Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The legendary Professor Bennet Albert - A Tribute

A Memoir and A Tribute
[by the inimitable Prof. Robert Burns, 1977-78]

Of the many sandy walks that crisscross our lovely Campus, one leads straight from the portico of the College main building to the Selaiyur gate. If, quitting the above-mentioned edifice you should take this road, you can keep going till you reach the Indian Overseas Bank and ask the manager to raise your overdraft; or, you can turn sharply to your right, half-way along, and ultimately arrive at Selaiyur Hall where, of nights, the only television set on Campus dispenses sound cultural entertainment, and literature classes are conducted of a morning. (No one turns to the left because this isn't the shortest distance to St.Thomas' or the main gate, and we of MCC are averse to needless exercise of any description.) Down the road, and around this corner, at about 9 a.m. on a day in early August 1970 Professor Albert stalked into our lives. 

The lives were those of a handful of immigrants - from Loyola, Stella Maris, Ethiraj etc. - come to prepare for the Master's Degree in English Language and Literature in the department of which he was the head, and this was the first day of class. Vague reports had indeed reached us to the free, but the effect that Christian was a land of the free, but the inflexibility of the institutions names, had militated against a belief that any college could really be so. Professor Albert's first appearance, it must be said - and his subsequent ones, too - did little to encourage it. From the Hall entrance, with some trepidation, we watched the small figure grow larger and larger till it attained life size. Then he was in our midst, and we could take in the balding head above the cricketer's outfit the thick-lensed spectacles, the straight unsmiling lips, and the sunken eyes which yet seemed to look right through you. He waved us brusquely to our seats and called the roll. We were given copies of our time-table, informed who our teachers were, and these preliminaries disposed of, he calmly opened his innings with a few questions about Sir. Philip Sidney to whose 'Apologie' this hour was to be devoted. 

How used we became in time to the ritual conducted and the mannerisms displayed in that first class; the calendar from which announcements were made-of, texts, seminars, British Council programmes - and the names of confirmed class-cutters read out, their owners held up to public execration (attendance still mattered in those days); the absent-minded fiddling with the watch-strap fastened; the softly pleasant voice which yet jerked the lecture out in small rapid bursts; the sardonic glance and word for the inept translator of Chaucer; the deadpan expression with which a joke was cracked' the polished black shoes and starched white clothes in which he invariably gleamed upon our sight. Our elders in the faculty tell us that he sported coats and ties in days of yore. But our imaginations, trained on a very limited experience of his sartorial propensities, find it difficult to cope with a Bennet coated and tied (in class). We suspect this legend of being no more than one. However, even in our day, he never descended to the bush-shirts and Slippers of his degenerate juniors. 

Once the actual instructional process commenced, we found in Professor Albert a lucid and witty expositor of the concerned text. We soon discovered that he was no advocate of the tools and methods of Modern Criticism. He was content, instead, to make explicit what in a writer was implicit, to do so in a manner easily comprehended, to communicate his own enthusiasm for English Literature, and leave the rest to us. How many generations of students, I wonder, have enjoyed his hilarious demonstration of Sidney's indignation of contemporary drama for mixing the elements of comedy and tragedy  - 'Sidney tells us that an Elizabethan playwright forces the clown into a piece whether he belongs there or not, whether he wants to be there or not. If he doesn't you push him in (gesture of pushing) or pull him in (pulling)' - all performed with the same grim visage.

I believe that I speak for the majority of my classmates when I say that we found this approach a refreshing change from the one all too frequently employed by 'critics', an approach which Nabokov satirises so fiendishly in Pale Fire - all weighty scholarship and no genuine understanding. No charlatan himself. Professor Albert also proved unbamboozleable. I look back nostalgically to the occasion when he set us an assignment, an analysis of one of Bacon's essays. He gave me a patient hearing as I murdered to dissect, and then wryly remarked that the renowned Baconian scholar who had edited his text felt that the essay was divisible into no more than four parts, theme-wise. In my own zealous (and unconscionable long) mastication of it, I had (pontifically) declared it to be divisible into no less than six!

Departmental meetings, Professor Albert presiding, were no different from his classes - and no wonder seeing that we were all his students, the same announcements were made from the same calendar; talkers-out-of-turn unceremoniously hushed into silence; defaulters upbraided with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger. None who has been taught by Professor Albert or taught with him, will deny that his unswerving sense of duty was an inspiration and all too often a shaming agent. In such a spacious mirror we need must see ourselves; and the slightest .... contd...

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