Sushila Appadurai ,was the talented young organist at Christ Church when I was growing up. I have always hero worshipped her. Her mother, Mrs. Appadurai, was just as deaf as my mother was, but they were the best of friends and could spend hours talking and chatting together.
Sushila, grew up to be a very beautiful girl and everyone in Singapore thought that she looked like Saira Bhanu of the Hindi screen, the beauty queen of yester years. She excelled in music and sports and after an illustrious school career at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, she joined the Singapore University. During this time she was crowned Deepavali Queen at a campus beauty pageant.
When she was twenty one, she lost her father. She had gone down the road to get ice cream after dinner one night, leaving her dad reading in bed. When she returned she found him dead and laid out on the bed, the house full of neighbours and her mother in a state of shock. It was a traumatic time for Sushila, who suddenly found herself mothering her mother, who was precariously balanced on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Her dad, like most dads of that era, had done everything including all the transactions at the bank. Neither Sushila nor her mother, had ever visited a bank, written or signed a cheque. Nor had they ever paid a bill. Sushila had to learn very quickly and painfully to step into her dad’s shoes and take over the running of the house, pushing aside the carefree life that she had hitherto led.
She taught literature for a term at St Margaret’s School. She did Hiawatha with us and we adored her. She was christened Minnie-ha-ha, Laughing Water, a name that stuck through the years. She did more than Hiawatha with us. She taught us manners and how to conduct ourselves as little ladies. She even taught us how to sit with our legs together in class. If she had told us to jump in the lake we would have. She just had to ask. She was everything that we wanted to be when we grew up.
One day, a very happy Mrs Appadurai came to the Parsonage to invite us to Sushila’s wedding. She was leaving for India to marry Dr Jikku Cherian a dashing young Naval Officer, the son of Dr PV Cherian, the Governor of Maharashtra. My mother was over the moon, as she had worked with Dr. PV Cherian several years ago and she was delighted. Sushila’s wedding would be a great social event and it certainly would be the wedding of the year. Both the mothers started talking about the trousseau and the jewellery, absolute trivia in my eyes that filled with tears, at the thought of Sushila leaving us.
A few years later, I went to do my pre-university course in Stella Maris College in Madras. One day, Georgina George, a classmate from St. Margaret’s and I were invited to lunch by Sushila and her doctor husband. They picked us up in their red convertible Herald car and spun us around Madras with the top rolled down before they took us for lunch at The Gymkhana Club. We had a fantastic time. We had never been to a club in our lives. Nor had we ever seen so many knives and forks next to our plates. This was rubbing shoulders with high society and we were quite intoxicated with the excitement of dining out with our dream couple.
This is life! we thought.
When we got married we are going to find ourselves a couple of dashing young men in uniforms like Jikku, we decided.
I lost touch with Sushila again, when I went away to Medical School at CMC, Vellore and our lives took separate ways. Years later I met her in Madras again, when her mother was living at the YWCA. What I did not know then, was that Sushila had lived out an extraordinary life of challenges, on a singularly bumpy road.
Shortly after I had met her at the Gymkhana Club, her whole world crashed when Jikku was diagnosed with Polycystic kidneys. He developed chronic renal failure eventually, when he was working at the Preston Royal Infirmary in England. The vibrant couple of my dreams had to replace the joy of every day living, with a chronic illness, disappointments and dialysis, often at the end of dismal corridors in hospital. All this was set in the early years, when haemodialysis was difficult and tedious. Many waited interminably for cadaver transplants, that were at best expensive and unpredictable.
On her own, Sushila worked with Jikku through this crisis. She was a non-medical person and had to be trained to handle haemodialysis. Assembling the filter systems of the artificial kidney, with her gloved hands she would anchor him to dialysis at night, completely aware of the risks of sepsis, infection and possible emboli. The exhausted toxin filled human being would sleep, while his blood left his body to pass through miles of coiled polythene tubing, doing a complete filtration and detox.
Sushila, never slept as she watched the man and the machine. In the morning, she would unhook him, limp and wrung out like a wet rag. She would give him a soft fried egg, sunny side up, with toast, a thimble of baked beans and a whiff of bacon, a protein treat that was normally denied him, except the morning after dialysis. The transformation was complete after he showered and changed into his doctor’s coat and she drove him to work. After that, bleary eyed, she would return home, to crawl up the steps and crash on the bed, without even changing her clothes, to catch up on her sleep.
The emotional drain was cumulative and their social life nonexistent, as the haemodialysis took over as the mega-pivot in their lives, for six years. Holiday getaways, were two day affairs as dialysis was slated thrice a week. Physically and mentally exhausted, she fought her way through all the pain and the frustration that only they knew, together as a couple and separately as individuals. These must have been such hard times and from all accounts they faced it alone, forging a bond that no family or children could possibly have done.
A lesser mortal may have abandoned a spouse for less, or caved in to the pressure. Not Sushila Appadurai. Fiercely loyal and courageous, she was going to walk the walk and live out the “in sickness and in health” bit. No pity parties or Job’s comforters for her. Her anger was towards the disease that had robbed them of a normal life and she took it as a challenge, to face all the obstacles head on as they came. For her, it was a battle that had to be fought and won. Feelings of longing and regret were harnessed and locked up, escaping only on extremely rare and unguarded moments.
Six years later, a young person died of an aneurysm in France and the family, which remained anonymous, with unparalleled generosity in the hour of their greatest grief, agreed to donate their child’s kidney, giving twenty seven years of life to an absolute stranger, a young ENT Surgeon in England. On February the 6th 1973, an unknown pilot, another hero in this remarkable story, weathered the foul February winds that howled over the English Channel, to drop off the kidney, packed in ice, in a wide mouthed thermos flask, at the doorstep of the renal unit, in the Manchester Royal Infirmary.
The transplant was a success and Jikku continued to work as a full fledged ENT Surgeon doing a full day’s work and operating time. They moved to Florida where Jikku had his own practice and Sushila managed the office. Eventually Jikku did the board exams to become a Diplomate of the prestigious American College of Surgeons, no small feat for a man tenaciously holding on to the second chance that he had been given in life. Together, they built up a life of hope and unbelievable success from the hopelessness that they felt when he was first diagnosed with an astounding blood urea of 540 units.
Her faith in God and in themselves made her believe the incredible and achieve the impossible. When Jikku died in 2000, Sushila brought the ashes of a brave man, who had lived a life of quiet dignity, home to Chennai. I got to see her again and renewed my friendship, as an adult, with a hero larger than life. She was devastated when I met her and it was heartbreaking to see her struggle to get through the days, like a wounded animal.
Love between a man and a woman, between a husband and wife, can sometimes transcend the simplicity of the human mind and crystallise into something that is tested, tried and true. Jikku and Sushila had found that against all odds. They had given a deeper dimension to love, commitment and marriage. Refusing to be beaten by life again, she returned to Florida and plunged herself into community projects, volunteering, mentoring and fundraising, looking beyond her own needs to those less fortunate than herself,
Barely, had she come up for air, when she had to walk the paces with her younger brother David, her only sibling, who was battling rectal cancer in England. Shuttling several times between England and America she held his hand while fought the big C. He died and Sushila spent a miserable month settling his affairs and donating his phenomenal collection of books. Another chapter had closed in her life, when she turned the key for the last time in his flat and returned home to Florida. She could not understand why she kept telephoning David’s empty flat, after her return to Florida.
Before she could find an answer to this strange pattern of behaviour, she was rendered homeless, when her hometown of Punta Gorda took a direct hit from Hurricane Charley, Her beautiful home was ripped apart mercilessly. The survivor in her came to the fore, with practised ease, as she faced living in a rented one room flat, while her home was repaired and she finally moved back into her restored home, to unpack and piece her life together again.
Courage has many faces.
Sushila Appadurai Cherian is one of them.