Tribute: Sugathakumari, iconic Malayalam poet-activist

Sugathakumari spearheaded successful campaigns to save the Silent Valley and other Kerala forests and roused concerns about social ills

Print edition : January 29, 2000

Poet Sugathakumari. Photo: THE HINDU archives

Sugathakumari (left), during a visit to Silent Valley in Palakkad district a few years ago. (Below) The campaign to save the evergreen forests of Silent Valley turned out to be one of the iconic environmental battles in the world. “Marathinu Stuti” (“Ode to a Tree”), the poem she wrote then, became the movement’s anthem. Photo: ASHOKAN

WITH her sisters, Prof. Hridayakumari and Prof. Sujatha Devi. Photo: by special arrangement

During a visit to Silent Valley in Pallakkad district a few year ago. The campaign to save the evergreen forests of Silent Valley turned out to be one of the iconic environmental battles in the world. ‘Marathinu Stuti’ (‘Ode to a Tree’), the poem she wrote then, became the movement’s anthem. Photo: ASHOKAN

Jnanpith awardees M.T. Vasudevan Nair (left) and O.N.V. Kurup with Sugathakumari at the inaugural ceremony of the Viswamalayala Mahotsavam in Thiruvananthapuram on October 30, 2012. Sugathakumari’s most ardent and life-long campaign was for the advancement of the Malayalam language. Photo: THE HINDU archives

Addressing a gathering after signing a canvas urging the Kerala government to abandon the Athirapally hydel project, at a function organised by the Gandhi Haritha Samrudhi in Thiruvananthapuram on March 19, 2017. Photo: S. Mahinsha

At an environmental summit organised by the Biodiversity Board at Kodungallur, Kerala. Sugathakumari realised that creative writers could rouse an entire community and elicit a more effective response to environmental and scientific concerns and social ills and injustice than perhaps scientists or politicians. Photo: By Special Arrangement

During a campaign against the controversial airport project at Aranmula, her native village. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Sugathakumari (1934-2020), Malayalam poet, nature warrior and guardian of grieving hearts, played a leading role in campaigns to save nature and natural resources and undertook a parallel quest to provide sanctuary to destitute women and the mentally challenged.

THE problem for a sensitive soul like Sugathakumari in a wayward world was that she was inevitably fighting too many battles at the same time. She knew well that she may not win them all. Yet, her list was long.

In the mid 1970s, much before ‘environmentalism’ meant anything in India, Sugathakumari, by then a poet of some standing in Malayalam, plunged herself into what would turn out to be one of the iconic environmental battles in the world, the one to save the evergreen forests of Silent Valley in Kerala’s Palakkad district. “I fell into it like a bird,” she would say later. Thereafter, and before she knew it, with “a pen and a firm spine” as her only tools, she began to play a leading role in several such campaigns, to save Kerala’s forests, rivers, soil, hills, birds and elephants.

About a decade later, by the mid 1980s, rumours about the condition of inmates of government mental asylums in Kerala, and an impulsive personal inspection of one of them, set her on a parallel quest, one that she undertook with missionary zeal for the rest of her life. Her mission was to offer hope, support systems and institutions to mentally challenged and destitute women, children and the elderly, and their troubled families.

All the while, she wrote incessantly, calling people to act on a variety of concerns. There was not a struggle in Kerala that she was not part of—the struggle to save nature or natural resources or to highlight the ills of society, especially those concerning women and children.

She once described her tryst with the Silent Valley struggle as “an experience much like a big wave coming and hitting her on the face”. It would be hard to find another person so concerned about nature and who constantly grieved and warned about its destruction. No other poet or writer in Kerala had shown so much passion while writing about nature.

A ‘soldier on the losing side’

Sugathakumari was drawn into the Silent Valley struggle by an article written by the academic and environmental activist Professor M.K. Prasad. Silent Valley was one of “the richest, most threatened and least studied habitats on earth”, but the State and Central governments wanted to build a 120-MW hydroelectric project there, submerging a large part of the pristine forest and a stunning range of flora and fauna. An article she wrote subsequently in a Malayalam newspaper with the title “The axe is about to fall. It is already too late” elicited tremendous public response and attracted attention to the issue.

With politicians and a section of society trying to brush it aside as a “man or monkey debate”, she decided to write to all prominent writers and intellectuals of Kerala asking them to join her and a small group of scientists and activists and young people in what could only be a “hopeless struggle”.

“Every battle has two sides, the winning side and the losing side. Maybe we are on the losing side. But the losing side also needs soldiers. Will you join in this losing battle?” she said in her letter. Surprisingly, it became the clarion call for what was soon to be the most heroic and successful battle ever fought in India to save a forest. A poem that she wrote then, Marathinu Stuti (“Ode to a Tree”), became the movement’s anthem.

As if they had been waiting for it, writers joined the cause. It was Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, one of Malayalam’s most well-known writers, who sent the first response, an envelope with a contribution of Rs.100 and a note, which read: “Include me too in this losing battle.” An army of people, mostly young men and women, soon became part of the struggle, enticed by the hundreds of meetings that were organised and the imaginative poems and other writings the movement triggered.

The agitation that ensued, with no support from political parties or the mainstream media (“with the notable exception of The Hindu,” as Sugathakumari used to insist in later years), went on for seven years and was spearheaded by the Prakriti Samrakshana Samiti in which she played an inspiring role as its secretary. “People cared to listen to me because I had been speaking to them for several years through the language of poetry,” she said later.

The struggle soon became a movement for protecting not just one forest but nature itself. It was the first agitation in India that made common people aware of the need for conservation and of the part they had to play in it. Moreover, it was a struggle that made those in power aware of the importance of protecting the remaining precious tropical forests. It led to the passing of the Forest Conservation Ordinance in 1980, which stipulated that forest lands could not be diverted for non-forestry purposes without the prior approval of the Central government. In 1983, soon after the State and Central governments decided to abandon the hydroelectric project, ideas about biosphere reserves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries began to gain currency.

A poet on the side of human beings

Her role in the Silent Valley struggle was a turning point in Sugathakumari’s life. After that, she said, she went on a “writing spree” about exploitation and degradation of nature, destruction of trees, forests, rivers, soil. Soon, nature and women, as symbols of suffering, seemed to merge in her poems and writings. “I write when the pain in my heart that surges within me becomes uncontrollable,” she explained. She wrote about dying forests, ravaged rivers and hills, the rape of poor human hearts, the colour of blood and love, warriors of lost causes, stories of lost battles, touching a cloud and talking to the night rain. She played a leading role in almost all the major environmental agitations in Kerala after Silent Valley, including those at Pooyamkutty, Jeerakappara, Achankovil, Ponmudi, Mavoor, Koodamkulam, Vilappilsala and, lately, Aranmula, her native village, where the struggle to foil an airport project became another successful venture.

It was in the midst of the Silent Valley campaign that Sugathakumari realised that creative writers, with their literary skills, popularity and moral authority, could rouse an entire community and elicit a more effective response to environmental and scientific concerns and social ills and injustice, by communicating better in the local language than perhaps scientists or politicians. From then on, her poetry and other writings began to reflect such an insight. Thus, even as they perhaps retained their reticent, sensitive and lyrical quality, the poems acquired an intense, strident and philosophical tone that suited her activism. Her poems also became a mark of her special kind of politics, which she described as “politics that took the side of human beings”.

There was magic in her words when she wrote about nature or its creatures. However, some say that the best of her poems were written before she was 60. In later years, her poetry and other writings assumed a forceful, sometimes harsh tone, a necessity perhaps, as she became immersed in her concern for the suffering of women and children who had lost the security of their homes, victims of sexual abuse, the mentally challenged and children in distress. “I do not think any poet in Malayalam or any great writer has seen so much suffering or so many sins or heard so many curses being exchanged as I have. My eyes have witnessed horrendous hell,” she once said.

Abhaya—freedom from fear, and hell

It was through her eyes that Kerala came to know of one such hell that had thrived right next to the centres of power for over 150 years. In 1986, after hearing about the appalling conditions at the Government Mental Asylum in Thiruvananthapuram that had remained closed to the outside world ever since it was opened, Sugathakumari managed to gain entry into the women’s wing of the asylum. Her description of the place after her visit, repeated several times in interviews since then, is etched in Kerala’s memory and remains a shocking embarrassment for the State.

This is how she described it in one of her later interviews: “There was a toilet hole that marked the extreme end of each of those single cells. Around 300 women were housed in that section, two or three of them in each cell. There were no cots for the inmates. Scraps of paper, soiled clothes, pieces of mats and rugs lay scattered all around. Piles of ordure clogged the toilet holes that were supposed to be flushed with water from outside. The inmates slept on the bare, damp floor, near those holes. To my horror, I found that about 75 per cent of the women were stark naked. Then in one such cell, I saw an old woman, a mother with silky white hair, who lay crumpled on the floor. I saw no movement and thought at first that the worst had happened. After a while, she raised her head and said: ‘My girl, I’m hungry.’ Soon those in the nearby cells began to bang the grill doors for food. There was a chorus of cries, loud curses and abuses, scenes of naked bodies banging the iron grills, and the stench of excrement and body odour, a scene of hell, right out of a horror film. I sat there crying and then ran out with my hands covering my ears into the bright sun that hot afternoon. I established ‘Abhaya’ (a home for mentally challenged women) that very evening.”

It was a brave decision on her part, and her actions thereafter were momentous, the import of which very few even within Kerala have realised.

The founding of Abhaya (meaning “without fear”) and the agitations and campaigns that followed with Sugathakumari playing a leading role, drew the attention of the public, the government and the judiciary to the pitiable conditions in these asylums. There was firm resistance from the established order, with the agitators being told that they were talking about “mental asylums, not Central schools”, that they should not “break their heads on a stone wall”, and that indeed “laymen had no role in the asylums and should leave the doctors to do their jobs”. In several rounds of discussions that followed with the government and other authorities, Sugathakumari stood her ground, demanding that laymen surely had a right to say that the living conditions in the asylums should be improved. After functioning without any public scrutiny for several decades, these institutions were eventually thrown open for inspection following the report of a court-appointed commission. The conditions in these hospitals underwent a dramatic change thereafter. The inmates were given clothes to wear and food on time, dormitories were established, toilet facilities improved, cultural activities were promoted, in short, as Sugathakumari said, “they became hospitals for human beings”.

But she knew there was only so much that she could do, even in the institutions that she had established for them. “For the mentally challenged, it is a world of fears, sorrows, vague shapes and forms, and a lot of uncertainty. To keep them in peace in front of that world… to keep them there without hunger, in clean, happy and comfortable surroundings. This is all that we can possibly do,” she said once.

Abhaya was started only as a care centre for mentally challenged women in the government asylums in Kerala, but it has since become a sanctuary for deprived and traumatised girls, a short-stay home for women in distress, a free de-addiction centre and hospital for victims of alcohol and drug abuse, a free treatment, care and skill development training centre for mental patients, a centre for the rehabilitation of street children and a centre offering free legal aid for women in distress.

‘A cry to the sun’

People enjoyed her poetry a lot. Even so, it was her persistent engagement with the deep injustices that plagued Kerala society that the State found most valuable. Sugathakumari became more popular than all her contemporary writers because of her role as Kerala’s conscience-keeper, an oracle of future tidings and a guardian of grieving hearts.

In a television interview on the 30th anniversary of Abhaya, Sugathakumari spoke about one of her poems that she rarely liked to recite, but which she said was the one closest to her heart. She could not clearly recall all the lines, so she spoke about it, describing a disturbing real-life moment from contemporary Kerala that had come to her notice and had formed the subject of her poem.

“During a cold morning, in the middle of a rail track, something moves,” she said. “Is it a dog, waiting for a train and sure death? Look closely and you see a child’s face. It raises both its hands. It is the tiny form of a naked child. It is a girl, about one to one and a half years, raped and then abandoned, waiting for death.”

Sugathakumari said it was a true-life story, and that she saw the girl, the subject of her poem, not on the rail track, but soon afterwards at the Medical College Hospital. “I went there that very night to see if she would survive. Even its stomach was torn. Its face looked as if it was chewed out or clawed at, its lips were bitten and torn… a wisp of a girl, about whom I could write only after several years. It was impossible to write about her immediately. I couldn’t sleep for several days after I saw her. By next morning the child had died.”

The poem ends, she told her interviewer, “with a cry to the sun, the eternal witness, to extend its hands downwards and touch the girl, that dying flower, and make her sleep. Let her die!... But before she did, I saw something: with eyes that still earned to be suckled, like a silent thunder, without any words, but a burning look, she cursed us all like a god. Oh dear! I had to bear witness to that!”

In the years following the establishment of Abhaya, Sugathakumari was witness to many such horrid real-life scenes and stories. She wrote about them in her poems and articles and spoke at meetings and interviews about battles she had lost, shaking the conscience of Kerala society, bringing to plain view the dark secrets that lay under a veneer of modernity, progressive policies, literacy and civility.

Among them were countless instances of young girls locked up for months and raped by multiple men and then let out, mothers being abused before their children, shocking perversions in society committed by fathers, brothers and total strangers, abused wives, women and children battered by alcoholic husbands, schoolchildren falling prey to the drugs, liquor and sex mafia, and elderly parents, worried to death about the safety of their mentally challenged children after their lifetime, issues that nobody wanted to take up.

One of Sugathakumari’s later poems, for instance, is titled “How should I kill?” It is about a mother asking society how she should end her helpless daughter’s life before she herself dies. “It is not my imagination or not just a poem. Many people have asked me this question over the years. Shouldn’t someone be there for them? Is it not the job of society to help them?”

Sugathakumari has been relentlessly posting such questions on Kerala’s conscience and towards the end she was deeply disappointed that despite her life-long engagement with such issues, things were not improving. But she also felt hope, for she wrote: “This life is not futile, my friend/ When I sing for you/ This song is not futile/ When you hum it.”

Chairperson of Women’s Commission

Sugathakumari was Kerala government’s natural choice to lead the State Women’s Commission as its first chairperson in 1996. Her appointment was a clear message, and she became a role model for others who succeeded her to that post with her proactive involvement in several prominent cases of sexual assault and harassment of women.

Sugathakumari’s most ardent and life-long campaign was for the advancement of Malayalam language. Her services for its development are invaluable. But, in later years, she spoke with distress about falling standards and neglect by parents, children and the State’s education system.

She was a dignified, proud woman and spoke thankfully of her moorings. Her father, Bhodeswaran (original name, Kesava Pillai) was a scholar, poet, political activist and freedom fighter and was a deeply spiritual person. Her mother, Karthiyayani Amma, was the first woman from Travancore to obtain a postgraduate degree in Sanskrit from the Presidency College, Madras, in 1920, and was Professor of Sanskrit at Women’s College in Thiruvananthapuram.

Sugathakumari and her two sisters, Hridayakumari and Sujatha Devi, both scholars in their own right, grew up in a dream atmosphere, in a house frequented by scholars, poets, writers, communists and congressmen, freedom fighters and journalists. Sugathakumari would often say: “We grew up seeing great men and women every day at home, discussing politics, poetry and society. It was a great education. My grandmother too was a very learned woman who used to say, ‘If it is a family, it should have five daughters.’ What treasures did they give us? The ocean of love and affection that they showered on us. The knowledge that they gave us and the path to righteousness that they pointed out to us. The caution that they instilled in us. Our childhood itself, just before Independence, the period when love for the nation filled our hearts and guided our spirits. Our parents who opened the world of books to us. My mother, who introduced us to the amazing world of literature. Our father who instilled great values in us.”

Sugathakumari, who had been ailing for a while, was undergoing treatment for COVID-19 and broncho-pneumonia at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital, where she died on December 23 at the age of 86.

One of the most touching tributes to her came in the form of a newspaper article by Sreelakshmi, a girl from a tribal hamlet in Wayanad, who came to Abhaya of her own free will at the age of 13, seeking sanctuary from the dangers that routinely stalked young women at her native village. She was now working as a teacher in a tribal school and wrote, listing one by one the lessons her ‘Teacheramma’ (as all Abhaya residents call Sugathakumari) had imparted to her during each visit and each phone call.

Teacheramma’s lessons

She concluded by saying: “It was Teacheramma who advised me that I must face sadness, in whichever form it came, bravely. So I shall overcome this [news of her death] too. Had it not been for her, I would not be here. Many of us would not be here. It was her hand that kept as safe, without giving us away to be torn asunder, without letting us live a life of drudgery in some kitchen. Teacheramma left after giving me my life’s lesson, that just as she extended her hands to protect me, tomorrow I should also offer my shade to someone in need. I have conditioned my mind in such a way that I too will lend a helping hand to any orphaned being that happens to come before me….”

In an article she wrote in 2003, Sugathakumari recounted an incident that happened in Jakarta, where a Japanese woman, a fellow recipient of an international award and a voluntary worker among mentally challenged children, asked her if she could recite an Indian poem for her. It turned out that the woman was a former geisha with her own personal story of hopeless love. Sugathakumari said she recited a poem and translated it in simple English for her: “What is the colour of love? Is it white, like mother’s milk? Is it deep red, like the passion of lovers? Or is it colourless, like the drops of sacred water poured onto your lips as you fall exhausted at dusk… or the tears dripping from your eyes?” The poem never answered the question, but the woman was moved to tears hearing her recite it.

But what is the colour of love? Ask anyone who had even a passing acquaintance with Sugathakumari and they will not have to search for an answer.

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