Prof Raj Kaul - He taught English, the English way

Prof Raj Kaul - He taught English, the English way

By Madan Mohan Puri

I 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 Rajand 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.

Raj 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.

Panjab 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 used!

“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 historian.

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, ProfKaul 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 Kaultaught me how to x-ray historical evidence.

Raj Kaul 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 to Oxford 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 language."

*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.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

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