Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The NK magic at a grammar seminar

The star attraction at an international grammar seminar I attended sometime ago at Nagarjuna University was a short, scraggy old man with pan-tainted teeth and a run-down look.  When he spoke, the audience, consisting of university and college teachers of English, listened with rapt attention.  Every now and then, they either laughed or clapped, even though the man was speaking about the dreariest of all subjects, namely, grammar.  And when he concluded his speech, the delegates wanted him to continue.

    Natesan Krishnaswamy is the man's name.  He is more familiarly known as "Professor Krishnaswamy". His friends and admirers call him "NK".  The 80-year-old NK is the envy of teachers (How I wish I could be unpedantic enough to say, "Teacher's Envy", after the Onida advertisement!): he has the right recipe for regaling the audience.  But it is a recipe than can work only with NK.  People who have tried to use it have only revealed themselves to be a bunch of amateurs.  But, in the process, they have gained the most important lesson that the cook is as important as the recipe.  NK's cooking is authentic and distinctive.  And "vegetarian"!  But "vegetarians" and "non-vegetarians" alike enjoy his meal, savouring every mouthful.

It's the English language that NK "cooks".  He "cooked" it for about three decades as a professor of English grammar and linguistics at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad.  Among those who have feasted on his grammar teaching is the well-known British novelist AS Byatt, who said in a letter to the London Times: "I was part of a course for teachers, listening to Professor Krishnaswamy talking about modern English grammar with a wit and passion I've rarely heard in any lecturer."  Though retired officially about fifteen years ago, NK has never taken retirement from grammar teaching, teacher training, and materials writing, the last two of which he practises now with much greater charm than in the past.

At the grammar seminar, NK was the first to lecture after the inauguration.  As soon as he took over the mike, he cast a spell on the delegates – a spell that didn't break until he left.  With sturdy ideas and charming illustrations, he disproved the theory of post-colonialism and offered a neo-colonial perspective.  A delightful iconoclast, he held Crystal's concept of "World Englishes" up to ridicule, and rubbished Kachru's idea of "Indian English".  When he spoke about the celebrated "native speaker competence", the audience were not just amused; they collapsed into laughter.

On the second day of the seminar, Professor Tickoo gave a scholarly lecture on dictionaries.  At the end of the lecture, he cautioned, "No dictionary can be expected to be always correct."  NK substantiated the warning with a delightful example:  "As a grammarian and linguist, I have always wondered what the part of speech of 'Yes' is.  I looked it up in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary; it said 'Yes' is an interjection.  Then I looked it up in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English; it said 'Yes' is an adverb.  What is the correct part of speech of 'Yes'?  Nobody knows, least of all lexicographers.  Only God knows!"  It was greeted with peals of laughter.

NK believes that inspiring people to study grammar will be much more effective than implanting grammar in their minds.

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