An important turning point in my life took place while I was teaching at the Muthedath High School. This was the decision to learn Sanskrit thoroughly. As a Malayalam teacher, I felt that a sound knowledge of Sanskrit was highly desirable, if not essential, to get a grip of basic Malayalam grammar. Though my frequent writings on themes from the Mahabharatha or the Ramayana created an impression of Sanskrit expertise, I knew that I wasn't really comfortable with Sanskrit. Nevertheless, reading the epics and the likes of Kalidasa with the help of Malayalam translations, I had a more than average familiarity of the language. For instance, I could have comprehended the meaning of an easy enough shloka despite an almost nil knowledge of Sanskrit grammar; knew that janaanaam means people's, but wasn't sure whether or not it's shashtthi plural.
Study Sanskrit from the scratch! Fortunately, O.K. Munshi, a Sanskrit scholar of great depth, was then living just a couple of miles away from my house. Munshi had mastered Sanskrit grammar in Thanjavur, the mecca of Sanskrit, in the 1940's. Munshi could not study Sanskrit in any part of Kerala as he was from a lower caste. His strong affinity to Sanskrit and his perseverance took him to Thanjavur. There too, he couldn't pursue his dream discipline which was Vedanta; Vedanta and Mimamsa were solely meant for Brahmins. But Munshi could study Vyakarana, Sanskrit grammar. Once he delved into Vyakarana, the base of all the words and all of their beauty, and famed for the dictum mukham vyakaranam proktam(1), his initial sadness gave way to happiness and a sense of achievement. Munshi returned home after spending six years in Thanjavur, with the title Vyakaranasiromani.
"Would like to learn Sanskrit the right way", I went to his house one day and told him. He smiled gently and said: "The right way? Ah, Yes." He asked me whether I had a copy of Siddharupa. The very next day, I approached him with my copy of the text, in which he marked most of the noun-forms and a few of the root-words for me to know by heart, and gave a month's time. I was in my late teens then. As I was extremely keen on Sanskrit, all my free time I devoted in learning the rupa by rote. Two or three days passed and I realized that it wasn't very difficult. Most of the forms are almost the same or very similar. The meaning is often obvious. Someone much younger could find it hard to compare and learn thus though. In any case I went to meet Munshimaster within two weeks. He quizzed me on some of those, and said: "Come tomorrow, and we'll begin Sriramodanta.
He started teaching Sriramodanta from the next day. He used to speak only in Sanskrit. I would ask my doubts in Malayalam. First I would recite a shloka. I was also supposed to split the words. Then he would ask several questions, the answers to which would result in the anvaya, the prose order. Finally he would do all these together himself, explaining the meaning in Sanskrit, noting other grammatical features as well.
When we did almost fifty shlokas like this, master said: "Do the remaining yourself. Let's do Srikrishnavilasa from tomorrow."
Once we finished two cantos, Munshi asked me to do the rest by myself. He also asked me to study the kavyas of Kalidasa in detail with the commentary of Mallinatha. I could go to him with my doubts or questions.
The next four years I learned Siddhanta Kaumudi, a treatise on Sanskrit grammar, under Munshimaster. An opportunity to teach Vyakarana made him happy and proud. Nostalgia would occasionally bring in reminiscences of his Thanjavur days. Stories about his teachers and batchmates, his learning of Carnatic music, Thyagaraja aradhana festivals of Thiruvaiyaru, all these would punctuate our classes. During this period, I also studied many kavyas and other sastraic texts by myself.
By this time, I had completed BA in Malayalam as an external candidate. With a firm foundation in Sanskrit, I decided to formally switch to Sanskrit, and applied for MA in that subject. Again I was helped by Munshimaster.
Thus for almost six years, an hour or two every night after returning from work, I studied Sanskrit with O.K. Munshi; from Siddharupa to Mahabhashya, a text that he was teaching for the first time in 1972, after mastering it in 1940. My words wouldn't be able to translate the sense of satisfaction and exhilaration that he felt while teaching the
(1) Vyakarana is the face (of the Vedas)