Remembering sir, with love
IN THE mid 1950s, the students in the English Honours class at the Madras Christian College were asked to write four essays on Shakespeare. One of the students wrote three essays in full and only the bare outline of the fourth. He was awarded 15 marks out of 20 for each of the full length essay and ten marks for the outline. It was a pleasant surprise, for he expected no mark for the outline. When he asked his professor how he deserved such a liberal award, he was told, "You know how to deal with the topic. That matters much more than a five page answer.''
The professor was none other than James Russell Macphail (1901-1968) whose memory and broad sphinx-like smile linger in the hearts of many an old student of Madras Christian College.
Macphail's association with the college spanned over four decades. His father, a Scottish missionary who came to India in 1901 to run an eye hospital, brought the six-month-old Russell with him. When he was four, he was sent to Scotland for his education. After graduation from the University of Glasgow, in 1924, he came to India to start his teaching career at Christian College, which was then situated in George Town.
A. J. Boyd, J. R. Macphail, R. S. Macnicol and G. C. Martin were the four pillars of the English Department at MCC in the early 1930s. They were also instrumental in the growth of the college when it shifted to its sylvan surroundings at Tambaram in 1937. While Boyd, Macnicol and Martin left in the 1950s or earlier, Macphail stayed on till 1967.
One (particularly the freshers) might have formed the impression that Macphail was aloof, formidable, austere, awesome and unapproachable. But behind the rough exterior lay a heart of gold, sensitive and responsive to the needs of the academic community. As Warden of St.Thomas's Hall for many years and as Principal (1956-1962), he enforced discipline, not by wielding the stick, but by setting an example.
Punctuality, personal discipline, poise and faultless planning were Macphail's middle names. At 7-30 p.m., he would be at the Hall mess for dinner with the students. Eight o'clock was roll call time. His direction of the play put on boards once a year was an exercise in minute planning. The same meticulous attention to details was paid to the programme of variety entertainment presented on the Hall Day. As Principal, he did his share of class work, instead of claiming exemption from academic work.
To think of Macphail is to think of Shakespeare. Old students would speak of them in the same breath. Shakespeare was his forte. Macphail's lecture on each play had a format date of composition, source, an outline of the play and critical comments. He lost himself while dwelling on Hamlet and Falstaff. His lectures might not have been useful from the examination point of view, but they were rich fare, nourishing the mind..
One cannot but feel sad at the current turn of events on the campus and think of people of Macphail's stature. What Bennet Albert, former Principal and Professor of English, MCC, has said is worth reflecting on. "I have been wondering recently whether one ought to be sorry or happy that Dr. Macphail is no longer with us. At one moment, one is sorry, for in this restless academic world, Dr. Macphail was a point of rest and balance. But at another moment, one feels glad he is not here, for the days when the art of gentle and genteel existence and quiet scholarship could influence young people are gone. Dr. Macphail does not need our prayer. It would be presumptuous on our part to pray for him. Rather let us pray that he pray for us and intercede with God on our behalf. And let us not despair, for if all of us are truly appreciative of a man like Dr. Macphail, then there is some hope for us."
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