A Phenomenal Woman: Sujatha Mathai [1934-2023]

Santosh Bakaya

"Santosh! I loved your story. I love your poems too, especially the ones about Kashmir and your parents.”

"Which story?” I was flummoxed, at this messenger call from a person who was a Facebook acquaintance- not very close then.
Actually, a celebrity writer, so down- to -earth and so warm, and full of beans- The Incredible Sujatha Mathai.

Recipient of the First Kamala Das Poetry prize, 2018, [WE Literary Community], her poetry collections being Crucifixions, We, The Unreconciled, The Attic of Night, [1994] Mother’s Veena and Other Poems [2013] Life - On My Side of The Street and Other Poems, Lighthouse for Drowning Memories. New and Selected Poems [2022] and a short novel, Sheuli’s Star.

Translated into many languages, with her deft handling, the mundane became the magical, touching sublime heights, enthralling and enchanting her readers.

Such a renowned writer was talking to me in breathless excitement. With child-like glee.

“The one you got an award for recently. I HAVE to meet you. Do you stay in Delhi?" There was a quiet strength in that affectionate voice.

I recalled that on September 28, 2018, WE Literary Community [Smeeetha Bhoumik and Team] had conferred the first WE Kamala Das Poetry Award on her, and I had called her to congratulate her. She had thanked me profusely – every word was a thank you note. 

"Delhi is my second home. I keep hopping between Delhi and Jaipur. I will definitely come to meet you soon. May be now, or maybe on my way back from Jammu.  I am going to Jammu on 23rd February.

“Please, come before going to Jammu”. Her voice was a soft- strong purr.
So, on 18 February 2020, at 5 PM, I was at her place, the directions to which she had explained in detail.
“There is a Personal Point, right below my house.” She had specified.  
“I am standing at Personal Point.”  I said, stepping down from the cab.
“Come right up”, and right up was where I went.

The door was opened by a beaming, saree clad woman, who, I knew was Hema, her sincere and affectionate caretaker. 
“Hema, kaisey ho?”
Arrey, aapko mera naam pata hai?” She smiled at me, pleasantly surprised.

"Hi Santosh!” A frail voice, oozing affection.

I saw two frail arms extended towards me, from a chair, in the middle of the room, and into their warm expanse I walked, as though in a somnambulistic trance.  Sujatha Mathai smiled the most affectionate smile ever seen on any face, and then we talked. And talked. And talked.  Not for a moment feeling that we were meeting for the first time. I was immensely touched that she could recall many of my poems. She even discussed the imagery of some, which I had to rack my brain to remember.

Later, she even discussed my award- winning story in detail, wondering aloud at the rampant senseless violence, racism and hatred.

“I loved that poem of yours where the tiny rag picker quickly deposits his sack near the garbage can, and tempted by the drizzle, runs to dance in the falling rain. At that moment, I also visualized myself dancing.” She remarked with a wistful look.

This was one of the episodes in my column Morning Meanderings, in Learning and Creativity.Com, not a poem, but I played along.

As she talked on, I mentally tipped my hat to this phenomenal woman’s strength, resilience, and sense of humour, in the face of her appalling and progressively deteriorating health.  

“I always wanted to act, become a dancer, paint, direct plays …” I don’t know why, but to me her voice sounded like the murmurous splash of water from under a ship.

My poetry book, Songs of Belligerence had just been launched. When I gifted it to her, she held it lovingly to her chest, and recited a poem from it.  Hema recorded it, but there was some technical glitch, and it couldn't be recorded. She was heart- broken. I told her, I would record it again, but then forgot all about it.

Then she recited a poem, Song of the Fall, from her book, The Attic of Night, which I successfully recorded.

“Santosh, go, take a look at the house. Pick up whatever book you want.” She said, affectionately.
I went around the house, inhaling the aura of books lying around in shelves and on tables, admiring the paintings adorning the walls, and sighed, looking at her old framed photographs. 
“You will be fine”, I told her, coming back and sitting on the sofa next to her.
“No Santosh. I am not likely to get better. This is a terrible illness, and doctors have not yet found a cure. It affects the immune system and ruins the lungs as well as stomach.”
Then with a laugh she added, “But don’t you worry, Santosh dear, my illness is totally non- infectious.”
Then both of us laughed again, as Hema plied me with more mouth-wateringly delicious cupcakes.

After more than two hours, as I decided to head home, I looked back to wave once again, to see her hand raised, slowly beckoning.
“Let me hug you one more time” She said in a voice, which had .become slightly weak after our long interaction.  We hugged again, and I don’t know why a tear trickled down my cheek, which I furtively wiped away.

No sooner had I reached home, I received a message on WhatsApp,
“I am so happy you came, and we could spend a little time. I hope to see you again.  Very glad to have you as a friend. Did the video of me reading a poem come out?”

I had plans of visiting her once more after returning from Jammu, but immediately on return, things changed. Lockdown was clamped, and humanity was incarcerated.
Three years passed, but we talked to each other many times. I wanted to gift her my other books, but alas, this was not to be.
“Santosh, can you believe it? I dreamt of you. In my dream, both of us were talking and Hema was offering us tea and cookies.” This she said, in one of her telephone calls, just a few days back. “So when are you coming again? You have to read my latest book.”
Soon”, I said.

Then some days, back I uploaded our photos of three years back, little knowing that it was that very morning that she had breathed her last!

She had gifted some books to me, saying that she would give me some more on my next visit. I was to go to Delhi on 17th March, 2023, to attend a few literary events, and hoped to meet her again, but couldn’t go as I was unwell. 
But, alas, she too had gone!

In her book, The Attic of Night, she asks,
“Shall we, in death lie close   
To those our hearts have loved?” [In Tiruvella, p 51]

Well, needless to say, dearest Sujatha Mathai, how can one not love you? You, with your unbounded affection, your spunky outbursts against the injustices and unfairness of the world, your compassion and kindness towards the have- nots, and your smiles – so full of warmth, despite your life threatening illness – which I must say, threatened your frail figure, but not your will-power. And you continued to smile till the end, thumping a deceptively frail fist upwards at every small triumph.
Your powerful poetry, lyrically contemplative, with stunning imagery, will continue to speak directly to the readers- sometimes hushed, sometimes in staccato bursts of indignation and empathy, bursting with love for the downtrodden and needy.

The literary world is going to miss you. I am going to miss you and that last hug, during which you said, “Never give up, writing, Santosh, and keep in touch. You have my WhatsApp number now.”
 I can imagine you, furiously writing about the ‘happy news, of lovers who’ve won against the world’ [Between two Worlds. The Attic of Night, Rupa, 1991, P 56], and the bright hopes of spring, studiously blotting out the news of deceit, betrayal, long silences and loneliness.

You were in love with the myriad hues of life, and rest assured, the world will continue to be in love with you, dearest Sujatha Mathai. You continue to nestle in our hearts.


  1. A sincere and touching tribute. A phenomenal women was she indeed.

  2. Words from the depth of your heart. Loved reading this.

  3. Straight from heart ... and very apt one for Sujatha Mam.

  4. A beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing this and bringing her to life through your writing. You were fortunate to meet a beautiful soul like her. May her soul rest in peace🙏

  5. So touching ! A genuine poet with such a great heart.A fitting tribute.


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