Yet, it never dawned on us to ask why our grandfather was worthy of such respect and adulation. For us, he was our grandfather - a bit strict at times, otherwise jovial and genial. He went out in the morning for his job - sometimes on a bicycle, sometimes walking - and returned in the evening, his life seemed to be an ordinary life, like everybody else. He walked at a higher speed than most of us and when we walked with him - ran with him actually, every alternate person on the street greeted him. Some of them greeted us too and we felt that much more important.
It took us a while for us to realize that he, our grandfather, and his father - our greatgrandfather were part of a legacy of the village Koovappady.
Meet Padmanabha Iyer. At 82, you can see a twinkle in his eyes when he talks about Ganapati Vilasam High School, GVHS Koovappady - the school his father founded and he helped administer for the greater part of his life. His eyes light up, his memory goes back in a flash and he can vividly recall each detail of those years. After all he spent his entire career in that school, breathing teaching, shaping lives and moulding many a mind.
As for A S Narayana Iyer, I have no living memory of having met him. He died a few years before I was born. But his presence was hard to miss. He was there in a portrait that adorned the centre of the wall opposite the main door. As you entered, it appeared as if he was keeping a watchful eye on you. In those days it was "in" to have photographs of the entire family on the wall opposite the main door. Out of all those photographs, his was the hardest to miss. With the Mysore Turban and a regal bearing and stern countenance, he was the patriarch of the family in absentia. Even in the photograph (now digitally retouched) he sits ramrod straight looking the camera straight in the eye, even as Bhagavathyammal, his wife, sits in a subdued pose. I have heard from my mother - whose name in true Tamil tradition - is the name of her grandmother - about him. "We would go to great lengths to avoid him" she would say. "If he caught us, he would ask us maths questions. Much of our entry and exit was from the kitchen door - he was formidable on the front porch".
AS Narayana Iyer was born in Ambalapuzha, on this day 122 years ago, a temple town then as much as now, steeped in tradition. Most life there revolved around the temple. His father died at a young age which left young Nanu in the care of a foster uncle Vakil Ganapathy Iyer who took care of his education. He resolved that he would support his family and that it would be his first priority to repay the Vakil. And that meant taking up a regular career as soon as possible. The teachers job which was a job, also became his passion over time. He was transferred to Perumbavoor towards the latter end of his career and there he saw the difficulty of students in a rural area first hand. The thought of his younger days echoed when he saw students attend school with great difficulty. Given that he had discharged his other responsibilities, he took it upon himself to start a school as his dream for the students in this area. At a time when he could have retired in peace, he sought to start working on his dream.
"The first time I came to know something was afoot was when I was asked to accompany my father to wood auctions" recalls Padmanabha Saar. "Between us, Mani was seeped in books and Vishwam was too young, so the timber depot work fell on me. And that was how I became part of this legacy. Little did I know then that it would become such an important part of my life."
The school was founded in 1938 as a primary school. The school was staffed with locals and found instant acceptance in both the student and the teachers community. Very soon, it established a name for itself as a quality school in the area and soon provided higher education as well (upto SSLC). With the school providing basic education, a few years later a government higher secondary school as well as a government polytechnic were opened in nearby areas.
Later on, his sons were encouraged to start their careers as teachers in GVHS itself. His three sons started off at GVHS. The eldest (Late Dr. NS Mani - a reputed agricultural professor) and the youngest (Late Vishwanathan - a formidable Maths teacher in Parur) went on to have distinguished careers in teaching in various part of Kerala. The middle son, Padmanabhan, stayed on in GVHS till he retired in 1980.
In the meantime, since it was the fulfillment of a dream for Narayana Iyer than a money generating activity, the school was passed on to a local trust for ownership and administration in 1957. Padmanabha Iyer, thanks to his able administration skills continued to serve the school as headmaster till retirement.
Narayana Iyer and his sons touched the lives of lakhs of people who dot the world. Their life story is a simple one. A story of how an ordinary teacher was moved by the plight of his students who had to walk to school for upto 15 kilometres daily. He decided to get the school closer to students and filled one more cog in what is today a 100% literate state.
This school celebrated its golden jubilee in 1988 and exists even today. When you enter you can see the stern AS Narayana Iyer in a full length portrait. Padmanabha Iyer was honoured as part of a 'Guru Pooja' at the school in 2007 on his 80th birthday.
Two generations down, their children and grandchildren work in the corridors of corporate India - indeed all over the world. They work in prestigious institutions and private companies, yet it would be a long long time before their achievements would come anywhere close to what these two men achieved in their lifetimes.
Epilogue: Padmanabha Iyer left for his heavenly abode on 12th of December, 2013.