“Literary effort is a thing I most dread, thanks to early training which exalted self-suppression and engendered a morbidly critical temper, hardly distinguishable from cynicism...Even magazine articles and anniversary speeches tax me too much. Few know the travail I suffer.”



            The telephone rang in his hotel room in London in 1921, and the Rt. Hon. Sastri discovered to his pleasant surprise that the voice at the other end was that of Mr. Bilderbeck, the British Principal of the Government College, Kumbakonam, when, as a young man, he was its student. While Mr. Sastri was overjoyed to meet his former principal, Mr. Bilderbeck was equally overjoyed that his erstwhile student had since been honoured with membership of the British Privy Council and the Freedom of the City of London.


            At an At Home which Mr. Bilderbeck arranged in Mr. Sastri’s honour, he recalled a somewhat poignant incident when Mr. Sastri was his student. The dress regulations of the college prescribed that students should wear either a shirt and coat, or at least a shirt, in the class. As young Srinivasan could not afford either, much less both, he used to wrap himself in a towel like a shirt. One rainy day he entered the class without even it and explained to the angry principal that the towel had got drenched and had been put out to dry. The disciplinarian that he was, Mr. Bilderbeck fined Srinivasan eight annas. Whereupon Srinivasan pitiously begged to know how he was to pay a fine of eight annas when he could not afford a spare shirt which costs only six anaas! A few hours later, Mrs. Bilderbeck discovered her husband in his study, praying on his knees to God to forgive him for fining poor Srinivasan. On the advice of the kindly Mrs. Bilderbeck, the principal remitted the fine. After relating the incident, the venerable Bilderbecks expressed their immense joy and pride that erstwhile “shirt-less Srinivasan” had blossomed into the Right Honourable V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, a Member of the British Privy Council and a Freeman of the City of London and had, by his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at the Guildhall, enraptured the distinguished audience consisting of the cream of the British elite by the mobility of sentiments, superbity of eloquence and mastery of English.


            Mr. Sastri was born in Valangaiman, a village near Kumbakonam, on September 22, 1869, ten days earlier than Mahatma Gandhi who was born on October 2 of the same year. His parents were very orthodox Brahmins. Social reform was in the air. Young Srinivasan was pressurised by his high school teachers to take a solemn vow that boys were not to marry till they were over eighteen years old. But his orthodox parents, following the custom of the day, pressurised him to marry when he was only fourteen years of age. He faced a crisis. Should he obey his parents and marry, or honour his vow and not marry? His parents did not take his vow seriously for the reason that it was unfair to administer such vows to immature boys, and insisted on his marrying! This event roused Sastri’s interest in social reform and prompted him to campaign for post-puberty marriages of girls and to introduce a bill in the Madras Legislature, when he became a member of it some years later.


            Mr. Sastri was a brilliant student and stood first in several of examinations, particularly in English and Sanskrit, and won merit scholarships which helped him to continue his studies. In 1888, he stood first in Sanskrit and got a first class in English in the B. A. examination. His proud father had a feast to celebrate the event, to which he invited his friends who were also Sanskrit scholars. As was the custom on such occasions, there was some chanting of Sanskrit slokas. Young Srinivasan challenged the correctness of the grammar of one of the slokas! The venerable scholars were scandalised by what appeared to them as the irreverent impudence of the youngster. His father berated him. Duly humbled, he swore that he would never again correct the mistakes of others.


            But he could not keep the vow. He challenged the correctness of some passages in English Grammar by J. C. Nesfield, then a text book. That a young Indian should presume to correct an English, grammar written by an Englishman caused a sensation. Later, Mr. Sastri challenged the pronunciation of an English word by Mr. Hall, the British Principal of the Teachers’ Training College, Madras. When Mr. Hall retorted that, as an Englishman, he knew the pronunciation of English words better than his Indian student, Mr. Sastri asked him to consult the English Dictionary. On doing so, Mr. Hall discovered that Sastri was correct, and handsomely acknowledged it.


            Mr. Sastri was acknowledged by competent authorities as among the handful of the best speakers in English. Of his speech at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1921, Mr. H. Wilson Harris, President of the International Association of Journalists who was accredited to the League, said that Mr. Sastri’s turn to speak came last, that the hour was late and the audience was tired after a long and weary debate and the hall was emptying, but it emptied, no more during Mr. Sastri’s speech! “The slow sentences, with their faultless phrasing, compelled attention.” After he heard Mr. Sastri’s speech, Lord Balfour, head of the British Delegation, remarked that he then realised to what heights the English language could rise. Mr. Sastri was universally acclaimed as the foremost orator in the League.


            The Rt. Hon. H. A. L. Fisher, who was also at the League of Nations in 1921, said in 1923 that it was “no flattery or exaggeration to say that the greatest sensation of that meeting was furnished by the eloquence of Mr. Sastri.” The Literary Supplement of the London Times said on June 4, 1964, that “Mr. Sastri was one of greatest masters of the written and spoken English of his day.”


            The Pretoria News, of South Africa, said: “It is a curious thing that the two best English speakers we have in South Africa are, Englishmen–one is a Dutchman, Hofmeyr, and the other is an Indian, Sastri. Hofmeyr has the easier style–he is fast and free, while Mr. Sastri is slow and deliberate; but Mr. Sastri had the Asquithian gift of compression which goes along with the choice of the inevitable word.”


            The Cape Times said: “It need hardly be said that when Mr. Sastri has spoken in public, the effect of his eloquence has been immense. He is among the greatest living speakers in the English tongue, a natural orator, with a most effective delivery. Slow, with a sure choice of words, his speeches drop on the ear, each sentence verbally perfect. The thought that he is expressing turns itself, without hesitation or fumbling, into graceful yet forcible language. Cape Town will remember for many years how his addresses in the University Hall drew great audiences to listen to him and come away lost in admiration of his speaking.” It added that these gifts were the foundation of the immense popular impression Mr. Sastri had made in South Africa.


            Mr. Sastri was the leader of the Indian Delegation to the Limitation of Armaments Conference in America in 1922. Mr. Elmer Davis, in his tribute to Mr. Sastri in the New York Times, said that he spoke English “a shade better, if anything, than any other member of the British Delegation, or the American for that matter.” The Washington Evening News said that Mr. Sastri spoke “the purest English.”


            The Natal Mercury, of Durban, a very anti-Indian English Daily, said that Mr. Sastri, in his address, the key-note of which was glowing patriotism, aroused a hundred per cent British audience to a high emotional tension, and added that “seldom indeed have the Durban people been privileged to listen to such remarkable oratory and seldom has the ideal of the Empire been defined to them in so cultured and inspired a manner.”


            When I ventured to enquire how he acquired such mastery of English, Mr. Sastri explained it in his letter to me dated Madras, December 14, 1940:


            From my college days I have been a pupil of Webster. As soon as I became a teacher–I did so at 18–I bought his Dictionary, and for years later it was my teacher. I consulted it almost every hour of the day, except when I slept or took outdoor exercise. I bought every new edition as it came out, and at the moment of writing there repose in front of me, to the right and to the left, the two latest two volumes. I am grown, I regret, too weak to handle each volume with one hand.


            “At Annamalainagar I taught Elocution (with pronunciation emphasised) to classes regularly. Then once again Webster became my constant companion. Look at the picture I enclose. It was taken in my room there at my suggestion. The legend at the top is my composition! Would you believe it? Now I am actually teaching pronunciation to teachers in two schools here.


            “This is to show how greatly I enjoyed reading a good life of the great teacher.”


            The photograph showed Mr. Sastri reading a volume of the Dictionary. The legend was “Pouring over his Gita.”


            When I accompanied Mr. Sastri in India or elsewhere, one of my duties was to fetch a Dictionary and place it on his table. I often thought that he was crazy to read a Dictionary like a novel, whenever he was free from other and more pressing engagements.


            Though I was his constant companion for the best part of over ten years, I always felt nervous to speak to him in English, the only language I could speak with him, because he literally suffered if I made the slightest mistake in pronunciation, or of words or sentences, though he never displayed it. He maintained such a calm and serene facial expression that I could never be sure if he was not annoyed.


            Mr. Sastri had a phenomenal memory. He delivered a series of lectures on several consecutive days extempore. Only a quotation or two were written down. For instance, he delivered in 1926 at the Calcutta University the Kamala Lectures on the Rights and Duties of the Indian Citizen, which in pretty close print extended to about 90 pages! Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, the famous Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University, had founded the lectures in memory of his beloved daughter, who had died young. The first series of lectures were given by Dr. Annie Besant on his invitation. He had intended to invite Mr. Sastri to give the second series but before he could write to Mr. Sastri, he passed away. His sons Dr. Shyam Prasad and Rama Prasad Mookerjee, conveyed their dead father’s wish to Mr. Sastri. By the time he received it, Mr. Sastri was ill in Bangalore and was forbidden even to read a newspaper. In view of his rather precarious health, the engagement was postponed twice. But he refused to accept a third postponement and insisted on keeping the engagement, irrespective of his health. I begged him to write out or dictate his lectures, so that if at the last moment he was not able to speak or read them himself, some one could read them for him. But he kept mum. His friends in Bangalore and Madras, who got very anxious, wired friends in Calcutta to take care of Mr. Sastri. Mr. Sastri and I were guests of Messrs. Shyam Prasad and Rama Prasad Mookerjee in their house in which, by the way, books and books and more books filled every inch of space availablerooms, verandahs, corridors and even bath rooms!


            Late in the evening of our arrival, Sir Nilratan Sirkar, a very eminent medical practitioner, examined Mr. Sastri thoroughly. Finally, he said that he would not be surprised if Mr. Sastri died during his first lecture the next day, and offered to take responsibility for canceling it and phone the newspapers about it. But Mr. Sastri would not listen. Sir Nilratan sent Dr. Bidhan Chandra y, the famous heart specialist, the next morning. He too examined Mr. Sastri and advised cancellation of the engagements. But Mr. Sastri would not agree, as he said that he might have agreed if Sir Ashutosh had been alive, but he would not postpone again to honour the dead savant’s wish. Dr. Roy felt helpless. He gave some pills and undertook to attend the meeting with the necessary emergency equipment.


            Mr. Sastri could not climb the few steps to the Senate Hall and had to be carried in a chair. The Vice-Chancellor, Sir Ewart Greeves, a British Judge of the Calcutta High Court, was alarmed when he noticed Mr. Sastri’s health and offered even at that last moment to postpone the lecture. When Mr. Sastri insisted on going trough the engagement, Sir Ewart appealed to the vast audience, which had filled the big Senate Hall to overflowing, to give up their chairs and squat on the floor and close up to as near the rostrum as possible to reduce the strain on the speaker, as there was no loud-speaker then. The sympathetic audience readily complied. Mr. Sastri, who could not stand and speak, was hoisted on to the table where he sat cross-legged in Padmasana. Immediately behind him were Sir Ewart, Dr. Roy and myself, watching in great anxiety. Sir Ewart’s introductory speech was most moving. Mr. Sastri began to speak. He was much slower than his wont and spoke with pain which he concealed from the audience in front of him. He spoke extempore. At the end of forty-five minutes, Dr. Roy asked me to suggest to Mr. Sastry that he should conclude his address for the day. I told him that I dared not do so and asked him, as a medical man, to do so. But he too hesitated. At the end of sixty minutes, Dr. Roy touched Mr. Sastri on his shoulder and whispered that he had spoken for sixty minutes and had better stop. But Mr. Sastri gently brushed him away and continued to speak for another fifteen minutes! He told us afterwards that what he planned to cover in sixty minutes he took seventy-five because of his illness. 


            Immediately he was shifted to the Vice-Chancellor’s room and laid on a couch while Sir Ewart, Dr. Roy and I watched anxiously. Dr. Roy kept his stethoscope on Mr. Sastri’s chest and kept listening. It was death-bed scene. About fifteen minutes later, Mr. Sastri opened his eyes and we relaxed. At his request, Mr. Sastri’s car was driven at great speed to and fro along the large Calcutta Maidan about twenty-times to drive air into his lungs. He then felt well enough to go home. Immediately, we sent an express telegram to Mrs. Sastri in Madras that all was well that day.


            The same procedure was repeated on four successive days as Mr. Sastri took four lectures to cover what he had planned for three. Later, he repeated them at the Madras University.


            In 1935 Mr. Sastri gave three lectures on Gopalakrishna Gokhale at the Mysore University in Mysore City and repeated them in Bangalore. He delivered them extempore except for a short quotation or two. It was another marathon effort, about which he wrote to a friend as follows:


            “Here I have, just finished a triology on Gokhale. I spoke for an hour and a half each day to an audience which was 3,000 the first day, 4,000 the second and 5,000 the third. The attention I commanded was so profound that I felt flattered. I have no notes….I felt neither pain nor exhaustion. I felt and said I was performing a sacred duty like a parent’s obsequies and was therefore immune from disease or infirmity.”


In 1940 Mr. Sastri delivered the Dr. Abhayambal Memorial Lectures, on the Status of Women in India at the Mysore University, which covered over sixty pages in print.


In 1943, Mr. Sastri delivered a series of talks on Sir Pherozeshah Mehta at Madras. They were taken down as he spoke and later published. In pretty small print, they covered over 170 pages!


It would take too much space to refer, only in passing, to the numerous lectures of Mr. Sastri. But reference must be made to his Lectures on the Ramayana, delivered under the auspices, of the Madras Sanskrit Academy in 1944. They were thirty in number and were taken down in shorthand and covered over 450 pages in print! Valmiki’s Ramayana was the greatest favourite epic of his. His special approach was that he examined the Ramayana as a literary critic and not as a believer of Rama’s divinity. To Mr. Sastri Rama was a human being, immeasurably great but still human with human frailities. His thesis was best summarised in the following passage:


“To me Sri Rama is not divine. Nevertheless, the illusion is always there, in full force. I can throw myself heart and soul into the very essence of the story. When I read that book, I read that book and do nothing else; my whole mind is devoted to it. A hard-hearted man like me, I read it, and, strange to say, there is not a page which does not bring tears into my eyes! Any fine sentiment, any tender feeling, any affection between brother and brother, and re-union of beings that have been separated for a time, aye, any homage paid to friendship, to gratitude or to any of those eternal abiding virtues of human character, brings tears into my eyes! I stop; I cannot go on; I have to wait and wipe my eyes and then go on. Why do I do that? A hardened man of the world, why do I do that? Why has it that effect on me? I suppose it is because deep down in my nature, going to strata which perhaps in my walking life. I shall never touch, there is a spirit of the utmost reverence and affection for those great characters. Why? Even if Rarna and Sita were not of this land but were the hero and heroine in an alien poem, I should feel probably not so very much affected but nearly as deeply. Human nature is human nature; whether nurtured here or in another land, it is just the same.”


Of the place Ramayana in world literature, Mr. Sastri said:


“The Ramayana, I hold to be almost without rival in the world’s literature. Whether we judge by the grandeur of the theme, by the variety of characters portrayed, by the tone of its idealism or by the appeal that it makes to the devout heart, it ranks amongst the noblest monuments of the poetic genius.”


In appreciating Valmiki’s poetic genius, Mr. Sastri himself rose to great poetic heights as in the following passage:


“I open the book at all times and with no particular expectation of improved health or auspicious prognostication. It never fails me. The distilled experience of ages is given in stanzas of exquisite sententious grace. Hermitages, described with a wealth of household and sacrificial detail, invite you to the intimacy of the home. Forests and mountains and rivers, in pristine untamed grandeur, lose their terror in Valmiki’s pages, for while he mentions with particularity the paths and thorny lanes, the riverfords and the giant shelter-giving trees, he makes only occasional and unexciting allusions to bloody fights...Ah, how I should like to learn and teach in those sanctuaries, guru and sishya bathing in safe pools together, chanting the Vedas aloud till the hills threw the sacred sounds back and the sylvan gods sat up and listened, our mutual companionship unperturbed by fear of lightning strikes or menacing processions or shootings by the king’s police.”


Great as Mr. Sastri was as a lecturer, he was even greater as the writer of letters. Sir P. S. Sivaswami Iyer said:


Srinivasa Sastri is our greatest letter-writer….I have had letters from almost all great Indians. I don’t think any other can write a letter half as delightfully as Sastriar. There are other orators, but he is the only letter-writer.”


Commenting on Sastri’s letter-writing, Prof. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar said:


“Why regret that Sastri didn’t try his hand at history, philosophy, biography or autobiography? We see history unfolding itself in the sequence of his letters; we find them flavoured with philosophy; we find in them the material for other men’s biographies, and we recognise in the charm and candour and charity of the writing the man himself, the whole man. His letters are verily the nurslings of immortality, and we needn’t doubt that Rishi Sastriar will abide always with us.”


Although Mr. Sastri was reluctant to undertake literary activities, he was drawn to them by circumstances. In the end, his literary contributions were not inconsiderable in quantity and were high class in quality.