In Memoriam: Pandit Varadadesikar, my teacher

Pandit Varadadesikar (1923-2017)
Sanskrit Scholar, EFEO, Pondicherry
Manuscript Cataloger, EFEO, Pondicherry

Photograph taken in 2007, EFEO, Pondicherry. We are reading Periyavaccan Pillai together.

I learned to love commentary from him. I understood anubhava from hearing him interpret alvar poems. I appreciated his understated zeal as he lost himself in their wonder. And how patiently, he taught me. This blundering, bumbling kid come to Pondicherry via North America. How he put up with the inanity of my questions, the staggering deficiency of my knowledge. He lived on Perumal Koyil Street, on the street parallel to mine-each of us tightly embracing the Vishnu temple from either side, as if saying, ‘I won’t let go.’ From the tiny balcony of my rented home, I could peer past the Andal Sannidhi Vimana and see the top of his house. Sometimes, we would run into each other outside of our classes, in the temple, and he was always a bit surprised to see me. I never quite understood why. But we would chat, he would tell me some little unknown tidbit about the alvar, and we would part. I sometimes had class in his home, and these were always marvelous affairs–he lived with his son and daughter-in-law, and their two children. I was a somewhat exotic creature, crashing about Tamil Nadu by myself, sometimes with the ‘American’ husband, turning ruby red in the bright tropical sun, in tow. Mama was bemused, but loved to hear of my travels to various temples–he couldn’t travel much by the time I knew him–and my travels were his vicarious experience of sites he had read about but never visited. Srivilliputtur was one of those places. So, I would bring him paal khoa from Srivilliputtur (he would confess that he shouldn’t eat it, but he still would), and tales of my various temple adventures, which he would listen to enraptured, describing them in detail, to bring them alive for this man I grew not only to respect but feel a deep, abiding affection for.

I could go on and on–so many memories. They come flooding in. He was a great teacher, a generous scholar and a very wise man. And like all great teachers, he gave so much more than he knew, and much more than I can ever match.

The loss of a teacher is never easy. I had dreaded this day. And now it is here.