Public speaking as a skill may come naturally to a select few but for the rest of us, the vast majority, we need to work hard at overcoming our fear, learning, applying and only then becoming proficient at cultivating this art form.
My earliest memory of appearing on ‘stage’ was in my 4th standard at the Railway Higher Secondary School, Hemambika Nagar, Olavakkot Railway Colony, Olavakkot, now known as Palakkad.
My father, an officer in the Indian Railways had just been transferred from Cannanore (Kannur). This school was closest to our quarters and had only Malayalam and Tamil as the medium of instruction. I was admitted to the Tamil section.
Even as a child, I had a fair grasp of mythology and history thanks to my grandparents who had an interesting evening routine of storytelling, that’d pour out of our Indian scriptures, puranas and through contemporary social settings. Storytime would be accompanied with delectable munchies like ‘ellurundai’ lovingly handmade by my grandma.
The teacher who taught us Tamil and also doubled up as our class teacher needed volunteers to participate in the elocution competition being held as part of the Railway Week celebrations. Predictably, no hands were ever raised willingly, as the prospect of standing before hundreds of students, especially your own classmates, always proved daunting and unnerving.
Finally, his intense gaze came to rest on me and the reason for this ‘special attention’ was the prompt answers he was habituated to expect from me, largely in part due to my grounding in Tamil literature, from my grandparents. I was extremely hesitant and relented, but he motivated me to volunteer, all under the pretext of preserving the honour of Std. IV A. 😜
I was handed a passage from the Tamil epic ‘Silappathikaram’ by Ilango Adigal. He asked me to understand the meaning, internalise the emotions and mirror the feelings expressed by the protagonist, Kannagi, rather than merely cramming up sans emotion. He assured me that he’d clarify any doubts I may have about the meaning of any particular word or phrase. This bit of advice on ‘understanding the context’ has stayed with me, ever since.
Back home when I mentioned this assignment to my grandpa, he was delighted and explained the story of Kannagi in graphic detail, about her angst at her husband being unjustly punished. Although, I have a different take on Kannagi’s stand now, at that impressionable age I understood, in my limited way, her emotions.
My mother, on her part was sufficiently enthused and roused me by reminding me that since her father was a freedom fighter and a vociferous member of the Indian National Congress (INC) who routinely addressed political rallies, I had inherited this knack through my genes and therefore, would be a ‘natural’ on stage!
D day arrived, and inspite of all the butterflies flitting about in my tummy, I still managed to recite the passage without fumbling. My teacher’s efforts and the vivid context set by my grandpa using imagery, inspiring morals and a larger-than-life purpose, came in handy.
After that rather comfortable debut, for the next 12 years I shied away, neither actively seeking nor getting an opportunity to get back up on stage. In Central School or Kendriya Vidyalaya, IIT Madras, where I completed my Grade 11, I admired my eloquent friends like N Ramesh, (now, Ramesh Natarajan) from a distance, never mustering enough courage to venture out and speak publicly.
Then, at Manipal in 1974, inertia was challenged and my rusty wheels of public speaking were pushed back into motion. The story of which, would fill an entire blog.
To this day, I am still amazed at how I survived those ten minutes of elocution at Olavakkot and will never forget the advice professed by my Tamil language teacher, ‘ Don’t cram mindlessly. Understand the context and then recite.”
Many of my friends from engineering might cheekily add, “CK, you’d probably make a better engineer today, had you followed your teacher’s advice all through engineering.” 😎😜🤪 But then, many a blog lives in me, before we reach the end of the 30 day blogging challenge. So, stay tuned for an exclusive blog on Manipal!