The Joseph Family Website
A.G Joseph Panicker
A G Joseph Panicker was born in 1907 and died in 1997 at the age of 90 years. The fourth son of Eapen Ghevarughese Panicker and heir to the family home, Joseph Panicker lost his father when he was a young boy.

With his obvious academic ability, he had been chosen by his father, who recognized the value of modern education in a changing world, as some one who would mediate for family between the old and new. Educated at the C.M.S.College High School, Kottayam, where he passed his Matriculation Examination with flying colours, he was awarded a M.A. from Madras University and then a Bachelor of Law degree from Government Law College, Trivandrum.

In 1935, he married Sarah (Molly), the eldest daughter of Barrister George Joseph. His father-in-law had been a leading nationalist leader who in the early 1920's had moved more or less on equal terms with the giants of Indian freedom struggle, notably Motilal and Jawarhalal Nehru, Rajagopalachari and of course the great Mahatma Gandhi himself. In the mid-thirties, George Joseph has established a thriving legal practice while continuing at a lower key with his political activities. Joseph Panicker joined this practice as an apprentice lawyer but found that soon after that tragedy struck. George Joseph who has by then become a Member of the Central Legislative Assembly at Simla and destined for high positions in the Congress government of independent India, fell ill and died in March 1938. Having neither the desire nor inclination to return to the traditional occupation of the his forefathers-agriculture-he searched around vainly for a job befitting his status and qualification and been very much aware of the urgency of his mission, now that he had two young children to support.

In 1940, he heard of the vague possibility of a legal job in Mombasa, Kenya, and decided to "do a Gandhi" and go to Africa. This was a particularly brave step, for armed with a couple of letters of introduction and without a definite job offer, he ventured into the unknown. One of his introductory letters came up trumps, for he found a sympathetic Malayali family, the Cheriyans, who welcomed him and put him up when he first arrived in Mombasa. It also led to a friendship with the Cheriyans during the years the two families were in Kenya and thereafter in India.

On the job front, he was less fortunate. The legal job on offer did not materialize. And for about two years he had to make do on his dwindling resources supplemented by tuition on any subject that he offered to children of local Asians. His accounts of those days of uncertain subsistence, where at times he was reduced to one meal a day, were gripping and told with his characteristic mixture of modesty and ironic bemusement. In 1942, he heard of the possibility of civilian jobs in the army that would allow him to make use of his legal background. He went to Nairobi to apply for such a job but realized too late, having uncharacteristically not read the small type, that he had unwittingly joined the East African wing of the British army as an ordinary soldier for a period of five years, or until the War ended which ever was earlier.

In his stoical style he settled into his new life. It was soon recognized by certain British officers in his platoon, who had themselves some difficulty in stringing a few sentences correctly, that Joseph Panicker was invaluable in that he could write well and was meticulous and thorough in his work. He was withdrawn from active duties, given a promotion to a sergeant, and asked to concentrate on clerical work. In time, it was discovered that he could also be usefully employed in teaching the soldiers the basics of literacy and numeracy. Joseph Panicker did not talk much about those days, although one had the impression that once he settled down, he did not find the work onerous or difficult. He also discovered that he had a talent for teaching.

At the end of the war, he left the army with an honorable discharge and a collection of medals from the various theatres of war he had served, notably East Africa, North Africa and Burma. As a reward for his "loyal" service, he was offered a piece of land, now part of the prime sites in the centre of Nairobi, or a gratuity. Not surprisingly given that he was always risk averse when it came to investments, he took the latter. He also needed the funds and used part of it to pay off some of the debts he had incurred during the time he was searching for a job. After his experience in the Army, he decided that he would take up school teaching.

Kenya, at the time was segregated by race in many aspects of everyday life. He began teaching in an Indian primary school in Nairobi in 1946 and then moved to Mombasa where he obtained a temporary job in the primary school section of Allidina Visram School, the premier Indian Government School of the Coastal area. As the sole South Indian Christian on the staff, caught up between two warring sections, the Gujaratis and the Punjabis, he was quite pessimistic about his chances of lasting more than that year. Fortunately, fate intervened. A teacher of English from one of the top secondary classes who were taking the Cambridge School Certificate Examination in six months was promoted as the Principal of the school. There was a desperate search for a replacement from within the staff of the school to fill the gap. Given the high risk of failure at the job and the specialized skills required, nobody volunteered. Then one of the senior members of the staff, who was not in any case well-disposed to Joseph Panicker, thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity to get rid of the solitary South Indian who had complicated the linguistic power balance of the School. He prevailed on the Principal to ask Joseph Panicker to take up the job.

Joseph Panicker was in a quandary. He had never taught in a secondary school; English was not his subject; and he had to prepare children for an external examination in which a "pass" in the subject was a requirement for the award of the Certificate. He thought of resigning, but given his past difficulties in finding a job and the need to save enough to bring his wife and three children from India, this was not an option. He had been given a notice of two weeks to prepare for this new responsibility. His account of these preparations, involving reading up the relevant Shakespearean text, the discovery of the Shakespearean critic, Bradley, his grappling with the inconsistencies and complexities of English grammar, was fascinating and made for enthralling listening.

The episode had a happy ending. His class did so well in English in the Cambridge School Certificate Examination that his future in the school was assured and from then he came to be seen as one of the most respected of English teachers in the school system. Even an Inspector of Schools from England, known for his strong prejudice against Asian teachers of English, after inspecting Joseph Panicker, added that while he (i.e. the Inspector) did not understand a word that Joseph Panicker spoke - presumably a reference to his Indian accent which was actually not particularly pronounced - he was impressed by his rapport with the pupils and his enthusiasm for the subject. Joseph Panicker continued to produce excellent results, and from the account of his past pupils, some of whom have become outstanding in many areas of life all over the world, his histrionic talents when it came to Shakespeare and his dedication and hard work still remain foremost in their minds.

With the arrival of his family from India, Joseph Panicker continued to teach in the same school. He showed no great desire to step up the greasy pole of promotion to principal and other grander posts, which became available as a result of changing political landscape. Neither did he particularly express a desire to return to law. He remained a caring but slightly aloof father who expected his children to stand on their own feet. His struggles in finding employment despite his academic qualifications made him somewhat cautious and pessimistic about the future of his children and was the reason why he would unceasingly emphasize to his children - and especially his sons - the need for educational accomplishments. He was quite content to leave most of the matters concerning the household and children to his wife who had by then taken up full-time teaching.

Sarah Joseph's flair and gift for human relationships made a considerable impact both at a personal level and at her job. When she was offered the job of a Principal of a secondary school in Nairobi in 1962, a rare honor for an Indian woman at that time in Kenya, Joseph Panicker was encouraging and prepared to move to a job in Nairobi despite having to leave a school where he was seen by then as a highly respected father-figure. He couldn't find a job commensurate with his experience in Nairobi and so moved to Kisumu, which was nearer than Mombasa. He left Kenya and retired to India soon after his wife was found to be suffering from cancer. In 1965 Sarah Joseph died of cancer.

After his retirement, Joseph Panicker returned to his family estate and for almost thirty years he was involved in agricultural pursuits, being in farming rather than being a farmer. Despite being offered jobs in colleges nearby, he did not take up these offers. He was very busy with the responsibilities of a second family after his remarriage. He kept excellent health, probably helped both by his genes and his life style. He retained his love of walking which he pursued without any serious slowing down until he was 85 years. And apart from the last six months of his life, he remained in reasonable possession of his physical and mental faculties. Even his growing deafness, he turned into a virtue. Whenever any mention was made of better hearing aids, his final line of argument was: "I have learnt from life that about 90% of what people say is not worth listening. Now that I can't hear what is mostly said, why deprive me of one of the few pleasure of old age?"

He also spent the last 15 years of his life writing several books which were published either before or after his death. Details are provided in the link for Joseph Panicker's writings.

He was the last of the siblings to die and his death brought to an end an entire generation. The year 2007 would have been the centenary of his birth.





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