For the love of Sanskrit

Author: admin

During her 60s, if you had told Sushila A that she would be securing a doctorate in Sanskrit in the coming years, she would have laughed it off and carried on with her routine household chores. However, at 83, this gritty granny has done just that! Last month, the University of Mumbai issued her a PhD (Arts) Degree in Sanskrit for her thesis, The Mysticism of Thirumangai Alwar in comparison to the Mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux. “I had no idea I would receive a PhD one day in Sanskrit as it was never a dream or ambition,” she shares. “For me, Sanskrit was something I wanted to learn from a young age as it was a treasure trove of our ancient knowledge. I would recite shlokas but always had a thirst to know their inner meaning and significance.”

The youngest of six siblings, Sushila spent her childhood in Alwaye in Kerala, where she completed her bachelor’s in history as an outstanding student. After 45 years of marriage, her husband passed away in 1998. “I was living in Chennai then. With all my three children well settled, I didn’t want to sit idle and while away my time. To keep myself occupied, on my way to the market along with my friend one evening, I went to enquire about a Sanskrit course at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.” That became a turning point as she went on to complete the four-year Kovid course (an equivalent to graduation in Sanskrit) at the institution.

In 2004, she shifted to Mumbai to live with her daughter Jayashree Ramesh, who was then headmistress (ISC section) of Lilavatibai Podar High School. “Noticing Amma’s academic inclination, I started making enquiries for her and got to know she was eligible to pursue a master’s degree in Sanskrit at the University of Mumbai, Kalina. We lived close by which became an added advantage,” recalls Ramesh. Sushila soon started attending college. “Amma wouldn’t miss even a single class; in fact, she attended her classes even on the day of the Mumbai floods in 2005!” As the oldest student in the class, she instantly became popular as ‘maami’ [aunt] on campus. “All youngsters used to encourage me and shower their affection; they never made me feel different because I was older,” reminisces Sushila.

After completing her post-graduation at 75, the unstoppable scholar found her next mission: an M Phil degree in Sanskrit, where she submitted a dissertation on The Influence of the Alwars (Andal) on the Visistadvaita Philosophy of Sri Ramanujacharya. Encouraged by the evaluating committee’s positive comments, she sent in another proposal for a PhD—this time on her favourite topic, mysticism. “The years I spent researching for my thesis submission have been unforgettable. My thirst to study and understand Sanskrit was quenched as I read a lot of scriptures. I spent 10-12 hours a day researching and referring to books and the Internet.” In 2018, she submitted her 433-page thesis to the Department of Sanskrit at the University of Mumbai. “Self-driven, Amma managed to finish the entire manuscript single-handedly,” Ramesh says with pride. “From our side, all our family members, particularly her grandchildren, kept her spirits high.”

“When I received my PhD, my family was happier than me,” reveals Sushila, who now plans to publish her thesis. Her mantra to healthy ageing: “Stay busy and you can stave off many ailments. I am sure my next project will keep me engaged in the coming days.”

Text and photo: Sai Prabha Kamath
April 2019