by Nana M’bawa
When Malik Nangula came into our lecture room for the first time, the students all knew they were faced with a presence. The imposing height, the six-pack shoulders, and that completely shaven head, they were enough to make the female students sit up and listen, before the man had even opened his mouth. And the same qualities were enough to make the male students resent their new lecturer.
But the focus on his looks soon became secondary as the students were introduced to the world of literature. For Malik knew his books. More to the point, he knew how to be the character in the books he taught. He only had to put a hand upon his chest, and raise another to the skies, and he would take on the part of a noble African king, declaring sovereignty in the midst of impending colonialism. Or, the students’ favourite, he would put his hand to his cheek, taken on a woe-begone expression and become Lawino, lamenting her erstwhile husband. That he could do that without appearing effeminate was proof of the charisma that was a natural part of his interactions with the students.
He became known to the students as Professor Nangux, and won the ‘popular lecturer’ slot for seven years running. But it wasn’t only for his lecturing that the Professor was famous. Have we not been told, time and time again, that ‘those who can’t, teach?’ Nangux did not belong to the can’t group, so he did more than teach. He composed; poetry which would have turned Rabindranath Tagore green with envy, that would have had the likes of Homer queuing up to ask him what his secret was. Malik Nangux had a gift, a natural talent. He only had to stare at a tree for it to take shape in his mind and be transformed into metaphors so rich they would make oil seem paltry in comparison.
They say he composed ‘ode to a desk’ within one hour, after having spent yet another hour staring intently at the said desk. The result, as he extolled the virtues and hues of the brown desk, finding a medley of rich browns where a lesser eye would have seen but one colour, was a poem so moving that one of his listeners burst into tears when he proclaimed it for the first time, one hand upon his chest, and another stretched outwards, like his favourite character of the African king. To be fair though, a lot of other factors may have moved the listener to tears; the stress caused by late night cramming, for instance, or the fact that she had offered certain services to the lecturer, services which that noble character had declined.
For the women were always throwing themselves at Nangux. And we don’t mean this just figuratively, it had been known to happen literally as well. Take the time when a student had deliberately tripped on her stiletto heel upon approaching Nangux in the corridor. Given the dangers posed by a stiletto, it is a fortunate thing that both student and lecturer fell, banged heads and emerged from the experience with stars in their eyes and prominent bumps on their foreheads. And that was the end of that. After a few more missile launches of this type, in which the female members of the community assumed the role of Potiphar’s wife and failed to ensnare this poetic Joseph, a grudging admiration took the place of these moments of insanity. Nangux simply would not fish in the academic pond, for he was a man with principles.
By an unspoken agreement, therefore, the students decided to leave well alone, and to follow the developments in his life not with obsession, but with the vicarious interest one accords a celebrity. This is why, when Nangux became engaged some months later, there was not a bone of jealousy amongst the female students. What they were more concerned about was whether she was worthy of their Nangux.
It seemed she was. If we have said Nangux was a presence, then he met another presence as well. Almost as tall as he was, only this time we will not talk of an imposing height, we will say she had a model height instead. Straight, even, white teeth; you could look at them for hours and wonder how they got to be that white. A flawless, chocolate-brown complexion; if Nangux had met this woman earlier he would not have wasted time composing an ode to the brown hues of a desk, for here were richer, living hues, in this face on which a pimple would have been ashamed to make its home.
But it was not just beauty that defined this woman. She was a chartered accountant, and was working as a partner in a firm in Blantyre. So the students did their research, assiduously, spending more time than they had ever spent on analysing poems. And oh, what joy, what rapture when they discovered that their dear professor had invited them to the wedding! They said the names of the engaged couple over and over again; Malik and Alina, Malik and Alina. With such lyrical names, they were surely meant to be. And their poetic professor, hand ever on heart, hand ever outstretched, did not disappoint, but made a declamation at his wedding, a declamation which could only be made by one who was truly inspired:
“Every poet needs a muse. I, in my Alina, have found such a muse. I shall forever treasure you, Alina, for you are about to unlock inspiration which would not have been possible had I lived the rest of my life alone.”
And some of the female students were so moved by this speech that they shed tears; there were no ulterior motives behind these tears, it was a sheer appreciation of a poet’s eloquence, of the sublime, if you will.
Sure enough, this muse inspired Nangux to greater heights. For was it not at this time that notable officials would invite him to functions, and he would come up with a poem on the spot? Take, for instance, the poem he composed when the MP came to launch the new cafeteria at the university. Her role was to cut the red ribbon symbolising that the new cafe was officially open. Who can forget the lyrical outburst from Nangux, adopting the archaic to emphasise the poetic nature of the event:
Thy manicured hands, oh MP,
Do speak volumes to me
And thy ruby fingertips
Upon yon scarlet ribbon
A matching red, speaketh a passion
Befitting a mansion
In which food shall hitherto be consumed.
Oh the gasps of admiration that greeted this flash of inspiration (there were no tears this time, though). And there would be more gasps, more oohs and aahs, later in the year, as with function upon function, and with one hand ever upon his chest, and yet another stretched outward, Malik would declaim glowing poem after glowing poem.
Generation upon generation of students passed through his classes, and the legend continued; Malik, the noble poet-professor, who had introduced his students to a deep and enduring love for literature. Malik, who had proved that muses exist beyond mythology.
One day, however, someone brought up a nasty, sacrilegious story; Malik was cheating on his wife! No-one believed it, and the general agreement was to shoot the messenger. No-one, however, had a gun, so they agreed to beat up said messenger instead, for daring to taint the pristine image of the greatest lecturer of all time.
Soon, however, the rumours were proved true; Malik was involved with a woman who worked as a nurse in Blantyre. Collective hearts were broken on behalf of the beautiful Alina. It was not clear, however, whether she knew, for she continued walking down the campus corridors when she was not at work, with her smile so white, with her teeth so straight, and her complexion that rich brown. And when Malik walked with her, hand in hand, then even those who knew about his cheating ways had to make a concession; the man loved his wife. How then, to explain his cheating, philandering ways?
It was agreed that Malik, after all, was no mere mortal, he was an artist. And an artist was entitled to at least three muses, was that not what the Greek myths said? Malik had not even used his quota, so no-one could even make accusations of cheating, he was doing it all for art. As Malik could not make a public declaration to his second muse this time, one of his most devoted students, with a vivid imagination, came up with a speculative piece on what Malik may have said to his nurse-muse upon meeting her for the first time. So the students, hand upon hearts, and one hand stretched outwards, solemnly chanted:
O Muse who heals and inspires
Heal thou my writer’s block
This heart searches and inquires
Heal, lady, and do not mock.
Excellent! And the students clapped their hands gleefully, but no-one oohed and aahed, and no-one wept. So life went on, generation upon generation was taught to respect and revere Malik, to adore the first muse, and to respect the second, for the sake of art.
And then a rumour, nastier than anything that had ever hit the campus, made its way into the classrooms again. This time around, the messenger, mindful of what had happened to the first messenger to malign Malik, stood at a safe distance to avoid any outraged fists from the students. Malik had used his quota, and he was fishing in the academic pond! Moreover, there was written evidence to show that this particular student had not thrown herself at him, literally or figuratively. She had proudly kept all the poems that he had written wooing her, poems in which he had expressed how besotted he was, and the way in which concentration was becoming a challenge with every lesson he taught, and yet how she inspired him to great heights for he sought to impress. A nosy roommate found the poem in which Nangux claimed that with her, he had discovered the joy of freedom and free verse:
Having resisted me for the past four months
The students shuddered at such poetic licence and licentiousness. How prosaic! What an abuse of the idea of the Muse! What to do? What to do?
These, remember, were students who had been taught to be creative. They knew the joys of claiming a particular work as your own, the joys of reaping from your hard work. There was one lesson, however, that Malik had not taught them, the joys of anonymity. So, keeping their plans secret from Muse the third, who, after all, was a member of the class, they set to work, taking into account that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Neither Muse the third nor Malik came to class the next week. When, two weeks later, Muse the third came back to campus, it was to request a course transfer. It was in the middle of the semester, and a course transfer midway in the studies was rather risky. However, she insisted she would take the risk. It is said that she looked so much like a rabbit that had been scared to within an inch of its life that the registrar granted her the transfer on compassionate grounds.
Another transfer had also taken place; a certain nurse, who had been working in Blantyre, was transferred to Lilongwe, not because she had requested it, but because it was considered best by all parties concerned. To put it less vaguely, but still mentioning no names, someone somewhere had gone to the campus, raved and ranted about home-wreckers, and vowed never to stop until a certain nurse had ‘paid’. And the nurse’s employers simply couldn’t have a ruckus on campus.
Malik came back to campus four weeks letter. He had stitches on a badly split lip, and his left eye was swollen. His arm was in a sling, putting an end, at least for some time, to days of the arm-on-heart, arm-outstretched gesture. As he explained a point in literature, avoiding eye-contact, some of his students kept remembering what he had told them in his first lecture: “You never know what may happen when the real Muse strikes.”