Sunder & Us

–Arvind and Anu

My first glimpse of Sunder was relatively late in life, as these things go; I (Arvind) was 22, and the year was 1981. I was a graduate student in the US, and out of the blue, received a letter from Raji, whom I had never spoken to but had seen, maybe once. I had an invitation to spend my winter vacation in their Washington DC home. Lexington, Kentucky, where I had landed from India, was a far stranger place than I could even comprehend at the time, and my long acquaintance with the mild squalor of graduate student life had only just begun. I knew I was going to Washington. 

 Once my holidays had begun, I was able to hitch a ride with a friend who was driving to the vicinity, and got dropped off at a suburban gas station, from where I made a phone call announcing my availability to be picked up. Only after I arrived at their home, courtesy of Sunder who drove to get me, did I realize that I had come in the midst of a party, and without forewarning at that. Their home was filled with diplomats and other Washingtonians. Although I had disrupted their entertainment, and was too green and awkward even to apologise, it is testimony to the Sunderrajans’ collective tact that I thought my entry was relatively smooth. They were nice. Only one remark made that evening stands out in my memory. Sunder was asking a guest, presumably a member of the Foreign Service, “Why is it that the Foreign Service people treat others like pariahs?” I have no memory of the guest’s reply.  

 Although Sunder could ask direct questions like that, suggesting uncompromising honesty as well as a delight in provocation, that did not mean I came to know him well any time soon. He was deeply immersed in his work, and while he was unfailingly kind to me, he was too busy, and I no doubt, too callow, to have much conversation. Raji on the other hand befriended me generously and without reserve, but that is another story.

 We (Anu and Arvind) came to know Sunder slowly, over the course of long stays at their home – in Delhi and later in New York. Sunder was no pushover. He would watch and appraise a person, and reserve his judgement about them, even after hosting them in his home for months together. He was kind, and he could be critical. One could feel both of those things, but somehow they were not in tension with each other.

He was a bureaucrat, at home in the world of files, notations, and cross-references, but unlike most bureaucrats, his empathy was exceptional. If in his work life he had figured out how to do things efficiently, he could also simply take individuals as they came, and let them be. He was the auditor supreme. He got his sums right. He knew the price of things, and the worth of people too. For someone who climbed to very near the top of a calculating profession, he came across as someone completely unspoiled by it, able to live for the moment, and not hiding his joy in it.

 He could become very talkative. In fact he could dominate the conversation in a roomful of people, all night long if he liked, but the most meaningful exchanges with Sunder for me were laconic or even wordless. You knew he knew, and he knew you knew. What it was that we knew, it is hard to say, but shared silence is made of such things. We had the sense of a bond with someone for whom we could do anything, and to whom we could entrust anything. All of this came through in the language of his looks, which were more eloquent than anything – both searching and compassionate, undemanding but also fierce.  

For someone who loved life so much, his fearlessness in his last days was remarkable. Somehow though, we were not surprised at all. In a way, it seemed characteristic of Sunder.

Few of those who met him ever forgot him, and few failed to notice his passions – for good company, good food, and all the good things of life. He loved it all so much, and yet he left so lightly and quickly. This was due to a medical calamity no doubt, but we can also perhaps see in this an aspect of his personality. He loved life, but he could let it go.

We can’t let go of him though. We hear his voice and we see him before us. We rehearse things he used to say to each other. Arvind remembers when he was staying with the family briefly in Jaipur, and when Sunder was sending the driver out to buy something, Arvind also made a request, but it was for an economy item that was not your typical middle class consumption article. It was for some neem twigs, whereas the proper thing would have been to ask for a toothbrush and toothpaste. There and then, Sunder slapped his forehead and said, “Maanaththa vaangariye da!” Even breaches of decorum were dramatized so much, the perpetrator felt at ease, but the message was also conveyed. This was a reprimand, but it did not diminish either party’s humanity one bit. He was always with you even if he stood above you, and you knew it.

-Anu and Arvind

July 28, 2014

[Arvind and Anu are friends first and family second. They were our guides and hosts in New York when we began our annual visits in 2006 and Sunder enjoyed their hospitality immensely.]