Tribute to Sujatha Ramprasad: January 1971-March 2016
Mountains heaved out of the Bay area landscape in chiseled light and shade as the morning fog clung to their tops. We descended slowly down a mountain, amidst the grumbles we heard from the wheels. Suja looked at the mountains and commented softly, marveling at the winter tan that would morph to green, then tan again, the myriad ways in which Nature changes, just as life keeps changing for all of us.
That was just over ten years back when we were returning from a fond farewell to my father, who had led a full life, enriched by being surrounded by friends and family. Suja, one of my youngest cousins, consoled me with wisdom beyond her age of about 35 then. Little did we know that Suja would be the one we’d miss a mere 10 years hence!
“You left in mid-sentence,” says Nina George, in her book, “The Little Paris bookshop,” to her father. Those of us left behind by Suja’s sudden loss feel the pain of that line now as we grieve. She was an accomplished engineer and an empathic writer. To those who knew her well, she was a beautiful person, wise and caring, yet funny and an extraordinary mother.
Readers of India Currents knew her as Sujatha Ramprasad, the writer. Indu Sundaresan, the renowned novelist referred to Sujatha as, “this accomplished writer,” while reviewing her story “Kindness,” which won an Honorable Mention in the India Currents Katha fiction contest in 2014.
Suja was a writer with an unabashed style and content. She was quite the raconteur, who, in her story, “Kindness,” drew the reader in support of the protagonist Raji, who selfishly guards her bathwater. She won us over with humor woven into the story of her non judgmental observation of gay parents in, ‘Two daddies.”
Her essay, “Plunging necklines, gaping armholes and low risers,” had us laughing out aloud with lines like, “Not long ago, the purpose of an armhole on a top or a blouse was—ahem—to be an armhole—the latest trend is to wear large arm-holed blouses…Surely, these armholes have changed their day job?”
“A 3-wheeled revolution,” brought keen respect for the under-privileged rickshaw puller by profiling Irfan Alam, a social entrepreneur with a message to support the cause of clean air. “The census is here,” and “Statistics for safety” were intended to promote civic-mindedness, and her essay, “Greener gifts please” touched our hearts.
I recall Suja working on an essay, undoubtedly comical, of an unmistakable necessity—the printer—which proudly sits on desks in homes and offices. As she observed, “the printer talks to us at the quietest hour of our pre-dawn sleep, with a grrr clickety clack, having a mind of its own!” An even more wondrous novel was taking root in her head, one based in China, for which she’d wanted to travel alone and stay for a month or more in China! Unfinished works, and perhaps there are still many more to be discovered in her notebooks and her computer.
Suja lived a principled life, and followed the teachings of Kanchi Acharya and refrained from wearing pure silk from her teenage years and started composting years before it became the trend in households. Sujatha championed social justice through her writing and raised awareness in a forthright manner. One such person that she admired was an aunt of ours, who had started a social justice program to help the destitute and handicapped living in slums. She wore the traditional 9-yards saree, but her donation program was innovative and ahead of her time. The program, “Oru pidi arisi” ( a handful of rice) raised sackfuls of rice and greatly helped those who needed it the most. “Ready, set, Om,”one of Suja’s early essays always reminds me of how she gave her all to anything good that crossed her path.
My mother always recounted a story that demonstrated her penchant for caring, something she demonstrated early on. When Suja’s paternal grandfather who was disabled and who was also hard of hearing was with them, her mother would carefully turn down the radio volume so that Suja and her sister could study. Suja would be the first to come up and turn the volume up to a high decibel level saying, “why do you turn the volume down, Amma, then Thatha can’t hear the music or news at all; don’t worry, we can study in spite of the noise.” Such was the caring attitude she demonstrated.
Years ago, the age gap between us dissolved even though she was newly married, while my kids were already in school. Her hearty, sincere laughter was infectious and her zest for life was second to none. She loved hiking in the woods, biking on the Golden Gate Bridge, experimenting with other cuisines, and enjoyed whipping up feasts for her wonderful friends, who became almost inseparable and close like dear family members. She was also a truly ardent fan of Harry Potter!
There were surgeries and procedures; countless trips to local doctors and later there were visits to Mayo at Rochester and arduous days of participating in clinical trials at Columbus. If all of this wore her down physically or emotionally, she did not let that show. Her acceptance in enduring the silent ravages of her cancer and her positive outlook were so encouraging, when we began dealing with my husband’s cancer. She taught me to view it as a chronic disease.
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s comparison of cancer to what “the Red Queen tells Alice, that the world keeps shifting, so quickly under her feet that she has to keep running just to keep her position,”—“this is our predicament with cancer: we are forced to keep running merely to keep still,” she said. Even as the battle against cancer goes on, the victors and the vanquished kindle the gentle spirits in our hearts and a resolve to stay afloat whether we are directly in cancer’s midst or not.
And this is the path Suja led many of us through; the unfazed ways in which she and her husband raised their daughter, Swathi, who was the sweet subject of her mother’s poem of a happy writer’s block,
“My sweet daughter
Pulls my white sheet
And fills it with mountain, streams and rock.
Ah! I smile.
I don’t care about my writer’s block. “
A budding author herself, Swathi wrote an essay for India Currents, “Embarrassed by my Indianness,” which to this day remains one of the most read stories online in the magazine. She took part in the Women’s March in January, which her mother would have been very proud of!
Swathi resolutely talked of equality amidst many other thoughts in her beautiful valedictory speech at her high-school, just over a year after her dear mother’s passing.
And., so, for those of us who knew her and flip the pages of every new issue of India Currents with hope for another story penned by Suja, that can not be. And for those who have wondered why this author has not written since March, 2016, this is why.
We miss you, Suja and will strive to follow the example you set!
Sujatha is survived by her husband Ramprasad Satagopan, her daughter Swathi Ramprasad, her parents – Chandra and Ramanujam, and her siblings.
Madhu Raghavan is Sujatha Ramprasad’s cousin and wrote this tribute in her memory, inspired by Suja’s daughter, Swathi Ramprasad’s valedictory speech at her high-school.