Sudhakar Solomonraj: The last of the Mohicans

Source: Mumbai Mirror /  / By Ramu Ramanathan /

His Wilson College colleagues, who share the staff room (not that he is oft-spotted in the staff room), say there is a mystique about Sudhakar Solomonraj. I noticed him for the first time at the Mumbai University when I used to gatecrash the lectures of Ram Bapat and GP Deshpande. Later, he invited me to workshop — minimum once a year — at his home, Wilson College.

Sudhakar Solomonraj
Sudhakar Solomonraj

Other than the usual theatre exercises, once I got about 60 students to read Vaclav Havel’s play Redevelopment. The play transpires in a Kafkaesque castle on top of a hill and is about how a bunch of architects and city planners endeavour to create the perfect model of a future Shanghai-Singapore. The students read the play in the context of Narmada Valley redevelopment. It was the birth of a new millennium. So, who would be the winner? Abrasive, new haute neoliberal politics? Or the dreamy-minded, impractical idealist? Sudhakar Solomonraj participated in that workshop with as much gusto as his students. Naturally, the dissidents won the day. But the workshop concluded on a cautionary note with a Havelian quote in which he explains that “If an outside observer who knew nothing at all about life in Czechoslovakia were to study only its laws, he would be utterly incapable of understanding what we were complaining about.”

That was the time I noticed untethered criticism of the Humanities in our colleges. Also I realised we are no longer fortunate in producing a great number of talented homegrown teachers. Why so, I asked Sudhakar. His rationale, “Our schools and colleges have become factories which churn out manufactured products with low skill sets, followers of rules and regulations, and the emphasis is on the process and not on students.” Does the process need a tracheotomy? For the past three decades, he has been striving to do so through “Interesting material and the joy of discovery. All of us have stories to tell. And some of these stories are very tough and challenging. We have to discover a way of sharing these stories.”

Easier said than done. Sudhakar tries to do this in a simple way. “Interacting with students in class and on nature trails plus guitar strings and great lyrics.” The Sudhakar Solomonraj mantra is not to be defined only by the syllabi.

Hardly surprising that the Chennai lad who was born on November 4, 1961, was brought up on a family legacy of “hard work adding value and making the world a better place”. His memories of childhood are “Weekly outings to green spaces after Sunday worship, regular readings of Arthur Mee’s encyclopedia, playing cricket with his sibling Sathiaraj, and spending time at the public library in the vacations.”

Sudhakar recalls, “My physics teacher Mr Kunju in the 8th standard of the All Saints High School made me sensitive to the needs of the under-privileged. He possibly sowed the seeds of my wanting me to be a teacher. Later professors exposed me to counselling and training, and the need to read across disciplines.”

In spite of the grand build-up, his first lecture at Wilson College was a fiasco. Sudhakar reminisces, “It was a small classroom on the ground floor, now we have the placement cell in the same room. It was a third year Political Science International Politics class. My lecture time was 45 minutes. I had prepared two lectures worth of material but in my nervousness and anxiety, I spoke so fast that I finished my lecture in 20 minutes. Then for the rest of the 25 minutes I kept asking, ‘any questions’. I can’t forget the epic struggle to complete that lecture.”

Since then it has been smooth sailing. Sudhakar has mentored diverse groups. This includes a co-operative education programme with which he has been associated for 38 years, plus his classroom and 10 years in a boy’s hostel. One of the highpoints has been “the 2007 camp to Kashmir and Ladakh where we encountered unimaginable beauty and angst among the students of Kashmir University.”

Also there is a nature club, with which he has been associated for 39 years. The work is nonstop. Sudhakar says, “Yesterday (April 22) was Earth Day. Yesterday’s Mumbai Mirror published an article about BNHS losing control over the forest patch where the Conservation Education Centre (CEC) is located and that area will go for developing the Film City. It has been documented how the presence of Film City disturbs wildlife even without the solid waste pollution. The forest patch where the CEC stands has been an amazing training ground for thousands of young naturalists and a space for experiencing the amazing wonders of nature for millions of young and old nature enthusiasts. The Wilson College Nature Club has been a part of many nature trails including ones for underprivileged children. Dr Deepak Apte the director of BNHS is optimistic that the lease will be renewed. We need to be vigilant and press for permanent renewal of lease as nature reserve for research education and nature trails.”

Even today the spirit is willing but the flesh is not as “gung ho”. Since June 1983 when he married Wilson College, his life has been echoing the Leonard Cohen song The Future: I’ve seen the nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all / But love’s the only engine / Of survival …