Saturday, January 26, 2008

DR. Aiyyappa Panikker (AP) : random, unforgettable, privileged memories

DR. Ayyappa Panikker’s first anniversary which was observed a couple of months back resurrected in me memories of my brief association with this great man.

After my first meeting with him( about which I blogged on the day I heard of his demise ) I kept a safe distance from him. I like geniuses. I stand in awe of them and am totally tongue tied in their presence. So I prefer to admire them from a distance, and that’s how I admired Dr. Panikker. But there were times when that distance had to be collapsed - for official reasons, as he was the Director of the Institute where I did my research.

I remember the day I presented my synopsis to the doctoral committee which he chaired . I had given the synopsis to all the members of the committee earlier , except to Dr. Pannikker. He was not in at his usual time and I prayed that he wouldn’t be in during the presentation. But the gods wouldn’t have it that way. Pannikker sir walked in at the stroke of eleven when the presentatation was scheduled and I extended the synosis to him. He took it from my hand, his eyes running down the first page, and by the time he settled down in the chair he had turned over all the pages. And out came the remark ”This young lady seems to be very generous with her articles”!!! Without exaggeration, it took him less than half a minute to locate the slips in the language – and I was speechless –with admiration, fear. The rest of the presentation was a nightmare. He shot questions after questions which I couldn’t answer, even when I knew the answers – for fear they might sound inane - - so badly did he shake my confidence.

Looking back, I realize that that episode shook me out of my complacency and I instantly, without my knowing it, set high standards for myself - which manifested, ever since, in me going over and over again over a written piece meant for submission( I’ve let my hair down only after acquiring this web space for myself) and going to books, sources to make clear in my own mind , theories and concepts. I learnt that the golden rule for a researcher is that nothing can be taken for granted. And being intensely conscious of the huge gray areas in our mind, is actually the true beginning of wisdom.

I was not his student but as the director of the research institute, he kept himself posted about the performance of each research scholar enrolled at there. I was a consistently hardworking research scholar(that attribute of the average, I guess). But there came a period in my research tenure when work took a second place, with domestic inconveniences to be attented to. Being mortally scared of AP, I didn’t confide in him – cant think of anyone asking him for concessions on account of personal problems. One day, he sent word through my guide to ask me to get a grip on myself. He mentioned that I had started off well - had been a very earnest student – but of late I had been slackening my pace. I was astounded! and pleased too that my earnestness did not go unnoticed by the great AP.

Panikker sir’s quick and sharp wit was famous. Every day, some research scholar or other would walk into our common room with some delightful tale of his wit. There is this story of one of his lady students who put in an application for leave on account of her HUSBANDS’ illness. One glance at it and out came the remark from AP. “ My sense of propriety prevents me from asking how many and which one’.

There is yet another story of how he was in discussion with a Prof about the lull in publications at the centre, when one of the scholars at the research centre entered his office room and informed him that she was going on medical leave on account of pregnancy related discomforts. She was the second person that day who asked for leave for the same reason. Looking at the Prof who sat in front of him, he grumbled that “ people register for Ph.D here and produce nothing but children’.

Wish his students would get together and bring out a book on AP’s quick wit and sense of humour.


  1. Ha..I have visited his house twice and spend a good amount of time talking to him.. His wit and sharpeness at that advanced age was amazing. He was of the old school _ Guptan Nair and the other critic - who used to write the Sahithya Varabhalam in IE pub Malayalam.
    Wonder if we will see the likes of those again.


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