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Kauline Perspectives

Arjun Mahey

Edited by Sambudha Sen
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003, pp. 304, Rs. 595.00


No one who was taught by Professor A.N. Kaul in the 1970s is likely to have forgotten the experience. He would stride into the seedy English Literature classroom in the Arts Faculty Building at the University of Delhi  —others might slouch or stroll or canter; Professor Kaul always strode— followed by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke, and he would launch into a controlled but passionate performance of what can only be called The Theatre of Thinking Aloud. Day after day students would be served up an exceptionally rich diet of some Very Solemn Utterances about some Very Thick Books. Professor Kaul would stride to the desk, sit in a nearby chair, speak, gesticulate (cigarette in hand), pause, speak, think, pause, rephrase, and finally—  in a Jamesian flourish refined by polished qualifiers  —assemble a Very Solemn Utterance. One could almost hear him thinking; it may have been theatre, but there was nothing inauthentic about it. Drawing upon a puckish wit, a composure that was regally assured, and a scholarly authority that was both enviable and terrifying, he would in turn charm and hector his students into original, if reluctant, thought. Several groups of us were marched, annually, through the vitalities and nuances (both words are his, almost by copyright) of Vanity Fair, Tom Jones, King Lear, The Portrait of a Lady, Middlemarch and, in our case, Heart of Darkness. Speaking for myself, he taught me—both by example and by exhortation—how to read (and write) a critical essay, and he planted in all of us an abiding affection for the mischievous and unpredictable affects of literature. He was that rarest of academics: an exceptional teacher who was also a scholar of some considerable international repute. An anecdote about him, apocryphal but plausible, goes like this: when asked why he pursued the study of Literature as a graduate student (large L) after having plodded through three years of arcana as a mathematics undergraduate (small m), Professor Kaul replied, famously, that Literature suited him because it was the only subject that could be studied in bed. It was also known that he taught (muted whisper) overseas, Yale in his case,  which—  during the inflammatory frenzies of Mrs. Gandhi’s socialist nightmare, the Emergency—  may as well have been the moon as far as we were concerned. It would be too much to say that his classes were a safe haven ...

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