For a man who helped people see better, Dr Badrinath had no clear vision on how his career would pan out.
The founder and chairman emeritus of Sankara Nethralaya who passed away on November 21 at the age of 83 was, as the cliche would have it, destiny's child.
The man who helped put Chennai on the ophthalmic map of the world would have well ended up becoming a top doctor in the US, earning millions of dollars. But that he became a builder of ophthalmic institutions that stick to Hindu traditional values and serve the poor and needy is a story that reflects his karmic equanimity.
Badrinath, who had finished his medicine degree at the famed Madras Medical College in 1963, soon moved to the US for a basic sciences course in ophthalmology at the New York University medical school. His resident doctorship was at the Brooklyn Eye and Ear Infirmary, New York. He also followed it with a fellowship with Charles Schepens at the Retina Service of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Boston, Massachusetts. But by 1970, he returned to India and was not sure what to do with his then fledgling career.
In India, in the first two-three years of 1970s, he was associated with the VHS (Voluntary Health Services) and the HM Hospital. But offers from the US, where they had seen his potential, were constantly knocking on his door. Badrinath, who was in his early 30s --- basically a guy setting out on a career --- could have been easily lured by the financial riches that were coming his way. There is nothing wrong in making the most out of one's talent.
In early 1973, he had to go to the US to attend a work-related research seminar and meeting. It was then that an old friend of his insisted that he come to America for good. The friend worked out all the details and Badrinath was made a big offer to continue his ophthalmic work at Texas.
Badrinath returned to India and consulted his wife Vasanthi, pediatrician and hematologist in her own right, whom he had met in 1966, and married in 1967. Vasanthi too was okay with shifting to the US.
When Badrinath went by his gut feel
Everything was set. Only the visa formalities remained. The meeting at the US consulate was set for May 15, 1973. As it happened, on that day, at around 4.30 a.m, Badrinath got up, woke his wife up and told her that they will not go to the consulate and the shift to the US will not happen. She was surprised but she had an innate faith in her husband's ways and she did not demure.
Badrinath, a spiritual-minded person, did not warm up to the American way of living. Maybe that sparked what appeared to be a spontaneous decision made at the break of dawn. Badrinath just trusted that enigmatic feel in his gut and chose to stay back.
Just as well, as what followed in his career is history --- quite literally the ophthalmological history of independent India.
In around five years, he went on to establish Sankara Nethralaya, an eye-care institution that is not only rendering not-for-profit state-of-the-art service but also has set up many allied institutions that impart highest quality education and training in ophthalmology and related fields.
Sankara Nethralaya offers Fellowship programmes in Vitreo-Retinal Surgery, Cornea, Oculoplasty, Glaucoma, Uvea and General Ophthalmology to holders of Postgraduate Degree and Diploma in Ophthalmology and also provides training programmes for graduates in Ophthalmology. It offers very many courses in optometry, which is of crucial importance at every-day treatment of eye issues.
At a time when commercialisation of medical care is rampant, Sankara Nethralaya remains an oasis of difference where money is not the sole focus of treatment.
Belonging to the Madhva community, Badrinath, even if he had spent his formative and impressionable years in the West, had an inner spiritual quest that was perhaps deepened by another experience that happened by chance --- an opportunity to perform cataract surgery for the Kanchi Maha Swamigal (Jagadguru Shri Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati).
The Mahaswamigal and the eye surgeon
This was in 1973, when Badrinath had not made a mark as an eye-surgeon in these parts. But still the Kanchi sage chose him to perform the eye-correction procedure. Why this then little known ophthalmologist was chosen overlooking very many doyens in the field is another of those acts of destiny that was forever an inexplicable part of Badrinath's sterling life.
Badrinath performed the cataract surgery in a makeshift, specially created operation theatre at the kalyana mandapam of the famed Varadaraja Temple in Kancheepuram. Badrinath and his team got up at the sterile place for the surgery and performed it (which was not all that common then) with typical precision.
The days following the surgery (it was, as it happened, done on the Maha Dhanvantari Day of 1973) was the most difficult for Badrinath. He used to start at 4 in the morning and leave for Kancheepuram and dress the eye of the Kanchi seer. And by around 9, Badrinath would return to Chennai and head directly to VHS and later Vijaya Hospital and return home only at 11 in the night. This used to be his routine for close to a month.
The days spent in close proximity to the Mahaswamigal also widened his horizon, and that experience was the bedrock on which his sterling career took off.
So when Kanchi Jagadguru Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Shankaracharya made a clarion call (in a meeting at Chennai's Asthiga Samajam) to set up a medical institution to safeguard the essential Hindu ideals, there was no wonder in Badrinath being inspired to set up the Sankara Nethralaya in 1978.
The greatness of the man, who is both a Padma Shri (1993) and Padma Bhushan (1999) awardee, lies in the fact that the institution may have been Hindu in its creation but religion is never in your face at Sankara Nethralaya (if one may add, quite unlike a few other hospitals from other religions).
A recipient of every conceivable award and honour in his field, Badrinath was also the Honorary Ophthalmic Surgeon to the President of India and a consultant in ophthalmology to the Armed Forces of India and a non-official member of the Armed Forces Medical Research committee.
When Kanchi mutt saw the larger picture
Despite his very many achievements and also of his institution, Badrinath always carried a gaze of avuncular indulgence that has its origins in his middle-class roots in the benign streets of Triplicane, Chennai. At heart he was simple and grounded and that is how he was always able to be empathetic to the sufferings of the common folks. He could have, if he wanted to, set up a snazzy modern-day money-guzzling medical care centre. But Badrinath was never of that mould.
Back in the days when eye donation had not picked up, Badrinath and a social activist friend of his wanted to approach the Kanchi seer to get across the message to the general public. The Kanchi swamigal, who is bound by the inviolable tenets of seerdom, cannot openly advocate cutting off human body parts of the dead. But the Maha Guru also understood that it was the need of the hour for the society. The Kanchi mutt could have easily precluded Sankara Nethralaya from harvesting eyes of the dead for donation to those who require it. But the Kanchi mutt and its seers were able to look at the larger picture, and not stand in the way of Badrinath and his hospital.
That Sankara Nethralaya is rendering yeoman service to the society is also in a way due to the fact that mutt was practical in its approach. (It is to be noted here that Catholic medical institutions won't perform certain medical acts that go against their religious codes.)
In a sense, Badrinath was anti-Gandhi --- in that his credo was an eye-for-an-eye will make the whole world see. Him and his battery of doctors, with their tireless service, have done countless surgeries that help people get back their vision. Badri, as his friends used to call him, did this matter of factly as some sort of karmic service and wore his achievements ever so lightly. He always felt that he owed it to Chennai --- he was very proud of the city he belonged to --- a debt of gratitude for standing by him in his times of struggle.
It is a sad irony that the likes of Badrinath, because of his caste, would be seen as an outsider in the present Dravidian political climate of the city and State. To see an eye doctor in such a light is --- what else? --- myopic. But the great man would have smiled it off with grace that remained his essential trait till his last.
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