Ramalingam Sarma: Celebrating 100 Years

Translated Valmiki’s Sundarakaandam into English in his 80s

By Jayashree Phanse

e-mail: jphanse560@hotmail.com

February 12, 2017. Venue: A modestly decorated Banquet Hall at the Cascade Marriott in Dallas for 150 people. With children running around, adults were chatting, munching on hot samosas and pakodas and sipping Lassi or Chai. We were awaiting the arrival of Shri Ramalingam Sarma, our hero, to celebrate his 100th birthday. Ramalingam Mama — mama is an endearing term for maternal uncle in Indian languages — alert as ever, arrives in a wheelchair with his sons, daughters, and grandkids in tow. He lives in Dallas with his son Arvind. People  greet him with bouquets and pranams. Mama calls out one of the guests, “Govindraj, so you made it. Look, I am wearing the shirt you bought for me!!”

As Chaitanya, Mama’s grandson, gets ready to welcome everyone, Mama interrupts, “It is just another birthday and it happens to be 100. I welcome you all for my 100th birthday,” and blesses in Sanskrit: “Jeevet sharadah shatam” — ‘May you all live for 100 autumns.’  He continues with a smile, “And invite me for your celebrations.”

Geetha Manian, Shri Sarma’s daughter, is in the blue sari.

Mama has a Pittsburgh connection. With his wife Shakuntala (now deceased) he visited the US in 1984 for his son Arvind’s wedding. After retirement, they migrated to the US in 1988 since all their children were here. He lived in Pittsburgh with his daughter Geetha Manian until 2005 to help her raise her son as a single mom. Geetha still lives in Pittsburgh. Many here remember him as an energetic, wiry, alert man.

Mama had studied basic Sanskrit during his school and college days. This was eight decades ago. “Like many

youngsters, in my youth I was not interested in understanding Sanskrit chanting done during routine worships,” he says. After he turned 80, he started refreshing himself in the language’s arcane grammar with books and help from the Internet.

In his boyhood, he had listened to his mother reciting in Tamil Sundarakaandam, a section in Ramayanam. Later he read it in Tamil. Valmiki’s Sanskrit original has 2800 slokas (verses) in 68 sargas (chapters). He wanted an English translation to be useful for today’s youngsters with these features: It should go beyond the simple translation. He set himself for this big task while he was in his 80s. He wanted to present each sloka in the Devanagari script as in the Valmiki’s original with these features added: Classical Sanskrit slokas are with complex Sandhi rules (coalescence of vowels and consonants) and meters peculiar to the language. So, each sloka is simplified in the Devanagari script by breaking the coalesced phrases into simpler words with meanings for easy reading and understanding. Transliterating this into the Roman script, Sarma gives the translation of the verse in English.

For doing this, Mama, while in his 80s, learned computer skills and the necessary software for transliteration from the Roman to Devanagari scripts.

This enormous task took eleven years for completion, with Gargi (Mama’s youngest daughter) and her husband

Mama Shri Ramalingam Sarma at his Centenary Celebrations.

Chandrakant helping him in the last two years. Sujatha Awathi, a Sanskrit professor in Pune, proofread the work and helped in getting the work printed in two volumes of more than 600 pages each. Two-hundred-and-fifty copies were printed in Pune, and several were donated to various universities.

Many assembled in the centenary gala recited poems and prayers, and sought Mama’s blessings by doing pranams to the centenarian. Mama’s sons, daughters, and grandchildren put together a slide show with occasional commentaries by Mama himself! The guests were given a coffee mug with the famous Rig Veda phrase Aano bhadraah kratavo yantu vishvatah printed. The phrase literally means “Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions.” Incidentally, this is the first Sanskrit lesson I learned from my father when I was less than 10 years old.

In his 100th year, Mama sent individual and personal “Thank you” emails using his i-Pad for those present at his 100th birthday bash.

Even at 100, Mama is fully independent, with the need for occasional oxygen supplements. He is mentally alert, and his memory is as sharp as it can be. Evidently, the good genes he inherited from his parents have played a big part. However, we also need to recognize the other lifestyle choices he made: All through the one hundred years of his life, Mama has been disciplined and simple in his personal life, even as he lived through several difficult transitions; fastidious and frugal in his eating habits; regular in his exercise routines; and attentive to his health. He is a good role model for us on this. We wish him well.   ♣

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