Of Last Messages and Messages that Last

Dr. S. Anandalakshmy

“Got another one: ‘Dung-beetle, scarab from Egypt'”

It was the 4th of March 2019, Shivaratri day, when I took a flight to meet Dr. Anandalakshmy for the last time. I had been meaning to take the trip for a while, but something kept coming in the way. We had received news of her failing health in late February, and somehow it felt urgent.

Chennai airport

Every detail of the journey is etched in my mind. The Shiva statue at the arrival lounge in Chennai airport was dressed for the occasion as I hurried past the luggage lines to get to a taxi to Thiravanmayur. All I had with me was a handbag and a bundled-up newspaper, the Economic Times for old times’ sake. You see, we had spent much time poring over the (then) TOI cryptic crossword decades ago, and I was keen to relive some of those memories. As I headed for the ‘uber’ area, other memories came flooding in. During a previous trip to Chennai, five of us, all her former students, had been warmly received at the airport by Ana’s regular cab-waalah for our convenience. Here is an album of what turned out to be one of the most memorable trips we had taken as friends.

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Hema Malini & Matisse

After several wrong turns and other delays with a cab driver who couldn’t understand the map or me, I made it to Saradindu, and into the warmth of Ana’s home. It felt like a homecoming. Concern about Ana’s health, her nourishment, her rest and comfort filled the space that had, as always, agreeably arranged books, artwork, and other objects, some that I remember accompanying her to select for her move to the Director’s bungalow at Lady Irwin. “This is a “Hema Malini” chair” (in the picture), the salesperson at Assam Emporium had informed us. For years, it had a central place in the Director’s bungalow, by the telephone. The Matisse collage visible on the cupboard too brought back a flood of memories.

As the day progressed, Ana’s nieces, and her sister spent time with us, gently urging her to take her medicine, her meal, or assist her. As always, Ana retained her firm resolve to take decisions for herself. Soon enough, conversations about politics, friends, family, the household took over, as she took a few sips of nourishment from a glass of lassi. Once she was rested, I handed her the crossword, watching with joy how she dived into the task; quickly solving a couple of tough ones. I could see a faint glimmer of disdain at the puzzle-maker as if to say….”Come on! You could do better than that!” We got stuck at 25 Across “This scarab’s foul, but legend around Egypt” (4,6).

Crossword 7345

The memory of all those hours spent cracking the (then) TOI daily cryptic crossword are precious. I remember how she would scoff at the Sunday (easy) crossword, compelled to complete it by force of habit, but grumbling about how inane the clues were, “No challenge at all”, she would say as she swept through the clues in a single flourish. The speed with which Ana could recall complex and obscure solutions was instructive, especially with terminology where I lagged far behind: Art history, music and the church.

In the evening, I called the cab with a heavy heart, hoping to return again soon, but we all knew that time was short. As I boarded the flight back to Mumbai, my bag heavier with a box of ‘muruku’ from the famous Grand Sweets, I heard the familiar “ding” of a message. Here is a screenshot. I had left the crossword for her to enjoy and she had cracked 25 Across: Dung Beetle! (See picture below).

Some time later, she passed on, leaving behind so many memories, some images and a few messages.

The last message
Muruku memories
The final reading recommendation

From the archives

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Dr. S. Anandalakshmy
From the Coast of Coromandel: A memorable trip

On Teachers’ Day

Annually, Indians celebrate their teachers on 5th September, and the date has just passed by. Those of us associated with the teaching profession send each other greetings, receive messages from students, acknowledging the significance of time spent in and around the classroom. Teachers’ Day is celebrated in honour of S. Radhakrishnan, a great philosopher and statesman who went on to become the first Vice President and the second President of independent India. He is famously known to have said that “teachers should be the best minds in the country”. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born in the year 1888 at Tiruttani in Tamil Nadu.

Schools and colleges organise events to honour, celebrate and entertain teachers while also placing students in charge of administration and teaching. We all carry fond memories of events which facilitated opportunities for role-reversal where teachers are freed from classroom teaching that is handed over to eager students. Events are also organised for the playful expression of student-teacher interactions inside the classroom and outside, spiced up with playful imitations and lighthearted dramtisations. The day brings joyful attention to the teaching-learning process while also commemorating the birth of a great Indian teacher. It is also a time to honour our memories of people from whom we have learnt. In today’s essay, we are reposting extracts from some of our previous essays about great teachers who have touched our lives directly.

Here are some extracts and links to our earlier posts about our teachers: The Socratic Oath features Ana’s erudite piece about vows for teachers of young children. “I have often wondered why the profession of teaching had no specific code of conduct, while doctors had the Hippocratic Oath. With the help of a young doctor in my family, I managed to get hold of an English translation of the Hippocratic Oath and decided to develop one for teachers, on similar lines. For such a code, the name of Socrates seemed eminently suitable. He was renowned for his ability to draw out ideas from his students, not just to provide the right answer or solution. The verb “educare” means to draw out and is the root of the word “education”.

There would be some general principles concerning a teacher’s conduct applying across the board, but the specifics of the Oath would depend on the stage of education and the chronological age of the children in the care of a teacher. There would therefore have to be at least three or four variations of the oath. I have decided to use here, the one for the caregivers of the preschool age child.” A couple of other essays relate to an interview with Ana about her experiences, an extract: “Four questions in search of a speaker”, these were opening words of the most recent presentation made by Dr. Anandalakshmy at MS University Vadodara. Characteristically, the format was unusual, preempting the questions from an imaginary audience was clearly an inventive and illuminating experience for the real one! Strategically, I have used this as a title for this journey through ideas with Dr. Anandalakshmy since this exemplifies the exploration that has characterized her journey as a scholar.”

There is also a tribute to Dr. Anandalakshmy which featured a passage by Dipali Taneja and some others. An extract:

“I thought she would live forever……….. she will”: This morning on Masala Chai, we break our weekly schedule to bring you another tribute to Dr. Anandalakshmy by our friend Dipali Taneja. When Dipali sent me her essay, I was charmed to read her nuanced portrayal of Dr. Anandalakshmy and decided to share it on MC as well. For her students, Dr. A had been rather ineffable, often imposing. When my close friend Kiran Kler heard the news of her passing, she wrote, asking: “What? Just read your post…. Dr. A passed away? Why did I think she would live forever?……. and she will, I know. Her contributions, her memories………..let’s toast to her life together when we meet”. Kiran is right, Ana lives on in our lives.”

About Dr. Margaret Khalakdina and Prof. Mohan Ram who are also remembered each year on this day, we wrote: “Dr. Khalakdina epitomised India’s plurality. She was born on New Year’s day 1930 in Hyderabad, to a Hindu father and a Jewish mother (who decided jointly to convert to Catholicism as a meeting point), her godmother (and well-known educationist and Director of Lady Irwin College, Dr. Durga Deulkar) was Hindu and her husband was a Muslim from Mumbai. About her mother, Asheena informs me that “she was God-fearing and enjoyed intimate ceremonies that were mixed and matched from all our religions”.
She was kind, generous and graceful, and highly regarded by all her students. Her Stats lessons were peppered with comic descriptions of field-work encounters between student researchers and rural families. However lighthearted, these stories bore important relevance to our training in research methods and family studies. Her home was always warm and welcoming as so many of us, her students, will testify.Dr. Khalakdina was also a contemporary of Prof. Mohan Ram, also a friend of Lady Irwin College. He too passed away recently, and I want to take this opportunity to post this tribute to him here.

4 Comments

  1. The memories you share Nandita
    Are so tangible
    So real
    I can smell the fragrances
    Feel your joy at being with her
    The crossword ..the Murruku
    All creating images for eternity
    Thank you dear friend
    Always
    Anjali

    Like

    1. Beautiful! My last conversation with her was when she sent me her electronic book. I think of her often and of the amazing way she had of finally tying up all the seemingly disconnected concepts to give us the “aha!” moment.

      Like

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