Professor HRT Roberts: Philosopher with a friendly pugilist punch

An educator and former student remembers the late renowned academic and Air Force officer whose indefatigable spirit was so much part of Madras Christian College

It is very rarely that you come across someone who effortlessly moves from a career as a Squadron Leader in the Indian Air Force (IAF) to teaching Philosophy and passionately donning gloves in a boxing ring. Well, that is HRT Roberts, former Professor of Philosophy, Madras Christian College (MCC), for you. He passed away last week at the age of 94.

Harry Roberts (as he was fondly called) was born in 1926. He did his Intermediate and BA Honours in Philosophy during the years 1944-49. He served in the IAF for two decades, during which time he saw action in the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and retired as a Squadron Leader . Not one to spend an inactive retired life, Roberts returned to teaching in 1969, at the invitation of Prof Chandran Devanesen. He served the department and the college with great dedication until his retirement in 1985. Under the guidance of Prof CTK Chari, Roberts did his PhD on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion.

At MCC, Roberts distinguished himself as a ‘formidable controversialist’, an influential and a provocative — in the right sense — teacher. It is said of him that ‘he never had a day in college without having an argument with someone’. He would attract friends and foes alike, ‘despite his reputation for deflating many an ego’. Whether Wittgenstien’s famous notion of language-games or his seeing-as, or Kuhn’s paradigm shifts or Popper’s falsifiability — these would always come alive in Roberts’ debates and arguments both in the classroom or in the campus ‘gutters’.

Roberts had his own inner circle of students and colleagues, drawn from different departments, called the ‘Tuesday Club’ in his own flat on the campus, who would cogitate on the radical, liberative ideas of a wide range of western philosophers. One of the regular participants in these and a student of Philosophy, MR Venkatesh reminisces, “Perfectly at ease in teaching modern Western Philosophy, from Descartes to Wittgenstein, with a lot of zest, and placing their works under his sharp critical lens, his philosophic mind, however, was at times in constant tussle with the deep Catholic faith that he inherited from his family. As a teacher, Harry Roberts was one of those who would speak up for students on campus.”

Roberts excelled as a rigorously thorough teacher and as a disciplined individual. He shared many responsibilities in college, and easily the most challenging of these was as the anti-ragging ‘commander-in-chief’. With a shoulder bag, and none beside him, he would barge into the Halls, looking for the mischief makers. Yet, during disciplinary proceedings, he would always give a genuine ear to their viewpoints, and would not be harsh at meting out punishments.

Winfred Chelliah, who taught English for many years in MCC, recalls, “Harry was one of my role models, whom I considered worth emulating for his academic standing, dexterous and spicy use of language, and uncompromising attitude towards core values. I used to admire his clarity to think, his ability to articulate with brevity and without ambiguity, academic courtesy to respect other viewpoints without sacrificing his own, and the natural flair to provoke a debate and moderate it with decorum and dignity.”

Yet, another impressive side of Roberts was his indomitable passion for boxing. He acted as an adjudicator for many inter-collegiate bouts on campus. One of his fondest memories was interviewing the great Muhammed Ali in Chennai. During that interview, he was asked to show his palm to Ali, who would say, “I will punch 10 times, before you count 1,2,3”. The great champion did, and the philosopher accepted these punches with stoic resignation.

Even after retirement from MCC, Roberts was never idle for a day. He gave Philosophy courses in some seminaries. In the 1990s, he was invited to visit Dayton University, Ohio, USA. Impressed with his academic prowess, the authorities there requested Roberts to help a Philosophy programme in their institute in Bangalore. Accepting this offer, Roberts served as the Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Dayton’s Marinist Scholasticate at Deepahalli, Bengaluru until 2006.

My greatest satisfaction was in November 2013, when I, as Head of the Department, invited Prof Roberts to deliver the Dr Michael Lockwood Endowment Lecture. Though he was 87, he came fully prepared to deliver a memorable lecture on the topic — Animal Rights. Nostalgia filled the air, as Harry Roberts reconnected with his alma mater, and shared a joke or two with several of his former colleagues and students.

The writer is an Associate Professor and former Head of the Department of Philosophy, Madras Christian College

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