Tribute by Kirankumar Ramachandran

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What am I to say that hasn’t been said already? Vishnu Bhat, Bhat sir, AVB sir, Guruji… can a tribute on a Word document ever document what he meant and means to us all?

Summer 1999. After a two-year teaching stint at a boarding school in Maharashtra, I was back in Chennai to do a Masters at MCC. The Principal of the school where I had served (an MCC alumnus) had urged me:  After the college admissions, ask for Thomas Hall. Try to get a room at Thomas Hall, not Selaiyur or Heber because Vishnu Bhat’s house is very close to Thomas Hall.

I have been lost several times in life – geographically and otherwise – sometimes despite directions given, sometimes because of them. These words – “Ask for Thomas Hall” – were the best directions anybody ever gave me.

What follows here is a mish mash of memories. There are millions of them in the mind, for Guruji was the centre of my life for those two years – and never far from the centre post-MCC – but how can I put down every single one of them?

I remember…

… The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, first semester, I MA. ‘And smalle fowles maken melodye’ recited in an irresistible, charming way to bring alive the music of Chaucer’s words.

… “Kiran, would you like to join us on Sunday for…” September 1999, when he asked me to visit him at home. That first visit led to innumerable others. I received, I constantly remember, much more than I deserved.

… sitting next to him or at his feet while he arranged his betel leaves, speaking in his gentle voice about literature, culture, you name it. Clad in a towel, oblivious to the fact that it was past 11 pm as he quoted from here, there and everywhere (without ever having to open a book) to illustrate his point, giving us perspectives and angles we had never dreamt of before.

… his suggesting that I take a verse from the Abhijnana Saakuntalam and set it to tune (!) as part of my MA Project, and actually guiding me through every step. I have written dissertations and papers after this but that 40-page project I will always hold high. The raga Shanmukhapriya invariably brings to mind that verse from Kalidasa and the words, “You can do it, Kiran. Just try.”

… going to West Tambaram to buy his betel leaves… vying with Santhy,  a fellow student, for the privilege of removing his plate after he had finished his meal…carrying his blue bag for him on the walk back from classes or the department. How little it all seems, against the greatness of what we received from him! But these were not meant to be gurudakshina; indeed, they were seen by us as privileges.

…hundreds of cups of tea, snacks and delicious meals at his house where there was a never ending rush of people seeking him.

… Radha ma’am, who had Sivaraatri throughout the year, attending to him – and us! (Who else would have welcomed students like me walking in and staying late practically every day?)

… Priya and Pratibha – they did inherit his love for books but did they ever get their father to themselves for one full day?

… the privilege I felt being part of the group – Ganesh sir, Latha ma’am, my classmates, many others – whose lives all had him at the centre.

… my initial wonder at the absolute gurubhakti of people like Ganesh sir who had been with him for much longer than I had! I am happy that I have been able to feel and express perhaps a tenth of that same bhakti!

… the amazement that this simple, unassuming man caused in hundreds of people who came in touch with him. As far as we learners were concerned, Goldsmith’s lines spoke the truth:

As still they gaz’d, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.

… the overwhelming rush of feelings on a cold, grey morning in faraway England, when I received news about his passing on, the heavy pain in Ganesh sir’s voice when I called him minutes later….and  a similar e-mail less than three years later, about Radha ma’am… Radha ma’am, who’d lived her entire life for him – and for all of us!

Guruleka etuvanti guniki teliyala bodhu
Karukaina hrudroga gahanamunu gotta sad(guruleka…)

Saint Thyagaraja’s immortal lines sing the greatness of the ‘guru’, without whom true enlightenment cannot be achieved. How can the thorny and painful path that the heart has to take ever be conquered without a true guru, the saint asks.

I am blessed to have been able to be with and learn from such a guru and a rare human being – a mahanubhavulu. Memories of him bring, to quote Wordsworth, ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’.

Kirankumar Ramachandran
Faculty member,
Qatar Aeronautical College