A Warm Tribute – Dr. Santosh Bakaya Remembers Sujatha Mathai

Sujatha Mathai: A Tribute [1934- 2023], March 23, 2023

It was on 18 February, 2020, that I met her at her Delhi home in Greater Kailash 2. She was indeed a wonder woman- so fragile, yet so vibrant. Stalked by all sorts of ailments, yet so full of life. Smiling through her pain, lashing out at a hate- infested world, fuming at the world going downhill, with demagogues, megalomaniacs and narcissists holding sway, and immensely worried about the future of Hema, her loving and affectionate caretaker.

It was two years earlier, that I had called her to congratulate her for receiving the WE Kamala Das Poetry Award, 2018, and in an ecstatic voice, she had thanked me profusely, saying that she was very happy.
The beautiful paintings on the walls, and artifacts on the tables and mantelpiece looked on mutely, as we talked about the nitty gritty of life, the invisibles of society, the poetry scene and the materialistic mindsets of people, running the rat race in helter – skelter confusion.
I am sure that resilience, grit and gumption were the companions of this spunky octogenarian till her very last moments.  Even in death, I could imagine her, eyes riveted to the vestigial embers of life, exhaling her last breath with the scent of life still lingering in her nostrils.

Words from her book, Life on My side of the Street, flash before my eyes, as I write,

“Life… always on my side of the street.
I follow her, and glimpse her
 Hurrying, slow, sometimes too far away,
sometimes, close, vivid
So, I have the scent of her in my nostrils, always a dim figure,
 almost lost ,
Too strong to stop, too sweet to lose ,
I leave all and rush into the street
She’s gone.   
[Life- on my side of The Street, P 23]

“Time really flies. It is almost three hours since you came.”  She said with a rueful expression when it was time to leave.
“Yes, where did the time go?”
 “Wish we could do this more often!’
“We definitely will, once I come back from Jammu, we will meet again.”
“Please do.  I will wait. When are you coming back from Jammu?”

“I will be back in twenty days, and when I come back, we will have a poetry meet at your place.” 

“Really?”  Her eyes brightened at the prospect, as Hema came smiling, with another round of coffee and cakes.

“Yes, I will ask all my friends to gather here, and have poetry recitals.”

“That would be such a treat. I will get cakes and other snacks. What a celebration that will be! We will have a great session. Let’s do it soon.”
“Yes, we will. Very soon.”  But, alas, that soon never happened – but Life happened in the form of a Lockdown.

“You are so tender- hearted… why ‘Songs of Belligerence? She asked, looking askance at my just launched book, ‘Songs of Belligerence’ which I lovingly gifted her.

“Well, I am aghast at the burgeoning violence and intolerance, and in this book I have written about certain real incidents that have shaken the world.”
“Yes, what a dystopian world we are leaving behind for our children, I often shudder at the thought.” Quivering with indignation, she talked about the negativities creeping everywhere. Hatred. Bigotry. Racism. Intolerance.

“Love is so simple, why do people need to get into the complexities of hate?” Was our common concern. The beautiful hues of nature had enthralled her in life, so had the notes of the mellifluous birds and the fragrance of flowers. It was love and sheer love that had lured her on.

“Love lured me on. 

But, in Claude Monet’s garden, 

In Giverny where colours,

 of an artist’ s palette 

Overflow into miracles of flowers,

where waterlilies , irises  and bridges
dreamed or painted by Monet, 

seem to spring my Nature’s lap

Lifting the burden of loneliness from my being

Making me join with the birds in their death defying songs – 

Yes, today I could most happily die!”

[Mother’s Veena, Monet’s Garden p 28]

As I descended the stairs, after bidding her goodbye, with the promise of coming back to meet her after my return from Jammu, I could hear a koel trilling, hidden in some tree, and I could imagine her ears riveted to the koel’s song.

Within half an hour of leaving her home, there was a call from her.

“Have you reached, Santosh?’

“Oh yes.” I answered stepping out of the cab.

“Come again – and soon.”
“Yes.” I said, clutching her three books close to my heart which  she had gifted me, autographing them in her beautiful handwriting.

“Mother’s Veena, The Attic of Night, and Life on my side of the Street.

Today, I again picked up those books so lovingly gifted to me, and flipped the pages of Life on my side of the Street.
I found the poem ‘Death and the Poet’ [pp69- 70] staring at me, and the last lines refused to leave me,
“We are all called to the same festival,
 and are but fragments, 
Falling, bright sparks from a careless hand –
children for a brief day in the sunlight  
Before the dark waters embrace us.”

Dearest Sujatha Mathai, the dark waters have embraced you, like they are meant to embrace each one of us, but believe me, cuddled  and caressed in the lap of Mother Nature, your poetic sparkle will continue to brighten this topsy- turvy world.
You were once a part of the festival of life- s bright spark. Keep sparkling from up above and brighten our paths.