BRUNCH BITES Asha Sridhar meets visionary ophthalmologist S.S. Badrinath
In an undistinguishable Spartan office in the vast citadel of eye care, outside whose gates share autos are constantly dropping off elderly couples headed to the kannu aspathri (eye hospital), and whose stone parapets and steel chairs continue to bear the gratitude of several patients, sits the 72-year old founder and chairman emeritus of Sankara Nethralaya, S.S. Badrinath, hardy in frame and agile in thought.
The second floor of the Smt. Nargesh and Shri Nani Palkhivala Block, where his office is located, has an interesting story. But, before he is presumably made to rush through a lifetime of accomplishments in relative spate, he orders two glasses of warm Bournvita.
Nani Palkhivala, the eminent jurist, once called Dr. Badrinath from Bombay and when he learned that all the consultants at Sankara Nethralaya worked for a modest salary, he was touched. “In the first year he gave us all the stocks he owned, the following year he gave us all the ready cash he had, and finally after paying off all the sundries, he bequeathed all his property to Sankara Netralaya, all in his lifetime,” says the visionary in a voice that is gentle yet wiry.
Having always been deeply interested in physics, he says that he was always a man of science. And, then there was silence. He held his hands together, placed it on the table, closed his eyes, and went into deep thought.
Once he emerged out of it, he dictated his class teacher’s name with exact initials. C.T. Kuppuswamy Iyer, he says, who was his class teacher in P.S. Higher Secondary School kindled his interest in science. “Incidentally, I met his son just two days ago and got his address and phone number,” he says.
Dr. Badrinath who went to the United States of America to do his graduate studies in ophthalmology at Grasslands Hospital, New York University Post-graduate Medical School and Brooklyn Eye and Ear Infirmary says that he always wanted to come back to India. “The feeling was there even in1963 when I left for United States,” he says.
“My guru Dr. Charles L. Schepens,” he says and then pauses. “Do you know how to spell the name of my guru,” he asks before continuing. “He had granted me a fellowship at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary on the condition that I would return to India.”
He returned because he had to keep up his word. “He had trained many Indians before me, and none returned to India. I was the first one,” he recalls. Dr. Badrinath came to India after seven and a half years in the U.S. with his wife and one and half year old son with just 1000 dollars in hand and a specialisation that nobody had really practised in India before.
Though patients were plenty in number and there was the satisfaction of performing complicated surgical procedures, after three years in India, he set his eyes on U.S.A again and even got a job in El Paso, Texas.
“On the personal front, managing a household was time-consuming in those days. Everything from paying electricity bills, plumbing, and other household chores most often demanded repeated visits. I thought that quality of life would be much better in the United States. Those were the times when you had to wait for seven to ten years to get a scooter,” he says. But he finally decided to stay back because his friends back in America advised him against moving. “I found that my friends there were not very comfortable.”
Over the years, patients — from the nation’s leaders to the common man — went on to place equal faith in his and his institution’s services.
“Srimad Andavan Swamigal walked 200 miles from Trichy to Chennai to be operated by me. Former President R. Venkataraman once got operated by me, and later when he was getting his eyes tested in Geneva, the doctor there told him that even if Muhammad Ali punched his eye, nothing would happen,” recalls Dr. Badrinath, who has been honoured with Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan.
After all these years in service, when asked about what he does to unwind after a day’s work, he says, “I see no need to unwind. I am not wound in any way and lead a stress-free life.”
When he says he has retired, he only means that he no longer sees patients. He comes to the institution at around 11.30 in the morning and works till around 5.30. After that, “I go home, have a cup of coffee, and catch a movie with my wife on television,” he says. Though he does not understand Marathi, he watches Marathi movies with his wife because “that’s what she likes.”
In fact, the first asset that he spent his earning on was a gold chain from Abraham & Straus, with her name engraved on it. “I got it for our first wedding anniversary and she liked it.”
So how long will he continue to work? “I would like to go home today,” he says smiling. And, then continues to say that he will come as long as he can.
“The interview is over, and your glass is still full. You have cheated me,” he says playfully. Dr. Badrinath’s glass too continues to remain full, even years after he built his ‘temple of the eye’.