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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Ignaty Potapenko (1856–1929)

The Course in Sanskrit

From “Tales and Sketches”

I CAME to Paris without any definite purpose. I had been teaching for twelve years, and recreation was all I sought for. I counted on my small inheritance to keep me for six years; then I could go home again and work. Well, when one gets to Paris, of course one must visit something. So I visited the theaters, at times the big shops, often the museums, always with the feeling that it was all rather unsatisfactory. And so I determined to study a bit, and to hear lectures at the Sorbonne University. I went to one professor, to a second, to a third. The lectures interested me, and I attend some of them yet. But one day the rather strange idea came to me of hearing some lectures on the Sanskrit language. Like all moderately well-educated people, I knew that it was a very old language, that philologists were fond of talking about it, that it seemed never to have been spoken, but recorded in books alone, and that all European languages sustained a certain relation to it. Perhaps my sudden interest was foolish. No matter, I went.

When I arrived at the lecture-hall I stopped at the threshold. Could I have mistaken the number? Not at all. The benches for the auditors stood there in the usual solemn rows, only there was not a single student to be seen. So I concluded that I had come too soon, and was about to leave, when suddenly from behind an enormous blackboard a curious little figure appeared. It was a little, wizened, dried-up man clad in a dress suit with enormous tails. His head was bald and polished, and his face puckered with innumerable wrinkles.

“Ah, madam!” he exclaimed joyfully, and approached me with outstretched hands, “were you really intending to go away again? Perhaps you thought I was not here; but I am here—to be sure I am. Will you be pleased to take a seat? So; now we can begin our lecture.”

I confess that I was dumfounded. I sat down with so astonished an expression that the old gentleman made haste to explain the condition of things to me.

“It is a very good thing that you wish to take my course. Few care to take it—very few, as you perceive. My subject is not for the many, and I am not sorry for that. Indeed, I have but one regular student, and he lives in Saint Cloud, so that he can come only twice a month, whereas I must lecture every week. Well—let us begin. I am confident that I can show you how interesting my subject really is.”

He went up to his platform, sat down next to his desk, and began:

“Madam, we are naturally very far advanced in our studies, seeing that the course began in October. But, in consideration of the fact that you are here for the first time, I shall try to give you in a few words an insight into the elements of our subject. The Sanskrit tongue——”

And so on, and so on. The old gentleman lectured with enthusiasm, and pitched his voice as loud as though he were oblivious of the emptiness of the lecture-hall. He wished to be heard by the last bench as well as by the first. In short, it was a bona-fide lecture, and it certainly was a peculiar sensation to have a professor of the Sorbonne lecture for one’s sole benefit.

When he had finished, he put off the professor, and became a French gentleman anxious to be courteous to a lady. He smiled, and showed a row of well-preserved teeth. “And now,” said he, “you will permit me to introduce myself to you—Professor X. I am very, very glad that you propose to study under me; and, as time goes on, you will understand everything very clearly, and realize how fascinating our subject is. And now, may I ask for your name?”

“Mlle. Rostchin.”

“Ah, you are a Russian. Delighted! I do not care much for politics. Still, we are friends. Then, too, Russian ladies are, as a rule, most zealous and intelligent students. You will become an admirable Sanskrit scholar; and it will give me a special pleasure to supply you with the necessary books. Will you permit me to do so? Here”—he took an elegant card-case from his pocket and handed me a card—“here is my address. I shall be charmed if you will call on me. Yes, I am married, father of a family—have, in fact, grown daughters. Otherwise I would not venture— Ah, good-by for the present!”

What was I to do? I could not well refuse. The old gentleman had been so kind and courteous to me; it pleased him so profoundly to have a student. With his difficult and esoteric subject he had probably never succeeded in having more than half a dozen hearers. The other student at present—the gentleman who lived at Saint Cloud—came only twice a month. And so I was quite an event in the old gentleman’s life. How would he feel if I were absent from the next lecture—if the real flesh-and-blood lady who was interested in Sanskrit faded again into the void? How empty and lonely the place would be! How would he meet his wife and daughters, to whom he has been full of talk concerning his new student?

In short, I was sorry for the old gentleman. I had it not in me to overthrow his hopes. Therefore, three days later I went to call on him.

He lived in a modest little apartment on the fifth floor of a house in the narrow Rue de Colombe. I was most pleasantly received. The professor’s wife was a charming Alsatian; his two daughters genuine French girls, who assured me in all seriousness that only Russia, with its extremely cold climate, could produce ladies who were interested in Sanskrit. Quite contrary to French custom, oranges were served, with other fruits, biscuits, and cordials.

And then my old gentleman gave me a pile of books and pamphlets concerning Sanskrit, and again expressed his opinion that I would become an admirable scholar in his subject.

I went away laden with books, so that I had to take a cab at once. Thus I was committed to the study of Sanskrit. And I studied it honestly, and my intelligent questions and progress made the old gentleman’s life bright. I had not the heart to miss a single lecture.

At last I met my fellow student from Saint Cloud. He was a man well advanced in years, and used a crutch. I asked him if he was very much interested in Sanskrit. He answered me with great seriousness.

“You see,” he said, “I live out in Saint Cloud, where I manufacture certain chemicals on a small scale. Twice a month I get to Paris to buy new material and sell my product. Now, my business makes it necessary for me to wait each time from one to three o’clock. I am a simple, sober man; I care neither for the cafés, nor for the noise and hurry of the Paris streets; so I wait here, where it is cool, quiet, instructive—and costs nothing!”