PEOPLE

Driven by the thirst for lifelong learning

Mr Naganathan Vaithinathan says that his interest in languages stems from a curiosity about other cultures, and that out of the seven languages under his command, Italian is his biggest challenge.
Mr Naganathan Vaithinathan says that his interest in languages stems from a curiosity about other cultures, and that out of the seven languages under his command, Italian is his biggest challenge.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

99-year-old taught himself languages, set up a law firm after his retirement

HUNCHED over a busy bookshelf in his bedroom, 99-year-old Naganathan Vaithinathan reaches for a copy of La Madre by Italian novelist Grazia Deledda, gingerly dusts it off, and smiles.

"It's a very beautiful story - one of my favourite books," he says, flipping the pages teemed with handwritten notes alongside the printed text.

He may be one year shy of a century, but age did not stop Mr Vaithinathan from picking up Italian eight months ago.

Every day, he spends at least four hours poring over Italian textbooks and dictionaries, and translating novels into English for himself.

"The main interest is to keep the mind active," he said.

Apart from learning Tamil and French in school, the father of three has also taught himself how to read Russian, Spanish and Portuguese after retiring as an educator in 1971.

Mr Vaithinathan said that his interest in languages stems from a curiosity about other cultures.

"You can learn a lot about a people's way of life through their language," he said, adding that of the seven languages under his command, Italian is his biggest challenge.

"The grammar and syntax can be very peculiar," he explained.

Born in the small village of Valoothoor in Tamil Nadu, India, the fifth son out of nine children earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, but found it difficult to find a job back home.

After oscillating between various occupations in India, Ipoh and Muar, he eventually found his way to Singapore, where he met his wife, and taught mathematics and science at Raffles Institution from 1941 to 1956.

In 1956, he became the founding principal of Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School and headed it for 12 years - a period he described as the "best part" of his life.

"I was happy seeing the children grow well," he said.

His students unanimously recall him as a strict disciplinarian who patrolled the grounds in shorts, long stockings, and a cane.

"Some students would hide in the toilet during class time. He would go in and chase them out," recalled former student Koh Chin Lye, 70, with a chuckle.

"He was a good principal. He didn't just stay in his office," added Mr Koh, a retired teacher.

"He was concerned about his students and wanted them to learn, not waste time doing frivolous things."

After a year as principal of Upper Serangoon Integrated Technical School, Mr Vaithinathan retired in 1971.

But, at the age of 56, he was not content with being idle.

Instead, he soldiered on to earn a barrister-at-law in England, and set up his own law firm in 1973 - an endeavour which he kept going for 18 years.

During this time, he taught himself new languages, and even published an English translation of three Russian short stories about William Shakespeare by writer George Dombrovsky.

Life is quieter nowadays for the nonagenarian, who spends most of his time in his Sunset Drive bungalow, where he lives with his 90-year-old wife and two maids.

His wife, former social worker Esther Abisheganaden, said they sometimes discuss books together, and describes her husband as a hardworking and independent man.

For Mr Vaithinathan, his gumption to learn something new every day boils down to discipline.

"It's a way of living. I never allow people to do things for me. I clear my own dishes, I get my own newspaper," he said.

Having battled cancer of the ileum - part of the small intestine - the spirited grandfather of four and great-grandfather of eight is thankful to be in good health.

"Many think it's a great thing to lead such a long life, but it's not so. You lose friends and you are alone more and more."

But when asked if he feels lonely, he simply gestured to his shelf and reading magnifier.

"When I'm alone, I have my books. I completely lose myself when I read," he said. "It's hard work, but it's also pleasure."

yeosamjo@sph.com.sg