His name was U. Balakrishnan. I was in 11th grade at the Keshav Memorial High School in Hyderabad, India, when I became his student. He was to be my English teacher for the next two years. I never knew what the U in his name stood for. I was first told about him by my elder brother Prabhakar, who was his student.
“There are two English teachers,” he said. “Mr. Sethumadhav Rao and Mr. Balakrishnan. I hope you get Mr. Balakrishnan.”
Mr. Balakrishnan taught only the Section A of the grade. In India, every grade had two sections, at least when I was a student. Section A and Section B. Students in the upper half of the ranking were assigned to Section A, which is where I was. It was an all-boys school.
As my brother said, Mr. Balakrishnan was an unforgettable character, and he influenced my life in many ways. He was from Kerala, a region in South India with people of dark skin and a heavy English accent with traces of the Tamil language. But Mr. Balakrishnan did not fit the norm. He was fair-skinned and spoke without a southern accent. He had sharp features, thin dark hair that was neatly parted in the middle and combed back, and a pointed nose.
He always wore clean vanilla-colored suits, starched white shirts, and regimental striped ties. He had a graceful walk and always covered his nose with a handkerchief to prevent dust from the streets from getting in his nostrils. He was a stickler for personal hygiene and a well-groomed appearance. He would throw fits if he saw any student pick his nose.
Mr. Balakrishnan lived alone in a rented room at the Barkat Pura YMCA, within walking distance from our high school. He was a bachelor. I had heard that the only relative he had was a sister living in Secunderabad, a suburb of Hyderabad. Some students would make snide remarks about his lifestyle, inferring things that were not comprehensible to me at that time. Still, he was my hero and I did not care what anyone had to say.
I liked some other teachers as well. Mr. Mashalkar and Mr. Jawalekar, who both taught mathematics. Mr. Mashalkar gave me and two other students, Ambadas and Surendra, a special advanced class in summer so we would be prepared and be ahead of the other students. This was all good, but I had a special affection for Mr. Balakrishnan.
Mr. Balakrishnan had a passion for teaching the English language. We had to study two books for our English course. One had classic essays and poems. This was supplemented by a “non-detailed” study. These were typically classic novels such as The Knights of the Round Table and Ivanhoe.
The non-detailed study was meant to introduce the students to works of classic literature. When teaching these, Mr. Balakrishnan would never even open the book. With Ivanhoe, for example, he would go over to the blackboard – I could almost feel the adrenaline running in his veins. On the left corner of the board, he would write “Rebecca,” in the middle “Ivanhoe,” in the right corner “Rowena,“ and the names of many other characters in between.
He would glide across the front of the class, connecting the characters by arrowheads, based on what was happening in the story. I would sit there mesmerized. It was like a one-man drama unfolding in this mini-theater. We understood the plot of the story, the interactions among all the characters, who said what to whom and when all without opening a single page of the book.
When we took our final high school board exams, we had no problem answering the “reference to context” questions in which a quotation from a book is provided, and students must identify the character and the significance of the quote. We did splendidly on such questions, thanks to Mr. Balakrishnan and his mini-dramas. His mode of teaching certainly did contribute to my love for English literature and theater.
Mr. Balakrishnan was not only great at teaching English literature, but he also helped us grow up. He encouraged us to go see a “sex education” film running at a theater in Secunderabad. In those days, they used to name these films “Know Your Body” or some such vague title. I did not go to see this movie due to it being away from my house, and I didn’t dare go alone.
“When you take a bath,” he would say. “Don’t just pour water over your head. You should use soap and clean the entire body, ‘specially ‘down there.”
Mr. Balakrishna encouraged us to attend live theatrical performances. When the Royal Shakespearean Company visited Hyderabad, he bought us tickets to The Merchant of Venice. The play was performed at the YMCA. This stayed with me. When we lived in Fairfax, Virginia, Bharati and I regularly went to the Arena Stage in Washington DC. Last year we moved to Ellicott City, Maryland, and have started to explore nearby theaters to keep our passion alive.
Mr. Balakrishna was very vocal about his dislike for card games. He thought it was a waste of time when one could be engaged in other creative activities. I think this may be why I never got into playing cards.
To keep healthy both physically and mentally, Mr. Balakrishnan would encourage nature outings. “At least once a month you should go out somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of the city,” he would say. “Smell the flowers and experience closeness to nature.”
One weekend he took us on a nature outing to Begumpet, which was a popular spot away from the city for picnics. We, four students and him, packed lunch boxes and took a bus for an hour’s drive away from Hyderabad city. The open space, the fresh air, and being away from the city crowd were all invigorating.
Our high school, like other ones in Hyderabad, would have an annual gathering. This was usually an evening with games and other activities. This event was preceded by many competitions. There would be many awards for athletic and scholastic accomplishments. Mr. Balakrishnan created an award for the person who could read the maximum number of books outside of the school assignments. He would even be our librarian, lend us books from his collection, and keep score.
It was not enough to read the books. Each person who signed up for this competition had to keep a notebook and write a summary of what they read. This encouraged us to read as well as learn how to express ourselves in writing. I won this award one year, and my prize was a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. One of the things I learned from this book was how to be a good listener.
After high school, I attended two years of intermediate college and then three years of Engineering. I worked for two years at the Andhra Pradesh State Electricity Board. Then I decided that my future would be better if I went abroad. When I got admitted to the University of Oklahoma, I couldn’t wait to tell this to my favorite teacher. He was ecstatic and wished me well.
I remained in touch with Mr. Balakrishnan via letters. In the mid-sixties, there was no email, texting, WhatsApp, etc. One would write letters and wait a month or so to get a response. I have kept all my correspondence with him. Even seven years after being his student, Mr. Balakrishnan continued giving me advice and encouragement. Here are some excerpts from his letters.
I was very glad to receive your letter. In fact, I was looking forward to it. For a moment I felt as if I was myself seeing all those places you mentioned in your letter. It is indeed a blessing to be able to see and live in those wonderful places. This is only a dream or a wishful thinking for me, whereas you and Gupta have been able to realize this ambition. You both achieved this through hard work. I heartily congratulate you on your success.
Upon learning that my address had the number 760 he suggested that I move to a different place. He thought it was superstitious (7 plus 6 is 13 which is considered an unlucky number). but he felt strongly about it. I had mentioned that I was feeling depressed sometimes. He wrote, “a person with depressed feeling should not go in for a number like this”.
I am quite happy to hear that you have shifted from that house and are residing in a building which commands a wide-open area in front. This means your residence is away from the “madding crowd.” By the way, how do you manage for food? Any canteen attached to your house? Or do you cook yourself? Do you get rice there?
I am delighted to hear that people over there appreciated your ability in expressing English. You may freely associate with American students and try to know their culture and their way of life.
As people use to do when all the space on the page in a letter is taken up, he wrote across in the margin. “Be very polite and courteous to all especially to the weaker sex. This kind of behavior is considered to be the ‘hallmark’ of civilization among Americans.”
I always look forward to getting your letter.
Your article that you sent me is superb. I read it to Mr. Khande Rao who expressed great delight to see it. Your interpretation of “NAMASTE” is unique. It really took the wind out of my sails. I think your American friends will now readily take to do Namaste because of the deep and subtle meaning it indicates.
I am glad to hear of the school girl who expressed admiration for your English knowledge and literature. Your taste for books is a welcome feature. As John Milton says “it is a talent which is death to hide.” But this should not be at the cost of your professional course. Your main aim should be to get the highest degree.
Your letters are interesting reading. The one you sent last March contained a cutting of your article “Togetherness” and a photograph of the cover. I took it to school and read it to Mr. Khande Rao and others. We tried to identify you in the photograph but none of us could succeed.
I am glad to hear you are availing of the opportunity to mix freely with people of different categories.
His last letter to me was dated January 1968 in which he emphasized again that I should aim to get the highest degree before coming back to India.
I know your parents may fondly demand your quick return, but you may tell them in all sincerity and affection that you are young, good in conduct, and possess an exemplary character, and let them not be worried that you may go off the track.
You may not be surprised to know that I have to retire next academic year, 1968-69. Mr. Khande Rao says that I should continue to work in the school next year.
In June 1970 I returned to India after seven years. It was the time when America was suffering from the Nixon recession. I decided to spend some time in India. My uncle suggested that I consider getting married and I did. Bharati was courageous enough to accept me even when I was unemployed.
I met Mr. Balakrishnan in person at his new place. He had retired and moved across the street from the YMCA into a second-floor apartment. He was overjoyed to see me and to know that I was getting married. He appeared to be in good health. To my surprise, I noticed that he had a nasal south Indian accent and he appeared much darker than how I remembered from my high school days. Perhaps being in America had changed my perception.
“It is good to marry someone younger than you,” he said. “It will be helpful when you get old.”
He recommended that when we travel for our honeymoon, I should send a postcard to the hotel manager in the city and inform him about our schedule and to reserve a room for us. (Of course, things are quite different now thanks to the internet.)
He complained about how the times have changed, and the lack of discipline among the students.
He wanted to meet Bharati and me in a restaurant called Ram Bharosa near our high school.
“We will take a booth in a corner. I will treat you both to coffee and dosa.”
I departed after an hour-long talk.
That was the last contact I had with him. He ran across my younger brother on the street a few days later and sent a message that he would not be able to meet us as he had wanted.
Many months later I learned that he had taken ill and had moved in with his sister in Secunderabad and passed away.
I still visualize his face and sometimes wish that I could sit in his English class one more time. I can say without hesitation that he left an indelible imprint on my life.
I will never forget an excerpt from a poem that Mr. Balakrishnan taught us. That poem is Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud about what he felt upon noticing a bed of the daffodils. Admiring the beauty of the flower, Wordsworth ends the poem by saying:
“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in a pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the memories.”
(I am taking the liberty to change the word ‘daffodils’ to ‘memories’)