on those days. His speach used to be translated to Malayalam by some eminent clergy of the Marthoma Church. Nevertheless, I do not remember an occassion where such preaching had been understood by me at that time, even that was translated to my mother tongue.
I was very much interested in science subjects at that time and that used to be my favourite. My ambition then was to become a scientist, though I was not sure of the work of scientists. In between, I remember some of my classmates referring to the creed of chemical engineers and about their extra ordinary brilliance in making rockets and nuclear weapons! So secretly I wished to become a chemical engineer, again knowing pretty nothing about that profession. (Though I had not done anything serious later to accomplish this wish, God Almighty made my wish come true later!)
My friends at St Thomas High School, Kozhencherry at that time were, Rajan Samuel (who was my middle school friend at Nellikkala), Achukkutty (Er Jacob George, now settled in USA), Joshua Easow, Eapen Varghese, Raju Jacob, N T Mathew (son of our class teacher Mr Thomas Mathew) and a few more ( whose names I am failing to recollect now).
In the Seconadary School Leaving Certificate Examination (SSLC Exam that is what the exam is commonly known in our State ) of the Kerala State Secondary Education Board held in 1971 most of us in our class passed and about a third, including me in first class. Getting a first class in this exam at that time was considered a fairly good achievement, considering the fact that only less than 6000 students secured a first class in this exam from the whole of Kerala at that time.
Equipped with a first class SSLC mark list and certificate most of us had migrated to the St Thomas College, Kozhencherry for higher secondary education spanning two years. That time the higher secondary education was part of the University curriculum and the course was known as Pre-Degree Course or PDC. There were four specialization streams in PDC- the First Group for maths-sciences, the Second Group for Bio-sciences, the Third Group for Arts and the Fourth Group for the Commerce stream.
I had opted for the First.
The Pre-Degree College Days [1971-73]
The life at St.Thomas College, Kozhencherry was really enjoyable. There were a few old school friends in the class, besides new friends. The old pals included, Jacob George and Rajan Samuel. Besides, there was my best Sunday School friend and neighbour, Johnson Zachariah [ Rajan Urumbil]. Out of the 110 or so students in the class half were girls- a change from the boys' school culture earlier.
The SSLC first class and the English Medium school background, besides the Kozhencherry brand gave a special status for the group which included me. The College had education right from junior Pre-degree level to Post Graduate Levels in Sciences, Arts and Commerce. Due to the high density of teenagers in Pre-degree classes, the college management considered it fit to assign the most experienced professors and lecturers to engage the Pre-degree classes, whereever feasible.
Barring a few, most faculty used to be known by their nick names, like 'paya-paya' and the like instead of their official names. But the boys and girls used to respect deserving teachers.
Pre-degree Maths Science stream was considered a difficult one, because the final university examination used to be after two years of studies. The pass percentages were of the order of 25-30% in the first attempt. So, there was a culture of private tuitions for difficult subjects encouraged and sponsored by the regular teachers outside the college. That provided an extra earning for the concerned faculty members and more importantly, a better bondage and comradeship among those students who attended those classes which used to be conducted in the houses of the respective teacher.
The mathematics wizard, Late Prof Daniel and the senior Physics faculty, Prof P J Kurien deserves special mention here. It was Prof Daniel who instilled the pleasure of learning mathematics and it was Prof P J Kurien who taught the best way of learning Physics and mastering it. Prof Kurien used to be engaged in political activities that time itself and he was a member of the Kerala State Committee of the Indian National Congress. He later became a Member of the Parliament and a Minister in the Central Government at New Delhi.
It was during these years that I got initiated into taking organizational activities in some note worthy manner. At our local Sunday School, the seniors decided to induct me, Rajan Urumbil and Koshy [ Prof.Koshy Thomas, Marthoma College, Thiruvalla] as teachers. Almost at the same period, I was elected as the Youth League Secretary of our parish [ Elanthur Marthoma Church], a position hetherto held by much senior people. I gratefully remember the support of late Elanthur C T Mathai and late Rev N K Yohannan, the then vicar of our church, in instigating the leadership qualities in me. The Church Youth League under my secretary ship was able to build a house and donate it to a needy person at that time as a charity initiative of the League and it was the late reverend who made it possible through us.
I also remember the loving support of the youth league members, both youngmen and ladies , mostly seniors to me in age in making my tenure a success.
Due to all these, the time passed without we ever noticing it and the Pre-Degree life came to a quick end after two years of teenage activities. I was one among the few to pass the Pre-degree exam with a First Class, securing good marks, especially to the satisfaction of Prof Daniel and Prof Kurien.
The marks scores were pretty good that I got admission call letters from all engineering colleges and almost for all disciplines where ever I applied. I also remember writing the entrance tests for the national level premier engineering institutions like the IITs and the Roorkee University adopting a very casual approach and not qualifying. From our locality hardly any one knew that those tests are attempted by studious boys with much preparations!
At first I joined the most reputed engineering college out of the six existing at that time in our state-the Govt Engg College, Trivandrum, in Mechanical Engg stream. But later I changed my mind and decided to join for Chemical Engg at Govt Engineering College, Trichur.
[Continued to MyLife Story-2]
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