Gokulachettan

My mentor, my hero.
Dr. Karakat Sankaran Gokulanathan, ‘Gokulachettan’ as I addressed him, was my close, childhood cousin, the brightest and the naughtiest, whom I tagged along with admiration and apprehension. He was a first among equals, a leader in the best of times and the worst of times. He forced me to smoke beedi when I was ten and convinced me to join Med school, though I was inclined towards engineering. If it weren’t for Gokulachettan, I probably wouldn’t have become a physician.
     An individual who intensely loved his family, his ancestry, his traditions and the customs that came along; one who passionately loved everything that he got involved in, and as much as he loved himself.
     He was from the first batch of sixty students of Trivandrum medical college as it opened in 1951, selected with one of the highest scores. He was the recipient of a gold medal in Pathology. After graduating, he briefly served as demonstrator in Physiology, before leaving for the USA. I was among the family members to bid him farewell in 1959 as the merchant ship sailed out of Kochi port. He could not afford an air ticket and the rough voyage kept him seasick through the 6 weeks as it sailed to NY. It was like an eternal farewell in those times without phones and the Internet not even a faint imagination.
     The narrations of what he endured in the US are bitter and harrowing. There was the time when he entered a restaurant somewhere in Texas, when the waiter walked over and told him: ‘We’ll give you food, but you’ll have to go outside and eat.’ Often, in motels, he was informed there were no rooms. Gas stations, or petrol bunks, said there was no petrol. These are typical stories of hardship experienced by the pioneer professional Indians in a racially bigoted America, years before Lyndon Johnson expanded Equal Rights and passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Gokulachettan ‘carried the cross’ for the many of us who followed in comfort.
     Now, Dr. Gokulananthan is memory. Memory, as all past moments in our lives have become, of being exposed to, interpreted, recorded, and warehoused as they appeal to the experiencer. Memories are exclusive, subjective, and patently personal. With broader impact, and relevance beyond a limited circle, collective memories merit recording as history, sharing as pertinent and benefiting from their bearings.
     Oration about an individual is such an expression of endorsement, sort of expanded obituaries presented to academic audiences, a countenance of recognition that their life was worth knowing about, the message they left behind may benefit some, and the examples they set forth could be of consequence. Dr. Gokulanathan conspicuously belongs to such a distinguished circle of individuals who have excelled in many spheres of life, and whose examples could be worth revisiting, and certainly, emulating.
     He was trained in the US and Canada in Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, earning Board certifications and Fellowships from both countries. He taught and practiced Pediatrics, and served as a leader in several academic, social, cultural, and humanitarian arenas. He was looked up to with respect, awe and often, with misperception. One snag, as I often reminded him, was that his erudite deliberations were beyond comprehension to many listeners.
     He was a master in whatever he set his mind to do. A mechanic who can fix car engines or install a sprinkler system, a decorator who could stitch and set up beautiful drapes, a chef who made the most delicious Chakka paayasam, a professional dancer in a party setting, a sailor who loved taking his boat into the sea, or an orator who can talk on any subject under the sun.
     In his chapter titled KaumarabhAtyam, in the Encyclopedia of Hinduism, he aligns benchmarks of modern pediatrics with Vedic practices of healthcare in children, Balachekalsa, extensively referring to our centuries-old traditions that envisaged a meticulous and systematic approach to the sick child. He conjectures that each case was individualized and treated in a holistic manner, making childcare of ancient India a remarkable prototype of pediatrics par excellence. Every student of Medicine, every practitioner of the Hippocratic vocation, owes a glance into his insightful article, ‘Diamond Jubilee: A Medical Odyssey’, that was written on the occasion when Trivandrum Medical College celebrated its ‘Shashtipurthi’ in 2011. Offering profuse tribute to his Gurus, and the training he received here, and alluding to the backdrop of medical anthropology, he amalgamates a vast spectrum of paradigms involved in our line of work from epistemology, ecology, religion, sociology, philosophy, and business. He thus postulated that our profession is on an academic voyage from the ‘Age of Clinical Medicine’, to ‘Age of Commercial Medicine’ through ‘Age of Consumer Medicine’ and to the present ‘Age of Corporate Medicine’.
     In the 1960s, Gokulachettan had to move back to India for a couple years. During this time, he wrote a book, called ‘Child Care in a Developing Community.’ And it has this advisory punchline, “It is desirable to consider the anthropologic and socio-cultural patterns of history when training medical students”. Translation: If we are to make the next generation of medical students the future exemplars of the field, it is not enough for instructors to be cold and dispassionate – They must take a broader view — a truly human view. A wise caution that would and should stand the test of time.
     An academician, a scholar, a philosopher, a practical pediatrician and a pioneer alumnus from Trivandrum Medical College, Dr. Gokulanathan has left behind indelibly insightful memories, which would shine as beacons to those who choose the path of caring for the ailing. To me, Gokulachettan’s memories would remain of a loving brother, my mentor, and my hero.

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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