One evening, I was driving a friend to the club. He had to speak at an event in a couple of days. “This is the first time,” he said. “It’s making me tense. I’m feeling very, very stressed!”
I tried to console him with the usual it’s-nothing-after-all-what’s-life-if-you-don’t-try-everything kind of speech. He said, “You can afford to say that, you’re good at public speaking.” There was silence. Then I said, “I’m not! And about ten years ago, I was ten times more scared than you are right now!”
It was in 1988, and an old college lecturer of mine had called. “I’m retiring, and I’d like you to take my place.” I said I had my office and work. He said it was just for a year till another professor returned from his sabbatical. So I applied and, to my horror, I was selected. I spent sleepless nights, haunted by suicidal visions. I cribbed to everyone I met. I was someone who went pale if asked to deliver the vote of thanks at Rotary meetings. I simply couldn’t imagine facing a crowd of students.
But I went ahead and did it.
In my first class I took an essay by Churchill. He wrote about being a nervous speaker in spite of being an acknowledged statesman. It came like a pat from the heavens. I completed the class without faltering or fainting. I learned hardcore techniques. In one exam hall, confronted by seventy noisy students, I banged my books on the table, stared them in the eyes and said: “Make one more sound and---” I left the threat hanging in the silence that continued till the exam was over.
I used humour and presence of mind to carry off my college lectures. I duplicated this at meetings I had to address. I had personal heroes like Dr C. S. Ramachandran and my uncle Dr. R. M. Varma who had audiences eating out of their hands. They had the stuff. I simply tried frantically to emulate them.
It wasn’t a cakewalk. I remember a packed audience at the JBASC women’s college with girls hanging out of windows. Once there, someone told me I had to address them on vocational options. It was a nasty surprise. I’d no idea what to say. I plodded on bravely, talking about journalism and creative writing. They wanted more. I had nothing else! The girls dropped down from the windows. Others grew restless. Someone else took over, allowing me a relieved exit. When this happened once again at MCC---swelling crowd and nothing to deliver---I learned a lesson: never speak unless you know exactly what the programme’s going to be.
I’m influenced by audiences, whether it’s small and intimate or an ocean of faces in a large auditorium. I focus on faces and follow their responses. In perverse moments, I fix on a restless face and my speech wanders so that neither they nor I know what’s going on. When I realise I’m wandering, I detach myself and watch from a vantage point, like a soul having fun above a deathbed.
I also learned to expect the unexpected.
I arrived early one morning to inaugurate the literary society of the Meenakshi College for Women. I spent some time chatting with the Literature lecturers over coffee. Before proceeding to the meeting hall, I wanted to visit the restroom. They said only girls used the one on that floor, the common one was downstairs. But classes were going on, and I could probably make a quick trip to the girls’ toilet. I hesitated only for a second. I was still in there when the bell rang. Before I knew it my cubicle was surrounded by girls chatting and laughing as I now know they do in these places. I froze. I went pale. My heart was hammering. A decision had to be made. I opened the door and stepped out. There was a stunned silence. My eyes rooted to the floor, I marched out smartly. And then the tide of voices broke.
When the meeting began, I looked up to see my audience. Some naughty, others embarrassed, some giggling helplessly. The lecturers didn’t know what was happening. The girls knew, and so did I. To make it worse, one of the lecturers said, “Maybe our presence is bothering the girls---you go right ahead.” And they left, closing the door and leaving me alone with the girls. It took humour, presence of mind, valour and a discussion of my novel, which some of them had read, to save the day and me.
I’d learnt my final lesson. There are three elements in public speaking: You, the Audience and God!