Tribute By Professor Gurumurthy Neelakantan

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Professor Alake Vishnu Bhat of Madras Christian College led an exemplary life that is a source of continual inspiration. My association with Bhat Sir, as we students use to fondly call him then, goes back to mainly 1981-83, the years I was at MCC for my Master’s candidacy in English, though I also stayed in touch with him in the later years during my occasional trips to Chennai. With his superb command of ancient Sanskrit classics and Anglo-American literature including Shakespeare, Marlowe, Samuel Johnson, Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, among other literary masters, he commanded enormous respect from the students, who like myself, had joined the postgraduate program at MCC nursing vague hopes of commencing a journey of cultural and intellectual discovery.

As I walk down the memory lane that literally opens on to the sandy paths of the serene and sylvan MCC campus to make sense of Professor Bhat’s life, a medley of impressions, emotions, and visions overwhelm me. For someone whose favorite figure of speech was the antithesis, Bhat himself came through as an enigma. He was friendly and warm, yet detached; he listened intently rather than spoke, though his deep gaze would size up his interlocutor; he was liberal in a manner of speaking though deeper down perhaps he had staunch views. I had always believed that the interplay of these opposing pulls contributed to the deep humane outlook of Professor Bhat. Such patently unsettling if examined emotional terrain shading into the ambiguities and angst of modernism led him to come up with intense exegeses of Yeats, Eliot and Frost. Like most of my fellow-travelers in the English program then at MCC, I had been drawn irresistibly to the felt sense of experience underlying his interpretations of literary texts that exhibited an ideological alignment with Kenneth Burke’s treatment of literature as equipment for living. Ever clad in denim blue Jeans and round-neck T-shirts or dark slacks with his trade-mark vermillion on the forehead, he struck a gracious presence in the classes. Informal and easy in his demeanor, he would sit upfront on the desk and hold forth on Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King with as much felicity and passion as Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium. No wonder we found his classes as absorbing as the post-class discussions often conducted in the good old “Sams” across the road that would see him dwell, for instance, on the intertextual references of the text under discussion which would seamlessly segue into the larger world-view of Europe or North America or Ancient India corresponding to the site of textual production.

Vishnu Bhat was characteristically a sensitive and gracious human being. He was a loving father, a caring husband, and a loyal friend. Of course, it is difficult to imagine him without his wife, Radha Bhat, a student in his classes in the early seventies who became the love of his life. A poet in her own right with significant intellectual accomplishments, she brought to their marriage, a true meeting of minds. During my several visits to their home since 1981, I recall Mrs. Bhat greeting me with a beaming smile and her unfailing courtesy and warmth always made me feel welcome. Never did I return from their place without being fed as also without a bag full of interesting reads. For me these visits and the opportunity these offered to get to know this extraordinary couple would remain forever a cherished pastoral of heartwarming memories.

Understandably, Vishnu Bhat’s life was as much inspired as inspiring. He was successful in mentoring generations of students to become responsible, ethical citizens. I cannot thank him enough for identifying my nascent intellectual strains during my stay at MCC and encouraging me to pursue research and writing as possible careers. Happily for me, I could live up to the faith he placed in my abilities and chart a career path for myself. Who can deny that Vishnu Bhat touched several lives with the force of his electrifying personality? Here is a man who lived a life in the true Socratian mode examining it with merciless clarity. In the final analysis, this is all that matters. Given his unsentimental and philosophical attitude to life, Vishnu Bhat is hardly the man who would nurse any regrets when death came calling at his doorstep. So let us celebrate the memory of this dear man who affirmed life in word, thought and action.

Gurumurthy Neelakantan
Professor of English & Former Chair
Humanities and Social Sciences Department
Institute of Technology
Kanpur