Prof Raj Kaul - He taught
English, the English way
By Madan Mohan Puri
had turned 17 when Independence came in 1947, bringing in its wake an avalanche of
miserable refugees, a hefty mass of which streamed into Ferozepur, the town of
my birth which almost submerged too in unprecedented flood waters that year.
Coping with such overwhelming inundation were the Deputy Commissioner, Gian
Singh Kahlon and his SSP, A.K. Kaul. Marauders from across the border
were unleashed in Kashmir in October.
Scions of the town’s gentry
and some talented enthusiasts decided upon a fund-raising variety show in
December to contribute to the efforts needed at the hour. Participation in the
show brought me in contact with brothers Raj and his brother Brij.
Thus started a friship with
Raj Kaul that matured and deepened over the years to become for me, the
measure to gauge intellectual propensity, values of academic honesty and
integrity, and the urge to subscribe to the very sublime in academia -
transparently, without the corrupting veneer of hypocrisy or pretence.
went to Magdalen College, Oxford to return as Lecturer in English at the Panjab University
College, Hoshiarpur, in 1953.
Deeply in love with the
English language, Raj showed extraordinary sensitivity to its syntax and
diction, to subtle nuances of words and idiom in usage. He would hesitate to use
‘obstinate’ where ‘stubborn’ seemed more appropriate; similarly, he would urge
the subtle distinction in some of the commonly interchangeably or carelessly
used words: ‘gaudy’/ ‘flashy’, ‘sturdy’/‘strong’, ‘stupid’/‘silly’, ‘stress’/‘emphasise’,
and so on.
He once took considerable
pains to write to me the distinction between ‘duffer’ and ‘dunce’. Perhaps, his
work on Dr Johnson had honed this trait in him, for he instinctively inclined to
the view ‘let dictionary’ (alone) dictate’, and advised so.
His passion to use the right
word and correct syntax was a byword among his students who loved him not only
for his erudition in the subject and under-statements, but the pain he took in
correcting their speech and written work. I have seen the essays corrected by
him that some of his students of 1962-64 have carefully preserved till date. He
was, indeed, a model teacher - kind, generous and concerned.
A tall intellectual, modest
and self-effacing about his mastery of English to a fault, who himself observed
- he was published in Oxford’s renowned Essays in Criticism in 1963 and later -
and set high, yet attainable, standards in academics, Raj Kaul was widely
respected for his stature, a sympathetic but uncompromising teacher, unbiased
selector, and a model of probity and rectitude.
University had him on its selection committees and indicated that he was
entitled to to-and-fro air travel, which he declined and chose to come by bus
from Jaipur, for, he said, that was the mode he could afford and ordinarily
“My family was based in Ludhiana.
In 1955 I did not join Government College, Ludhiana, but Panjabi University
College, Hoshiarpur, for MA in English. Because an English lady Miss AG Stock,
was working in the English Department of Punjab University
based there. Luckily for me, Raj Kaul had also just about joined the
Department after his Honours Degree at Oxford,” recalls Prof S.S. Hans, a Sikh
“Raj Kaul firmly
believed that you should attempt writing if you really want to understand
literature. The creative effort would make you appreciate the difficulties
involved in writing.
One evening, during a
literary function of the department, Raj Kaul asked me if I wrote. I said
that was going to start. He said, “do it from today!” He turned a student into a
writer - to my good and ill luck.
Most of us do not know how to
read English poetry. Most of us do not even know how to read Punjabi poetry. In
his classes on practical criticism, Prof Kaul showed us the way an
Englishman reads poetry. An Englishman reads a poem at least twice. His first
reading is to feel the drift of what the poet is saying. His second reading
confirms or disconfirms his initial hunch. He may attempt it the third time for
the sheer enjoyment of it, along with a realisation of the technical subtleties.
You have to earn the enjoyment of English poetry.
Paradoxically, I learnt my
art of history writing in Raj Kaul’s classes of practical criticism. With
years a realisation has grown in me that Raj Kaul taught me how to x-ray
was a lifelong friend and teacher. I attended his marriage party - a feat by a student
to attend the marriage of his teacher.
Prof Yashdeep Bains, another
student, who teaches English literature in an American University, recalls:
“I was fortunate to encounter
at Punjab University College, Hoshiarpur. Dr R.K. Kaul and Miss Stock.
Both had studied at Oxford. Prof Kaul was a brilliant Kashmiri who went
after receiving his education at Government College, Lahore. His tutorials with
CS Lewis at Magdalene College transformed him from a typical Indian slave of
notes to an indepent thinker.
“Looking back at the number
of individuals who have received their doctorate in British and American
universities, Raj Kaul was the exception to the rule. Most of them revert
to the Indian method of circulating notes year after year. Kaul imported
the teaching method he had benefited from at Oxford.”
“To Mr Kaul, I owe a
tremendous debt. He asked us to discuss and write our reactions to our readings,
instead of para-phrasing the opinions of others; to cultivate our own
sensibilities and sharpen our response to the complexities and subtleties of the
*R.K. Kaul was MA (Oxford)
Ph.D (London), Visiting Fellow, Yale University (1983), professor of English,
University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, and Emeritus Fellow. He has edited Pope’s “Rape
of the Lock”. He died last month in Jaipur.