Sugathakumari: A poet with passion and compassion

A poet with passion and compassion
Sugathakumari. Photo: Manorama Archive

Most images of the poet, environmentalist and charity activist, Sugathakumari that flashed in the media since she passed away were sad, thoughtful and grim. She had a charming and affectionate smile by nature, but weighed down as she was with compassion arising out of anxiety about the plight of the poorest, lowliest and lost, the physical decay of the human habitat and increasing depravity of mankind, she could not find joy even in the magical world of poetry. She might have believed that she should take on the sins of mankind and suffer on their account in the same way as Jesus Christ did. Her final years were like the Passion in Christianity to “suffer, bear, endure", like in the short final period in the life of Jesus.

The heart breaking picture of the funeral of Sugathakumari was her body covered in black plastic being wheeled into the raging fire by seven human forms draped in white plastic to save themselves from the pandemic that took her life. The scene was the depiction of the times, which in a way reflected the way the earth had struck humanity back for the depredation of nature, a kind of vengeance by the earth. It was the height of irony that a person, who dedicated her life to fight for justice to mother earth, should have been struck down by the same pestilence, which was nature’s punishment to those who caused havoc to the planet.

The other irony was that her dear ones, relatives, friends and an army of admirers did not fulfil her last wishes, provided in writing, regarding her funeral. Going against her specific instructions, they decked the place of paying last respects to her with flowers plucked in their prime, policemen, in white plastic, fired into the air in an empty gesture of “state honours” and promptly held a commemorative meeting. However noble the intentions, these rituals would not have gladdened her heart. She left this world with many unfulfilled wishes, but she should not have been denied her last wishes, which arose from her sense of humility, simplicity and concern for others. Soorya Krishnamoorthy, a friend of the family, expressed these sentiments at the funeral itself.

Of the three daughters of the revered freedom fighter and poet, Bodheswaran, I was closest to Hridayakumari, who was my favourite teacher, and then Sujatha Devi, my contemporary in college. Sugathakumari was not in Thiruvananthapuram during my days in the University College and I met her as she was the role model for my wife, Lekha, for her charity work. Sugathakumari guided her in setting up the Kerala chapter of Karuna Charities, Lekha had set up in New York, Nairobi, Washington and Vienna.

We were overawed by her towering personality and looked upon every opportunity to meet her in public functions and privately as a blessing. She was the embodiment of karuna for us and we rarely discussed poetry or environment. At our first meeting, I tried to share my experience of international negotiations in which we gave primacy for development on the basis of Indira Gandhi’s dictum that “poverty is the worst polluter.” But I sensed that her passion for the environment was unidimensional- save trees, animals, birds, water bodies etc. I have not heard her speak about the science of global warming and emission of greenhouse gases.

An eminent literary figure remarked that if she was not distracted by her compassion for the poor and environmental activism, Sugathakumari would have been a greater poet. But her three spheres of interest were interconnected and she could not have sacrificed one for the others. She realised that writing poems alone will not help the environment or the poor and became an activist in both. Other poets in Malayalam like ONV Kurup and Ayyappa Paniker wrote with feeling about the impending demise of the earth, but did not lead any movement from the front.

I enjoyed her poetry immensely, but we did not discuss poetry as such except that I expressed admiration for her meditative and lyrical quality, which I enjoyed in the renderings of Chithra and Venugopal. Her Krishna image and divine love have a special charm. Her portrayal of the unconventional Radha, who admires him from a distance, loves him deeply and finds ecstasy in the fact that he stops by her home to signal his recognition of her love is most poignant. But her conversations were basically on the instances of acute suffering and misery she had seen around her. She often spoke of cases of unspeakable cruelty to women, young and old, and the callousness of the authorities.

Sugathakumari did not confront the ruling governments, but led multi-party movements in the expectation that strong public opinion can bring about changes. The description of the sad state of affairs of the environment and poverty in her poems moved many people into helping her out. The Silent Valley project was abandoned by the Government solely because of the strong popular pressure she engendered. The same was the case with the Aranmula Airport project. But many of these will be taken up again when development projects become inevitable. The Airport project has moved out of Aranmula, but it is now being proposed in a more fragile area near the popular Sabarimala temple.

I quoted Jawaharlal Nehru’s words about the Mahatma to express my anguish when SK passed away. “The light has gone out of our lives,” I said. But we should feel comfort in completing the quote from Nehru that the light will still last, for that light was no ordinary light and “it represented the living truth ... the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error.”

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