All it takes is that one teacher who sees your potential to gently nudge you in the direction of bringing it to fruition. That’s how it was for Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma. This Teacher Appreciation Week, he pays tribute to his Tamil teacher, K. V. Ramakoti, who encouraged him to translate The Kural, the classical Tamil masterpiece on ethics, power, and friendship composed in 1,330 short philosophical verses. He will be teaching about it in his new online course, Taller Than a Mountain.
One of the most famous verses in the Kural is about the art of learning. What the poet Tiruvalluvar said in Tamil more than fifteen centuries ago is as relevant now as ever:
Faultlessly study what is to be studied—then fit
All that you’ve studied
I’ve always been struck by how Tiruvalluvar not only urges us to learn fully, leaving out nothing, but also inspires us to bring our lives and our studies into harmony. It is not enough, the verse reminds us, merely to have studied. What we study should also change how we live.
As I’ve lived with the verse, however, I’ve also come to see that it is equally about the art of teaching. Great teachers help us to study till all our questions have been answered and our doubts cleared. Great teachers help us to see how our lives and our studies can come to fit each other fully.
And I can’t think about the arts of learning and of teaching without also thinking of my Tamil teacher, the late Dr. K. V. Ramakoti. When I met him in South India in 1998 on a two-year fellowship for teaching and study, I had only intended to learn how to speak. I wanted to be able to enter the world of the villages outside the city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, for which spoken Tamil was an utmost necessity. Tamil, like many other traditional languages, has distinct written and spoken forms, so that a person can learn to read and write and not be able to understand the language as it is spoken, or learn to speak without being able to grasp the language as it is written. I felt spoken Tamil was more than enough of a challenge for me.
But Dr. Ramakoti was the kind of teacher who not only knew how to push a student to excel, but even more important, he knew how to kindle their enthusiasm and give them reasons to learn. During my second year, after I had moved into a village and was commuting each day to my teaching job and to Dr. Ramakoti’s house, he surprised me, announcing that it was time to study written Tamil. As he went on to explain, he had already charted out an entire course of study.
“Ayya, that sounds like a great idea,” I said, “but I’m still struggling to understand the speech of my neighbors in the village. My hands, my tongue, already feel full.”
To which he replied, “Okay, that may be, but let me ask you something. In a year, you’re going to return to your country. You do want to read the letters we’re going to write to you, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I stammered. “Of course, Ayya. I would want to do that.”
“And you will want to be able to write a reply in Tamil, won’t you?”
“Yes, Ayya, I would certainly want to be able to do that too.”
“Okay, we’ll begin tomorrow!”
And we did. Step by step, he led me into Tamil as it is written, and then into the extraordinary riches of Tamil literature, cultivating my ability to enjoy and read poetry along the way. This, in turn, led to me being able to enjoy poetry in English anew and inaugurated my own apprenticeship as a writer, poet, and translator.
I would continue to study with Dr. Ramakoti for nearly twenty more years, on various other trips and fellowships to Tamil Nadu. It was none other than he who suggested gently I might translate the Kural—so gently, in fact, that it took me years to get the hint. He understood, as a teacher and as a poet, that some things in life can only really be suggested, hinted at, implied in the most gentle of ways. Only then might a student be in a position to have the new thought arise naturally, on its own, in a way that it might actually take root.
This combination of being able to kindle enthusiasm without overwhelming a student is one of the most enduring legacies of my time with Dr. Ramakoti. He could see how much any particular student might be capable of, but would share it and show it only gradually, waiting patiently for the right moment or occasion. In the meantime, he would give his students the means to keep honing the abilities they’d already seen they had.
And all along the way, he would weave in poetry, not merely in the sense of sharing poems as he taught, but in the deeper sense of honoring the way things can fit and correspond with each other—teacher and student, learning and life, poetry and the nature of the world. Which is to say that he rooted everything he did in love. He loved his students, he loved the Tamil language, he loved the possibilities of poetry. That’s why he was so unforgettable and beloved as a teacher. He fit all that he taught.
Here, for instance, is one of the first verses from the Kural that he taught me, along with the story of how he made this short love poem come alive.
As I’ve prepared to offer an online course on the Kural, I have felt Dr. Ramakoti’s presence at every turn. Even in this very different context and setting, I find myself drawing continually on his example. Like him, I hope to offer enough to be deeply informative, but not so much as to be overwhelming. I want to share specific tools and practices, and to show how poetry and life can be woven together—and perhaps have always been woven together. Most important of all, I want to honor the possibilities of fit and correspondence, both by offering the course at “pay what fits” pricing and by finding ways to adapt the lessons to what I learn from and about the people who take it. For I, too, wish to root myself in love—my love for the Kural, my love for my teacher, and my love for what he taught me that I now get to pass on to others.
About the Author
Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma is an author, translator, teacher, and performer. His translation of the classical Tamil masterpiece on ethics, power, and love, The Kural, was published by Beacon Press in 2022 and is the subject of his upcoming online course, Taller Than a Mountain. Other books include The Safety of Edges and Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar. He speaks and performs widely, teaches for the Cozy Grammar series of online video courses, and has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, 4Culture, Artist Trust, and the US Fulbright Program. Connect with him at thomaspruiksma.com.