A Toast to Sunder
If I could be anyone I would like to be Sunder Rajan. Because I would like to be more giving, more affectionate, more devoted, less interested in myself. Because I would like to make everyone feel at home everywhere. Because I would like to be the most devoted husband/partner in recorded history.
My most vivid early memory of Sunder is when he and Raji returned to NYU and I entered a crowded room for a talk. I hadn’t seen them yet. He caught a glimpse of me across the room and his arm shot out and his face lit up. He actually seemed to hug me across the room. He was welcoming me to the place where I worked full time, where he was the husband of a visiting scholar.
But that’s how he was. He was the ultimate host: the one who wanted everyone to be comfortable, and know they were welcome and missed, he wanted everyone to know that their presence was enthusiastically noted. I loved him back across that room, and I can see his face in its beautiful lit-up state and his arm stretched straight out toward me in a perpetual embrace in my mind’s eye.
Eventually we had long conversations about single malts: his knowledge was quite profound, as it was about so many things, and we always made a compact to drink a malt together. The very last time I saw him was at a party I had during the ACLA conference in 2014. I said, come on, let’s have a malt together. He said, no, Raji doesn’t like it. Nothing was more important to Sunder than that. I said no more about it, knowing that it was useless if Raji’s slightest unhappiness was at stake.
I read recently that having the experience of awe makes us generally happier. If this is the case, I owe Sunder and Raji years of therapy fees. I always have had the experience of awe in their presences. Because they are and were so loving and giving. Because they devote and devoted themselves to the work of others so easily and graciously. Because they are and were so devoted to one another in such a magnificent way.
Raji is now embracing her grief in a heroic fashion. I know if Sunder could say something to her, he would say, I am still here with you. You are ok. But he would also be so frustrated that he cannot carry her books, comfort her, take care of business matters, help her host parties and dinners, fussing over each and every guest, and also to simply adore her flat out all the time.
The loss of Sunder is unbearable; there is so much love that we all have to contribute to the world to make up for the amount he contributed every day. I miss him and I toast him with all of my heart, and all of my single malt.
[My colleague in NYU’s English department, Elaine Freedgood, distinguished professor and academic luminary, is one more of my friends abducted away by Sunder. Elaine and Sunder had an affinity that had to be seen to be believed, a friendship whose benefits I reap today. Elaine has seen through this difficult New York visit with the utmost loving care, attuned to my need for Sunder-substitutes.]