Sir Alec: The man who saw beyond

Alec Alvares, ‘knighted’ Sir Alec by multiple generations of his students at St Joseph’s Boys High School, Bangalore, taught chemistry for over forty years. Along with his wife, her sister and her husband – who taught physics, they collectively gave close to a century and a half to the school. It’s a testament to the profound sense of commitment that teachers made to education in the bye-gone days of the City.

Sir Alec is straight out of an El Greco painting. The noble bearing, the intense gaze and those painterly hands. Hands that didn’t stroke paint onto canvas but did things as magical. They brought chalk to blackboard with an articulate flourish and, to use his word, effervescence. His chemistry period was like an odyssey into an abstract world. Complex chemical equations, for him, were the building blocks for a life in science and engineering and it was no surprise that almost two-thirds of our class became chemical engineers. Of course there were those who did not, some using building blocks differently!

It is those hands, with their long elegant fingers, that prompted me to transform a photograph of Sir Alec into an ink drawing; with apologies, of course, to both masters -- the Spaniard and the teacher. It was fun tracing the contours of his persona, something I would not have imagined doing when I was his student, way back.  But then I had abdicated, in a sense, from the domain of molecular structures into the realm of spatial diagrams. So draw I did, with some trepidation, hoping to bring out another dimension to an already multi-dimensional man. As an artist one looks for secrets – not just what meets the eye but what lies within!

He sits in a wheel-chair silently holding his durbar, when a few of us go to meet him one morning. I cannot think of another I would give quality mid-week time to. It isn’t like that motley crowd of old that periodically assembled at his city residence to deconstruct the history of St Joseph’s while the master consumed his lone cognac. Now we drive out into the suburbs, to Augusta Nivas, where he has been staying for the past few years. Not strangely time collapses around us in that sylvan setting and it feels like déjà vu.

Memories  of  going  single  file into the chemistry lab come flooding in  and one re-imagines being once again enthralled by this soft spoken, patient, democratic man who treated the bright and the dull with unerring fairness. It was indeed a morning to cherish.
He asks me to pull out an orderly set of envelopes containing old photographs.

Overwritten on some one reads: Handle with care, Fragile. Some of those sepia prints so old and frayed at the edges, that a few ‘boys’ in them now long deceased. But the master battles on in his ninety-ninth year, recalling many a schoolboy prank. One, whom he caught smoking in the corridors, another whom he saw quietly pleading with his assistant for help in a practical test. But he was forgiving, always. Some teachers caned, some flung dusters, others ‘rulered’ your knuckles. Not Sir Alec. I suppose he came from that liberal mindset that knew it was from the non-conventional, from amongst the rule breakers that great minds are made. One of his students, a classmate, was apparently nominated for the Nobel, no less. Whether true or not, scientific  temper was infused within us at an early age by the Master.

Exactly ten years ago I had written a ‘middle’ in this same newspaper. Called a Tribute to Sir Alec it did generate some excitement. But there were many calls: ‘why tribute’, they asked, ‘he’s thankfully still alive’. For him to read, duffer, I replied and Sir Alec was amused by that. So here I am again, along with those who visit him regularly, and along with all Josephites worldwide, raising a toast to an elegant man, an indomitable spirit and a great teacher and friend. Sir Alec, Happhy Birthday, your 99th! May you live to be a hundred and more.

For me it is the first time that this time-worn phrase resonates with real meaning.

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