In their seven to eight decades, the three sisters wrote with varied interests.

Collage of writer Sugathakumari and her sisters Image credit: DC Books (Hridayakumari)
Features Literature Thursday, December 24, 2020 - 16:07

They both had wide expressive eyes, long white hair, a simple black bindi. If you caught only a partial view, you might not know if it's Sugathakumari or her younger sister Sujatha Devi. Their eldest — Hridayakumari — was more petite but sported similar features. The three famous sisters from Kerala had a lot more in common. They wrote, all of them, the middle one most of all. When Sugathakumari passed away on Wednesday morning, after a brief battle with COVID-19, she became the last of the sisters to leave the world, all three of them dying in a span of six years.

At 86, Sugatha lived the longest among them, Hridyakumari dying of age related ailments at 84, and Sujatha after a brief illness at 72. In their seven to eight decades, the three of them wrote with varied interests.

Sugatha’s writing from the 1950s —  when she published under a pseudonym —  were poems of a melancholic note. A lot about the world appeared to pain her and she refused to take solace in the little joys of life. It did not remain as the injured outpourings of a poet in a book. Sugatha stepped out and worked, acted on the injustices in ways she knew best, gathered support from fellow writers and like-minded individuals. She went to the Silent Valley in Palakkad to pledge her support for saving the evergreen tropical forest from destruction, she wrote of the trees and people read her poems out at protests. Every time the ways of the world pained her, she came back and wrote and then she acted. Hurt by the plight of women with mental health issues at hospitals, she opened Abhaya, an organisation to care for those patients as well as women and girls in distress.

Read: Sugathakumari fought atrocities against women and children for decades

Curiously, Sugatha was not a teacher, and yet she got called so. 'Teacher' became a second name and sometimes the only name when people spoke of her. In contrast, both her sisters had been teachers. Hridyakumari, a student of English, became a reputed teacher of the language, teaching in different colleges in Kerala for more than three-and-a-half decades. She wrote and critiqued books. She translated many works between English and Malayalam —  Vallathol Narayana Menon's poems into English and Rabindranath Tagore's write-ups into Malayalam. She also translated her sister Sugatha's poetry into English.

Hridayakumari won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for criticism/study in 1991 for her book Kalpanikatha. Ormakalile Vasanthakalam was the autobiography of Hridayakumari. All three sisters were Akademi award winners. Sujatha Devi won hers in 1999 for her work Kaadukalude Thaalam Thedi, a travel book. Sujatha wrote poetry under the name of Devi and prose under Sujatha. She, like her eldest sister, was a teacher of English, but wrote in Malayalam.

Read: ‘She was spontaneous, her poems had harmony’, Malayalam poets remember Sugathakumari

Their more famous sister Sugatha won two Akademi awards —  one at the state level, and another national. Her first came in 1968 for the poetry collection Pathirapookkal. Her second —   the Kendra Sahitya Akademi award —  came 10 years later for the most famous Rathrimazha (which Hridyakumari had translated to English). She also won the Akademi fellowship in 2004.

Also read:

Sugathakumari’s activism was an extension of her poetry: Poet K Satchidanandan writes

Remembering Sugathakumari teacher, who gave helpless children a safe place to live

How Kerala poet Sugathakumari celebrated her last birthday

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