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Thursday, March 8, 2012

A man for all tongues (2)

Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear. Sanskrit, unquestionably one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn well, was merely an academic sideshow for Alan Treloar to his most ingenious philological research. His real focus for many years was on the area that used to be known as the Near East, with languages such as Hittite, Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic and Eblaite included in his specialties (if indeed he had any one over the other.) It's almost a case of 'Pick any language north of the Equator, ancient or modern,' and he had proficiency in it, Old Icelandic included. And of course, that included the written script.

  For the lectures he gave my students on Vedic India, he had read the available literature from the original sources. He had no need of secondary ones.

  As I approached the lectern on the first day, I noticed he was holding twenty or thirty pages of quarto lined paper, closely written in a very even hand. I can still see that writing vividly now and could pick out his style from amongst any number. There was not a crossing out or an addition in the margin; I can't even remember if there was a margin down the side. I don't think so. He didn't believe in wasted space.

  The fairy-story part of the tale at this point would be that he held the entire room spellbound as he delivered his first lecture.

  This was not the case. He picked up the sheaf of quarto leaves and began to read, in his deliberate, measured style of speaking. The structure of the sentences was such that the paper could have been typed out and published verbatim in a learned journal. But this wasn't a style of lecture most of the students were used to. Nor would it have pleased the ABC's venerable Aleisha Bonfield, who had hammered script-writing techniques into me a few years before.

  In my lectures, I had made it easy for them, even though I didn't use the blackboard much. When I did, it was mainly to write Sanskrit terms. I would underline important words or phrases verbally as the lecture went on, so they could jot down key points rather than write too much and not take in what I was saying.

  Alan had in effect prepared a lecture more like a military briefing; something I daresay as a senior Intelligence officer during World War 2 he would have done many times.  Every word was exact in its meaning and there was no wasted phrase in any sentence. Every paragraph was a package of orderly, detailed information. Each page was a literary gem.

  Like maybe twenty percent of the class, I was delighted by the depth of the information he was giving us, and his clarity of thought and insight. I had had the good fortune to be fairly well acquainted with this subject matter for several years as a tutor in Asian Civilisations at the University of Queensland, via a mixture of primary sources in translation, and commentary by the likes of de Bary, Max Müller and Moriz Winternitz. I'd had the benefit of evenings of discussions with Devahuti and Damodar, and Sanskritist-historian Sarva Daman Singh, but it was all new to these first year students. This was being thrown into the deep end, sink or swim.

  I reckon as the lecture progressed I could probably have graded that class of students by their reactions. At the very least, I could have classified their intelligence and attention span. Fifty minutes of solid concentration was beyond most of them. Some who had started writing notes at the beginning and who were used to the verbal underlinings and asides in my lectures just gave up. It was all too hard. Everything was important! But at least giving up writing gave them the chance to listen, and some benefited from that. Maybe. I hope so.

  The weakest students found it all too much. Who was this bloke in the gown reading one page after another in this measured tone, going on and on about things that were too hard to understand? Why spend time reading a hymn sung by the brahmins to frogs?

  In the lectures he gave that followed, the anti-frog brigade dropped out.

  I was glad about that. It was no use their being there, shuffling in their uncomfortable seats, resentful and bored. They'd come back when Mr Slightly-More-Entertaining delivered lectures on ... other things. Not frogs.*

  The fact was that my students were getting the standard of lecture Alan would have given to any audience in any place anywhere in the world where he could safely assume that his listeners were intelligent, but not necessarily well informed. I did not care that there were people in my class not up to it. The best of my students were getting an experience they could expect to have in a lecture hall at Cambridge or Oxford, and that was what really mattered.

  Not that it was all dead serious. Alan had an impish, if dry sense of humour, the punchline delivered in the same way as other lecture information was, and this added an element of surprise and colour. In his lecture on the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, his long military experience came into play when speaking of Lakshman(a), devoted younger brother of the hero, Rama.

  "Lakshman exhibited all the characteristics of a Grenadier Guard," he said with a straight face not quite concealing a glint in his eye, "he was very brave and very loyal - but not very bright."

  In one short sentence he had encapsulated something that was central to a very complicated plot. The good ones would get it.

  At the end of each lecture, there was often a student who would come up to him and tell him how much they appreciated the lecture, and ask him a question or two. I always remember how he would step down from the lecture dais when he spoke to students, his head slightly to one side, taking in the question carefully, and invariably treating the student with respect and courtesy. His reply would be very direct, clear, and exactly to the point.

  Alas, my story has run away from me once more, or is at best barely on the leash. My feet are frozen with the change of weather, and it seems an excellent time for me to sleep for a while. Next time, I swear, I will come to the particular point I started with, but I've no regrets leading you down this path. Some people deserve more public recognition than is often given to a man with a crazy job like a comparative philologist and war hero, and no-one can stop me! 

  (*Oh, and do you want to know why the frogs poem? I'll tell you if you like....)
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  1. Thank you Denis. Part 2 did not disappoint (as if it would !) Very much looking forward to Part 3 & the frogs poem. Your memories are appreciated I always feel I am more than a casual observer through your writing style.
    Thanks again
    Debbie Green

    1. You asked about the frogs. Actually there are several such hymns, some parodying the brahmins but in this case the hymn is in honour of the frogs, praising them and hoping to invoke their presence. If the frogs come then the rains will come (reverse effect!) also referred to in this case as sympathetic magic. Thus if the brahmins can bring the frogs through their power, it shows their power over the forces of nature.

      I guess if their timing was good enough, it would seem to have worked pretty well.

  2. Heavens! I'd think it would have to be pretty humid for the frogs to turn up, in which case it probably was going to rain anyway:)

    Julie M


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