There are some human presences in life that you are unable to trace the beginning. It is like they have been with you always- like a tree whose silent, yet significant presence you notice with shock and remorse only when it is gone. For me, Sugathakumari teacher is one such presence in life.
A small attempt I made to scan my mind for the first memory of her took me back to 1978-79 period when as an adolescent I participated in the Save Silent Valley campaign. Yes, that was when closer interaction with Sugathakumari teacher began. Till then she was there as a poetess and social figure up in the stage during meetings that my father would take me along. A slight smile would light up her face seeing my father and occasionally a hand would wave.
Just 48 hours have passed by since teacher left us, I dare to admit that within this short span there are two instances when I wish she was alive…one is the news about the imminent cutting of a 150 year old mango tree in a prestigious campus in the city and the other is the indiscriminate clearing of all undergrowth in the children’s park of Water Works campus. Both campuses are just 2-3 kilometers from ‘Varada’, the abode of Sugathakumari teacher for decades.
She always answered and took up issues concerning the fate of a single tree with the same naïve enthusiasm and zeal as she would intervene in conserving forests or protecting a vulnerable girl child. Hers certainly is one of the first contacts that one could make to share the anguish of trees and humans alike! Yes, in that sense Sugathakumari teacher leaves behind a yawning gap that would never be filled. This is equal to trying to compensate the loss of a single huge tree withstanding the test of time with new saplings.
The most significant turning point in the life of the poetess was when she took the initiative to organize the poets of Kerala in support of that enchanting bit of rainforests that was doomed to be under water. From one Kavi Sammelanam (Poets meet ) to other, in public places, colleges and institutions the poets sang and recited the so called Marakkavithakal (Tree poems) that inspired a whole generation to look at life and development anew. The best one in the series was her own ‘In praise of the Tree’ (“Marathinu Sthuthi”). Through that togetherness was born the Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi which later addressed issues and concerns at all levels possible be it advocacy, strategy and or litigations. Her home Varada became a meeting place for the environmentalists and poets of Thiruvananthapuram. As years passed, Sugathakumari teacher became the single most important common factor in supporting campaigns across Kerala from nuclear power plants (Peringome), huge dams ( Pooyamkutty, Athirapilly and Pathrakadavu) , sand mining and quarries (Bharathapuzha and Vellarada) reclamation of paddy fields ( Aranmula airport) and highways…you name it and she would lend her name and contact with ease and willingness. One can say without doubt that she is the only woman in Kerala who achieved negotiation and questioning power on any issue of concern to Nature conservation and human welfare. In all senses, she carried close to her heart the Gandhian talisman to assess the worth and relevance of any development program..
Sugathakumari teacher’s steadfastness and almost rabid commitment to issues she was convinced about earned her much abuse and ill fame. What was amazing about her was her capacity to stay attached while being forced to be detached. Never was she seen complaining about the isolation and rejection she faced, nor did she reduce it to her gender. With a confidence bordering on arrogance she protected and maintained the niche she carved in the highly politicalized patriarchal world of letters, people’s movements and human rights groups. She sought not to give explanations or defend herself in the wake of accusations and mudslinging. Her unflinching stances were her ultimate defense and she put that bullet proof vest as the only protective gear holding her sharp and undeniable pen in hand.
Just the other day, a young intelligent journalist friend reacted to my message about a musical tribute being organized by MBS Youth Choir and Tree Walk. She alleged that teacher was a hypocrite and a liar. Another friend vehemently argued that teacher was so insecure that she had her “goondas” threaten and silence younger writers. There was one reaction that teacher was right wing Hindutva with definite agendas that were against secularism and equality. She had a stiff crown of thorns with financial frauds against her. Not to mention her double standards in abetting rape and abuse.
Who else but teacher can defend herself? But neither did she do it nor assign anyone else to take up her cause. It was obvious that causes larger than the personal abuses loomed paramount in her mind. It is those issues that she shared whenever we met or spoke. But this verbal warfare took its toll on her health- in the dark circles under her eyes, the pace –maker through which her heart pulsated, the frequent breathless ness….
The fact remains that she placed trust and faith in the most miniature of issues that came her way- innumerable times she listened patiently to issues like cutting of a single tree in the city, the fate of the Green lung of Attakulangara School…she would get back with a solid answer having spoken to the highest offices that were responsible. Her frail and artistic finger that was raised to point at an unjust activity became the symbol of a collective social consciousness when the whole world was going crazy and hay where. For her, the answerability factor was a prominent feature and the need to take stock and audit what was done in the name of public welfare. She walked on the thin narrow border line of romantic, esoteric sentiments by not slipping into an uncreative state.Instead she came up with brilliant ideas that shook one into dynamic and organic action.Yes, this was Sugathakumari with her strong reserves of energy and commitment who always had a Plan B with her!
Many trees in the city are still there because of the relentless alert eye that Sugathakumari teacher maintained about their safety. The huge Ficus near Ayankali Hall, the trees on the Vellayambalam Kowdiar road, the landmark Mahogany trees in front of University College are still surviving because of her constant vigil. The Garlic pear tree planted in memory of Madhavikutty in Manaveeyam Veedhi grows well. The Sahasrapoornima trees planted to remember noted poet O.N.V.Kurup also grows well – trees as teacher believed carry a person’s legacy as the best monument possible…
Some of her best and most simple writings appear in the Preface she wrote in the monthly Children’s magazine Thaliru ( Kerala Children’s Literature Institute) that she was Editor of. In 2020 October issue she wrote about language as the means by which one can identify the quality of life and culture of a person. In December 2020, a few weeks before her passing away Sugathakumari teacher writes about the boy Jesus who must have played with wooden toys in his carpenter father’s workshop …her poems for children also carry a simple imagery that is so vivid…the one on trees that MBS Youth Choir sings lists the ecological services of trees…
There is no one to call and ask anymore…the phone will not be taken nor will one get a return call. A woman who carried her compassion and attention in a subtle manner, I was struck by the way she responded when I was laid up with an injured leg after an accident. She called up the person who played a role in the treatment procedure that worsened my health and questioned his incapacity to heal. She visited me with tears in her eyes and a bagful of vegetables to restore my health.
You are more distant than a phone call away, teacher…and you will be missed by the likes of many like me …who grew up with stalwarts like you- indulgent and patient without condescension.
With a heart frozen with shock, I share these lines from a poem ALONE written by Teacher in 1973:-
“I learnt to fall and die alone
Not surrounded by wails
Without your lap
Without sipping a drop of water
From your beloved hands
Without joining my sight
On your eyes
Ha, without bidding farewell
I learnt to fall and die alone “
B.Sugathakumari ( 1934-2020) is a Malayalam poetess who gained a place in the cultural scene of Kerala not just as a literary figure but as an upholder of Nature conservation and rights of the underprivileged and abused women and children. She was the leading force behind the Save Silent valley campaign which helped save the rainforests from a hydroelectric project. Awarded the Padmashree Award in 2006 for her poetry, Sugathakumari founded Abhaya, a home for destitute and mentally challenged women. Having published many books of poetry, Sugathakumari moved her powerful pen to highlight issues and concerns. She succumbed to complications due to Covid on 23rd December 2020.
Anitha.S in conversation with Santhi, Usha PE, Usha,S, Gita Nazeer, Nalini Naik, Eleyamma Vijayan,Veena,M.Ajith , Sridhar Radhakrishnan…readings from Civic Chandran and Shibu,K,N…