Susan Abraham: the mulishly stubborn comrade
By Ramu Ramanathan

When the end credits in Court, the Best Feature Film in 2015, start to scroll, a name appears in the thank you list: Susan Abraham. At that time, I wondered why the contribution of this feisty woman has always been underplayed. Not that she cares. Zipping around on a scooty, she has bigger and more brutal battles, ahead.

For me Susan Abraham is a voice that has woven together the strongest civil rights protests in this city. She joined the dots from the labour morchas to the Dalit Panther war cry; to the women’s rights agitation to the status quo skirmishes, which were backed by MGKU, BUJ, CPDR.

Any conversation with her is about how these movements — across decades — have not been homogeneous nor easy to unite into a single coherent group. For example, she has asked me, the landless agriculture proletariat or the bai who works in your home, who are they? Who represents them?

Where Susan played her part in Court was guiding its research team into the byzantine bylanes of the Indian legal system which has invested in obstruction and obfuscation instead of resolution. Her take on the law is simple and contemporary. And she is able to detail out the airless existence of a small court plus explain the legal tangle of a Kabir Kala Manch case inasmuch as any political prisoner in this country in a straightforward non-baroque style.

Her trump card was prodding the Court casting crew in the direction of Vira Sathidar, the Nagpur-based Marxist-Ambedkarite who essayed the role of Lok Shahir Narayan Kamble. What makes Court so special for me is to see Sathidar play Kamble and then step out into the real world, and realise it is much scarier than the film. Factoid: Sathidar has been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for selling books with “objectionable” literature in Chandrapur in 2006. Sathidar, the editor of the cult magazine Vidrohi, has had to deal with the omnipotent state for four years in an electricity theft case. And so on.

Susan the “Mallu” from Kerala did her schooling in Zambia. Her parents were teachers and therefore there were high expectations to fare well. Her memory of her school days is about “a majority African classroom with 20% Indians plus a few coloured (African-European mix such as Anglo-Indians).” The non-mingling among communities is the theme of her life.

In a moment of rare candour, she recalls, “Spending hours at the library in Luanshya.” Even today she can gobble a Henning Mankell or Toni Morrison in a day. The other thing on her to-do list: travel in a BEST bus 123 along the sea route from RC Church to Tardeo. “It is 55 minutes of bliss”, but possible only if Susan was not so busy trying to find a voice for the wretched of the earth.

The past few days she has been busy with clearing the legal air about antifake encounters, being a part of antidemonetisation rallies. And in case you were observant, she was the last woman standing when Angela Davis completed her talk at the Anuradha Gandhy Memorial Lecture. Armed with a jhola at the door, Susan Abraham was collecting money for “the cause”.

— (Ramu Ramanathan is a playwright, editor of PrintWeek and a Mumbaikar. This column appears here every fortnight)