Chennai: If this were 1989, or indeed 1979 or even 1799, S. Sathyanarayanan would probably not possess the full head of hair he does today. Instead, he would have shaved the front half of his skull and then swept his remaining hair back to resemble a bulging half-moon, knotted loosely at the back—a distinctive do for a young Brahmin who would have been preparing to follow his father, his uncles and his cousins into a career of Hindu priesthood.
But this is 2009, and Sathya, as he introduces himself, has a short but regular haircut, grown out from a few months ago, when he passed his final year’s exams in a pathshala—Vedic school—run by the Sri Ahobila Muth, a Hindu religious institution.
Photo: Sharp Image
“We had to have our hair pulled back when we sat for our exams. It was the rule,” he says. Sathya’s new look, though, fits right in at the Rajalakshmi Institute of Technology, where he has started an engineering degree, becoming the first in his family to attend college. Sathya turned 18 in July, just as he was completing seven years of Vedic education that came with a punishing schedule.
“Our Veda classes started at 4.30am and went till 7am,” he says. “Then we had regular school from 9am to 4pm. Then more Veda classes from 4pm to 7pm, and then supervised independent study in school from 7pm to 9pm.”
Apart from two monthly holidays, on the days after amavasya (no-moon nights) and pournami (Tamil for full-moon nights), this arduous regimen ran for six days a week; on Sunday, Sathya was still required to attend Veda classes for five hours in the morning and two in the evenings.
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“He’d never go anywhere but school, or maybe to the market to buy vegetables” his mother Shanti remembers. “Every spare moment he could get, he’d simply lie down and go to sleep.” Sathya saw his first movie in a theatre when he was 16, and he got his first email address just earlier this year. His only distraction, he admits, was the one universally shared by Indian boyhood: Sunday evening games of cricket, at a cramped ground near his house or in the narrow corridors of his block of apartments.
Sathya is short and slight, and he has a thin moustache, worn almost out of rebellious joy that he is now no longer bound by the rules of the pathshala, where every student had to be clean-shaven every day. His slow grin fights its way through a mouthful of braces that he wears to correct a misaligned jaw. “Because of that, my speech used to be slurred, and I’d be very reluctant to talk in school, even to my teachers,” he says. He had to give up flute lessons after two years because his gums would begin to bleed. But the braces are helping—Sathya still mumbles, but it sounds less like a medical problem and more like a typical case of teenage shyness. “I find myself talking a lot more willingly in college now.”
Sathya and his family live in West Mambalam, a traditionally Brahminical neighbourhood of the city. Their apartment, at least 20 years old and rented at Rs3,000 a month, is dominated by its square living room, adjoined by a kitchen and a single bedroom; the sirens of trains entering or leaving Mambalam station filter through the windows every few minutes. There is a television that works, and a computer which doesn’t.
“I don’t watch much television anyway,” Sathya says. “Maybe occasionally the news, but I’m only now beginning to become interested in politics.” He tried to register himself as a voter soon after he turned 18, but couldn’t. “When I’m able to, I’ll register, because I do want to vote,” he says, but he appears too insulated from national political and economic debates to be able to vote with any real conviction.
SCIENTIFIC ENQUIRY VS UNQUESTIONING ACCEPTANCE
During his seven years at the Sri Ahobila Muth pathshala, Sathya balanced his daytime education, which stressed the spirit of scientific enquiry, with his scriptural education, which stressed unquestioning acceptance of the written word. He memorized thick texts written in an ancient Tamil script that mimics the sounds and inflexions of Sanskrit.
“In the 9th standard, we’d get tested on everything we studied over the last four years, and in the 12th, everything from the last seven years,” he says.
Through constant recitation led by his teacher, Sathya learnt rhythm and correct pronunciation. “Every word is like an individual deity, my teacher used to tell us,” he says. “Say it wrong, and you anger that deity.”
The rigour prepared him for the acid test that came at the end of his year in class XII. “Our examiner would basically start any one of the paragraphs we’d learnt, and we would be expected to complete it,” he says. Sathya just scraped through, he says; in his state board science examinations, though, he scored 90%.
Early in the morning, the Sri Ahobila Muth’s Veda classes get under way in a long, low-slung hall that keeps the darkness out with rows of tube lights. In little groups, shirtless boys, many still yawning, sit clustered around their textbooks to recite their lessons in chorus. They are all in white dhotis, some tied properly and some tied like large bath towels around middles laden with puppy fat.
In one corner, a group of students stands throughout the morning session. “They were misbehaving yesterday, and now there are rules that prohibit beating the boys,” N.V. Vasudevachariar, the school’s secretary, says wistfully. “But they can’t do anything about making these boys stand as punishment.”
Vasudevachariar, a white-bearded, acerbic man in his 70s, sees a dim future for Vedic studies in the country. At present, for instance, there are no boys enrolled in class XI or class XII at the Sri Ahobila Muth pathshala. When Sathya started his studies, in class VI, he had 24 classmates, but 21 dropped out over the next seven years, preferring to focus on their modern, rather than their ancient studies. In 2000, there were 53 new admissions; in 2008, there were 14.
“Only the poor and the downtrodden will even consider it, because the education is free and there is nowhere else to go,” Vasudevachariar says. In south India, he adds, he can count the number of worthy pathshalas on one hand, although other priests and educators disagree with him on this. “One of the main problems is a lack of teachers who genuinely want to teach,” Vasudevachariar says. “The profession of a priest is not as money-starved as we imagine it to be. You could earn as much as Rs50,000 every month. So, who would want to spend six hours a day teaching boys for Rs6,000 or so a month? Only some priests teach half-heartedly on the side, for some extra money.”
TRADITION OF PRIESTHOOD
ery often, the students of a pathshala come from families with traditions of priesthood. Sathya’s grandfather was a Vedic scholar, and Sathya’s father and three uncles are all priests. Sathya’s parents moved to Chennai in the early 1990s, from a small village named Kottamedu. “My mother-in-law was very keen that we look at the opportunities here, and my husband’s brothers were already here working,” Shanti says. “Also, Sathya was to start attending school soon, and we wanted him to go to a good one.”
For the first six years, Sathya attended a Christian school called Morning Star and lived with his extended family in an area of Chennai named Choolaimedu. “But there was a temple near our house there, and I’d be very fond of going there to recite my prayers, and I was always interested in my father’s work,” Sathya says.
Seeing this nascent interest, Sathya’s grandmother and aunt suggested that he enrol in the reputed Sri Ahobila Muth school; his sister Satyavati, now in class X, and his cousin A. Saranya, in class XII, also study there.
At home, and as a matter of comfort, Sathya speaks a respectful Tamil that does not seem to be touched by the rough street slang of Chennai. “Our school taught the sciences in English, but somehow, none of us are too fluent in the language,” he says. Asked to converse in English for a while, Sathya becomes more self-conscious about his speech. He selects his words carefully, sometimes confusing his tenses, but making himself understood reasonably well. In a sudden spurt of excitement, he begins a sentence in Tamil, checking himself after two words, and starting again in English, the excitement somewhat tempered now by the quest for accuracy.
Remarkably, for a boy studying in a city with its own Indian Institute of Technology, Sathya had never heard of it until his final year of school. “People would say that they were going to write the JEE (the IIT’s joint entrance exam) and I’d wonder what that was,” he says, laughing. “There was nobody in my family who could really guide me on such things.”
THE SERIOUS AND THE TRIVIAL
ttending college has involved some compromises. Some were serious: He wanted to study aeronautics, but his marks were only good enough for a seat in electronics and communications engineering. Some were trivial: It took him a month to get used to wearing a shirt and trousers, and another month to learn how to match his colours.
More importantly, though, it has involved for Sathya the important decision of whether to follow in his family’s profession by joining another pathshala for advanced studies, or to forge his own new path. At his age, his uncle’s sons had neither the means nor the inclination to attend university, so they began apprenticing with their father, accompanying him to the ceremonies he conducted and learning on the job.
In some part, Sathya has handled the gravity of his decision by postponing a portion of it. “You know, I can always finish this degree and go back to studying the Vedas. In fact, I intend to use the next four years to just revise and re-revise everything I learnt in the pathshala,” he says. “One of my seniors, who is my inspiration, and who is writing his chartered accountancy exams and still attending an advanced pathshala, urged me not to leave my Vedic studies because it was a rare skill.”
But his cloistered upbringing notwithstanding, Sathya has also subscribed to the American dream that infuses so many Indian schools and engineering colleges. “I think I’d like to go there, if at least for a few years, to maybe do a master’s or a PhD, or to work,” he says. He freely admits that it’s mostly driven by curiosity: “I just want to see what the big deal is, why people are so keen to go there. I don’t see myself settling down there at all.”
“No, no, don’t you even think about settling down there,” Shanti inserts hotly, at this point. So what, then, is her own ambition for her son? “Oh, I don’t think I have one. I mean, of course, like everybody, I want to see him successful, to see him be a well-dressed executive in a company,” she says. “But when I was a child, I grew up without the burden of specific expectations, and I want the same for him. We put him in this school because we wanted to introduce him to this line of Vedic thought and work. But we also want him to judge for himself how he likes it, and we want him to do what he wants to do. That is our hope for him.”