Suman Oak Passes Away…

Prabhakar Nanawaty

At the ripe age of 90 years Suman Oak, a staunch rationalist, radical humanist, and a very humane, liberal and dependable person for all rationalists and humanists breathed her last on 25 Oct 2019 peacefully on her bed. It was a very long association with her which will be felt in due course of time by all of us who knew her close quarterly. It was her serine and unassuming personality which made everyone of us to communicate with and listen to her attentively. Her soft spoken language was a musical to ears and tonic to our brains.
Like all her rationalist friends and followers, she used to say that rationalists do not swear by any set of principles or tenets like other systems of philosophy and therefore do not degenerate into any dogma or religion. It is a mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of ‘reason’ and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience independent of arbitrary assumptions or authority. She had a very long association with Indian Rationalist movement which reached its climax in 70s with full activities, vigour and enthusiasm. She knew many of the stalwarts of that era like Justice RA Jahagirdar, Justice VM Tarkunde, GG Parikh, Indumati Parikh, MK Samant, SN Ray, Narayan Desai, ….. to name a few.
While I was going through the folder in which her writings were saved on my hard disc, I could remember very hearty and lengthy discussions about the issues on which she was writing. She never had any inhibitions about the topics she had chosen to write and express her frank and clear opinions so that readers were guided to follow a correct path. The topic may vary from small note on ANiS to any controversial topic like perils and disasters of Nuclear Reactors in India or Trans-sexualism. She had a very balanced view on the issue of active participation of women in the organizations and movements. According to her assessment she vehemently opposed to the remarks that there is gender bias in the male dominated structure. But she agreed to that women still being comparatively less educated, not much appreciated when they leave home for long and their own priorities, i.e. placing home and family above everything else. The attention of women is not seen by the rationalists as one of biological inferiority. Their alleged “helplessness” is seen as resulting from larger problems pervading this society which are transmitted through tradition, culture and religion in particular even among the desirous female activists. In her writings (and even in the translations too!) she never judged others with yardstick of “I am right and others are wrong”. Besides she was never afraid of self-criticism. She wrote an article in the International e-journal of Rationalism with statement that can be read as a reflexive self-criticism that addresses this point:
“The community action groups do not have conceptual clarity regarding faith and mythology. They criticize the culture, religion and mythology of the indigenous people. Instead they should analyze facts and appreciate literary and moral values present in them. .. The enthusiastic workers engaged in this activity and mostly from the highly educated middle class. They cannot declass themselves and their lifestyle conflicts with the lifestyles of people among whom they work. They do not understand that people can think in ways other than their own.”
She was an educationist by profession and wrote books and booklets on the education system prevailing in India and particularly education in so called progressive Maharashtra. She proposed a very good, practical and convincing solutions to the woes of primary education. She had a very good writing flair both in English and Marathi. She wrote a few books for National Book Trust. If she could have opted, she could have made a distinctive career in the literature field. But she chose a trodden path of rationalism. In fact she liked her writings and enjoyed the work to full extent.
Mere glance at the articles she wrote for various English progressive magazines will indicate the vast number of subjects she covered during her lifetime. For example, some of the titles she covered were: Television and our Value system, Religious Minds and Human Sufferings, Karma Theory, Fatalism, Science and Superstition, Spiritual Industry, Social Basis of Rationalism, Rites, Rituals and Festivals, Socialization of Science etc. These articles gave a lot of insight about the subject. None of them were academic or run-of-the-mill type. Readers of the article were enlightened and enjoyed the intellectual discussions after reading her articles.
She wrote a very comprehensive book on Hindu ‘Rites, Rituals and Festivals’ in which she traces the origin of these traditions, the myths about these events, their methodologies in earlier times, and corrupted version at present and usefulness and follies. She also drew biographical sketches of eminent personalities like VM Tarkunde, RA Jahagirdar, B. Premanand, etc. Her article on ‘Sainthood’ of Mother Teresa forced readers to relook into the whole process of Sainthood in general and mother Teresa in particular. Her long association as co-editor of Thought & Action, an English e-quarterly of ANiS was quite memorable.
She had a very good command over both Marathi and English languages and she could easily communicate with readers using proper diction, syntax and peculiarities of both the languages. If one reads her translated articles without knowing the other language, he/she will feel as though the article was written in that language only. This really helped while translating the writings of Dr Narendra Dabholkar. In fact most of the articles translated by Suman Oak were delivered speeches of Dr. Dabholkar. But Suman Oak molded these Marathi speeches into English articles in such a fashion that no one could suspect that their original can be traced somewhere else. The essence (and beauty too!) of the Marathi language appearing in Dr Dabholkar’s speech came out very fluently in English language too. She could narrate various aspects of rationalism, superstitions, faith, scientific outlook, phony godmen, spiritualism, astrology, Vaastushastra etc in English language as described by Dr Dabholkar in his Marathi speeches. Someone like Suman Oak’s potential was really required to propagate the thought and ideas of Dr Dabholkar to English speaking readers.
She also translated books like Charwak’s Philosophy (written by Sadashiv Athavale), Superstition: A Rational Discourse (written by Yadneshwar Nigale), Manav Vijay (written by Dr. Sharad Bedekar), Our Companion Philosopher Guide: The Buddha (written by Narayan Desai) etc to cite a few. She took pain in translating Sanskrit verses appearing in Charwak’s Philosophy to support the logic. She was very particular while translating the text quite objectively without any additions/deletions of her own. She generally adhered to the timings stipulated by authors/publishers and went out of her way to deliver the written material in neat handwritten/typed format. Her efforts in translating English text into Marathi of Disenchanting India (ethnographic Ph D thesis by Johannes Quack), Science and Religion (Edited by Paul Kurtz) and Website material of antisuperstition.org were quite laudable and appealing to Marathi readers.
‘A Case for Reason’, a gigantic three part volume written by Dr. Narendra Dabholkar in Marathi and translated by Suman Oak was posthumously published by Amazon. This can be termed as her pioneering work in English translation. She took painstaking efforts to complete the translation during her frail health conditions. She could capture essence of various aspects of anti superstition movement, its philosophy, rational and human aspects as envisaged by the original author. The movement of eradication of superstition has many aspects and many dimensions. No other movement as multidimensional and multifaceted as the movement of ‘Eradication of Superstition’ exists in Maharashtra or even anywhere else in the country. One of the obstacles that the students and workers of this movement have to face is the absence of a logical and properly organized exposition on it. This translated book by Suman Oak in English attempts to remove that obstacle. Suman Oak highlighted the orderly exposition of this subject in detail and that too quite convincingly.
She wrote a very touching obituary of Capt Laxmi, (of Azad Hind Sena of Subhashchandra Bose) who donated her body to a teaching hospital without performing any prevailing religious rituals In this context Suman Oak was not praising Capt Laxmi for her exceptional courage shown on the battleground but for her courage to donate the body. In fact Sum Oak’s this article reflects her mind on subjects like traditions, rituals after death etc with references Indian mythological and epic stories.
At the end she too willed to donate her body to the hospital. Accordingly her son Arvind Oak and her family donated the body to AFMC Pune. Thus she lived and died as a staunch rationalist to the word and spirit.
We all miss her!!