Mathai’s collection is enviably varied and magical.
Varghese Mathai’s The Village Maestro & 100 Other Stories is a quick read, which might sound surprising, as a 100-story compilation is not expected to be a run through. But Mathai’s book is not a short story compilation in the conventional sense of the word. Varghese Mathai has been a professor of English literature at Judson University, in Illinois, United States, for over three decades, and has been ushering in a certain special to all his classes, every class, every day. Before launching into the study material of the day, Mathai would invariably set the mood with a fable, a short story, parables, a yarn with some message, or a tale that would be refreshing, leaving in its wake a soft message, perhaps. He mentally termed it “the class opener”. Addressing a multi-cultural group that he did, Mathai drew heavily from an eclectic spread comprising Chaucer, folklores from India, parables from the Jewish tradition and anecdotes from all corners of the world — South Africa, New Orleans, France, Egypt and India, of course. As the story goes, these tiny gems became the high point of his classes, so much so that students often attended his classes to listen to his thought of the day. And in case they missed classes, they made sure their fellow students filled them up with the magic messages later.
Mathai’s collection is enviably varied and magical. He has built up wisdom through the ages, as it were, through this oeuvre of tales and fables. He also delves into his personal experiences, of going back to the days when he first landed in the US, and interesting snippets from the time. He talks about South Indian retreat leaders; how a blind man hit a hissing cobra’s fang with deadly precision; how a certain Mr Jacob who cycled to meet Mr Jawaharlal Nehru at 5 am to hand over a copy of the New Testament just 10 days before Mr Nehru passed away; the famous story of Drona and Ekalavya and he juxtaposes it with Jesus Christ’s ‘Last Supper’; how Shah Jahan was wronged by Aurangzeb and held in captivity finds resonance in King David and his son Absalom’s coup; Jewish lores around the site where Solomon chose to build the Temple of God and interesting anecdotes from contemporary politics. It is evident that Mathai has an innate spirituality in him which comes through in many of his vignettes. His foreword sums up the book rather succinctly, “The Village Maestro is both a joyous romp and a thought-provoking read”.
The Village Maestro & 100 Other Stories
By Varghese Mathai
pp. 292, Rs.599