Sunday, 22 March 2015

‘Here is an Indian who taught English to English men!

Silver Tongued Srinivasa Sastry

 

K. Gopalakrishna Murthy

 

The telephone rang in the hotel room of the Rt.Hon. V.S.Srinivasa Sastry in 1921.  The voice at the other end was that of Mr. Bilderbeck – the British principal of the Government Training College, Kumbakonam, when as a young man Sastry was his student.  It was a pleasant surprise for Mr. Sastry to meet his former Principal, while it was no less a pleasant affair for Mr. Bilderbeck that his erstwhile student had been honoured with the Freedom of the City of London.

 

Mr. Bilderbeck got up a little function in honour of Mr. Sastry. On that occasion Mr. Bilderbeck recalled a very touching incident when Mr. Sastry was his student.  The only dress he could afford was a towel with which he attended the class.  On a rainy day Sastry's towel got wet.  The strict disciplinarian in Mr. Bilderbeck imposed on Sastry a fine of Eight Annas.  Where upon Sastry with tears in his eyes begged the Principal to say how he was to pay the fine of Eight Annas when he could not buy a new shirt which would cost him only six Annas.

 

A few hours later Mrs. Bilderbeck found her husband in his study praying to God to forgive him for the imposition of fine on poor Sastry.   Mrs. Bilderbeck advised the disciplinarian to remit the fine himself which he did, and as the story goes, gave Sastry a new shirt, too.

 

After relating this incident the Bilderbecks Expressed their profound joy that this shirt-less "SRINIVASAN" blossomed into the Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasan Sastry, a member of the British Privy Council and a free man of the City of London.

 

Such was the grinding poverty and chill penury Sastry suffered as student.  On one occasion Sastry said his mother had to decline a gift of Mangoes as she had no money enough to purchase salt and pickle it. How unbelievable it is to a modern student well placed in cosy comfort and sheltering ease; what it was to suffer poverty.

   

Great rivers have humble origins, but majesty and selfless service flow from  them.  Despite the fact that Sastry was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was endowed with a silver tongue and a sterling character.  His father had an explosive temper, but young Sastry's constant observation of his father's frequent and violent outbursts made him realise the evil consequences of anger and so he endeavored and succeeded in keeping his emotions in check. His mother had a vast picture gallery of mythological lore, which satisfied the eager listener in Mr.Sastry, which might have lead to his mastering scriptures and Indian Mythology.  Thus, he became a keen student of the great epic RAMAYANA and delivered 30 scholarly Lectures on RAMAYANA.

 

He had a very brilliant scholastic career.  He graduated with a high first class in Sanskrit and English. He stood first in the entire Presidency in English.  He mastered the English tongue so well that he could correct some of the passages in English grammar by J. C. Nesfield even at the age of fourteen.  This created a sensation even among the Englishmen.  

 

Teaching was his first and only love.  Sastry joined as a teacher in the Municipal High School at Mayavaram.  Later he taught English in Salem College with great distinction.  Before he became the Head Master of Hindu High School, Triplicane, Madras, in 1899, he worked for some time in Pachiyappa's and distinguished himself as an eminent educationist.  However, the genius of Mr. Sastry could not remain confined to teaching boys.  He sought wider contacts, followed public affairs and made his presence felt in various spheres of social service.

 

In 1906 he took a momentous decision, left teaching and joined the Servants of India Society founded by Mr. Gopalakrishna Gokhale, as his intellectual and patriotic urges sought a wider field of activity.  Gokhale was his master.  After Gokhale died, the disciple wore the master's mantle and became the President of Servants of India Society.

 

In 1913 he was nominated to the Legislative Council and won the admiration of one and all.  He eloquently pleaded for the expansion of elementary education to cover wider areas.  In 1916 he was returned to the Imperial Legislative Council by the Madras Legislative Council. When the government of India decided to implement the repressive recommendations of the Rowlatt report, Sastry made one of his most powerful and eloquent speeches against the proposed Bill.  His eloquences shone in that august body where eloquence was not uncommon.

 

Even as early as 1918, he opposed the reorganisation of provinces on the basis of language. He feared that this would lead to parochial patriotism and fissiparous tendencies.  Pophetic indeed!

 

Sastry was elected to the Council of State formed under Montangue-Chelmsford Reforms. Even on the very first day of its sitting he moved a resolution urging the appointment of a committee for the repeal of certain repressive laws.  He called the deportation regulations a relic of somewhat barbarous time.  He hoped that India would be enabled to attain full constitutional liberty within the British Empire by entirely peaceful and constitutional methods.

 

He was appointed as the first Agent-General of India in South Africa in 1927.  He succeeded in establishing cordial relations between the Indians and the Whites.  In the words of Hofmeyr, a great orator of South Africa and a great statesman Mr. Sastry interpreted India to the South Africans and revealed to them the glories of ancient Indian Civilisation.

 

Just at a time when he was completing the first year of his stay the Indian community sent urgent telegrams to Mahatma Gandhi praying him to implore Sastry to stay on.  On February 26, 1928 Gandhiji wrote to Mr. Sastri to stay on.

 

Gandhiji's word prevailed.  Sastry stayed for six more months.

 

Mr. Sastry's services at Imperial conferences won him great laurels.  He later became the member of privy council and was also honoured with the freedom of the City of London.  The Government of India chose Sastry as its delegate to the second assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1921.  He toured New Zealand, Australia and Canada as the representative of the Government of India to plead with those Governments and peoples for equality of citizenship for domiciled Indians in their regions.  Everywhere a warm welcome awaited him and his eloquence was remembered.

 

He attended the first Round Table Conference in London in 1930 and second in 1931.

 

In 1935 he was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai University.  All through his life Sastry was a learner as well as a teacher, for he believed in the ancient adage "learn in order to teach and teach in order to learn".

 

In so highlighting the achievements of Mr. Sastry in his public life we should not forget his enthralling oratory that made a lasting impression in India and abroad.  Mr. Sastry did not speak English as an Englishman would do. But he spoke it as it ought to be spoken.  He had acquired an extraordinary measure of phonetic skill and many English speaking people the world over were carried off their feet in admiration for the superb grace and polish of his periods, the sweep and resonance of his style.  Everyone of his speeches, marked by the classic purity of the language, and stately diction was an oratorial triumph of unmatched brilliance, a grand symphony of word and voice and of thought and gesture.  Some of the greatest men of his day paid the highest tribute to Sastry's oratory.  Lord Balfour placed him as one of the five greatest orators of his time.  The master of Balliol Mr. Smith declared that he had never before realised the beauty of English language till he heard Mr. Sastry, Lady Lytton called him an artist in words.  Sir Thomas Smart dubbed him for ever as "the Empire's silver tongued orator".

 

Rt. HAL Fisher who was at the League of Nations said in 1923 that it was "no flattery or exaggeration to say that the greatest sensation of that meeting was furnished by the eloquence of Mr. Sastry".  The literary supplement of the London Times said that "Mr. Sastri was one of the Greatest Masters of the written and spoken English of his day."

 

The Pretoria News of South Africa said "it is a curious thing that the two best English speakers in South Africa are not Englishmen. One is a Dutch man Mr. Hofmaeyr and the other is an Indian, Mr. Sastry.  Mr. Sastry has the Asquithaian gift of compression which goes along with the choice of inevitable word."  The Washington Evening News observed                         "Mr. Sastry spoke the purest English".  He was like a blood-brother Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji once wrote to Mr. Sastry "your criticism soothes, your silence makes me nervous". Sastry agreed to correct the English translation of Mahatma Gandhi's Autobiography and insisted that he should be allowed to remain anonymous. Yet Mr. Sastry could not see eye to eye, on the political plane, with Gandhiji.  Mr. Sastry could not agree with Gandhiji on the issue of non-co-operation.  His constant opposition to Gandhi's political policies was the result of his political philosophy. Like Burke, he loved order and dreaded anarchy. He preferred reform to revolution. He had an abiding faith in the efficacy of the constitutional methods. He believed in steady progress rather than a tumutuous change.

 

Towards the very end of his life Mr. Sastry who was ill had the supreme blessing of being visited by the Mahatma, in Madras in January-February 1946.

 

He was always modest and never aspired for the glamour of position.  He declined twice the Knighthood conferred on him, as also the Chairmanship of the Council of the State.          He was born humble, remained humble, leaving a rich heritage. He died a true and devoted servant of India leaving a shining example for others on 17th April 1946.Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation paid this glowing tribute "Death has removed not only from us, but from the world, one of India's best sons. I am sure he had no thought of himself even on his death-bed. His Sanskrit learning was as great as, if not greater than, his English.  I must not permit myself to say more save this that though we differed in politics, our hearts were one, and    I could never think that his patriotism was less than that of the tallest patriot……"

 

    Rt. Hon'ble Srinivas Sastry's speeches took the English men by storm: They listened to his speeches in rapt attention.  Under his portrait in Guild Hall of London, the following lines were written:

 

            'Here is an Indian who taught English to English men! 

__._,_.___


 परोपकाराय फलन्ति वृक्षा: परोपकाराय वहन्ति नद्यः।
 परोपकाराय दुहन्ति गावः परोपकाराय इदं शरीरम्।।
      
"To fight the darkness do not draw your sword, light a candle"   
"You can't climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets"
      
 
 

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