Lt. Gen. Sushil Pillai (1934-2015) - In Memoriam
Asha Gopinathan writes this with the hope that you the reader will be inspired by this man who lived in our midst, trying to make his surroundings a little bit better not just for himself but for all of us.
On Apr 17, 2015

Lt. Gen Sushil Pillai or Sushil to many of us passed away at 8:15 p.m. on April 7, 2015 in a private hospital in Trivandrum. The official cause of death was a cardiac arrest which had followed a nasty bout of pneumonia even as he was recovering from the onslaught of the chemotherapy he had undergone for cancer treatment.  It was a sudden, galloping cancer.


Yet with the able doctors of RCC and his devoted family consisting of wife Jane, daughter Alpana, his sister Usha and her family, the staff of FabIndia where Alpana works and  the support of the Indian army, he was on the road to recovery. The last time I spoke to him in January, he was his usual optimistic self, full of encouragment for the work I was doing to heritage zone Chalai bazaar and Attakulangara school. He had been following the newspapers even while undergoing treatment and was eager to get back to be with us.  To fight from the trenches.

Lt. Gen Sushil Pillai

I first met Sushil and Jane in late 1999 when I moved to Trivandrum fromNew York. They were known to my mother who along with Sushil was part of groups like  Parivartan and  Election Watch. They used to meet regularly to discuss the state of affairs in the state and country and tried to serve as a citizens' watchdog.  Very few of us who met Sushil could fathom what a senior army officer he was. Such was his humility and self effacing nature.


It is only while reading the obituaries that appeared in various newspapers after his passing that I realised that he had studied in the Joint Services Wing ( now National Defence Academy), Indian Military Academy and was decorated with the Param Vishista Seva Medal in 1991. As part of the 3rd Battalion of the Assam Regiment, he was a much loved and respected person in that region. This in sharp contrast to how the Army is viewed in that part of the country now.

Tree walk on the Nandancode road

In this piece I will draw on a few incidents which left a lasting mark on me. In late 2007, the local British Library decided to close down operations all of a sudden without any warning. I was then working in IIITM-K in Technopark. I created an online petition in petition online which was signed by about 1500 people. We met in an office near the library regularly to strategise.  Sushil not only signed the petition but also attended all these meetings. These were free for all sessions where many of the men would attack you simply because a woman taking leadership was something they were not used to.


After one such incident, Sushil apologised to me and said, “ I am sorry Asha, that obnoxious fellow is a nephew of mine”.  I do not know too many people who would do that. I later learnt from Jane that his deep attachment to the British Library was partly because he was turned away from some of the academic libraries in the city while he was writing his books. This is because he had joined the Army at a young age before completing his B.A and that is a pre-requisite for most libraries in the city to grant membership (even a temporary one).  Could someone  please get these archaic rules changed?

In Gandhi Park, Jan 2014, protesting the TRIDA takeover of Attakulangara School

More recently, after Tree Walk was formed, Sushil would attend many walks. He really enjoyed the outdoors, learning about new trees and flowers and most importantly meeting other people. As Tree Walk has taken up many campaigns to save trees in the city, Sushil once again came forward with his wholehearted support as he had done for the British Library.


Then in June 2013, saving the Attakulangara School became a priority. Here too he did not leave any stone unturned. He wanted to know if I knew anyone who lived in that area. He felt that the support of the local people was crucial in this matter. I mentioned the CVN Kalari and the current gurukkal, Satyan. Sushil had a vexed  history with Satyan's father, the late Govindankutty Nair gurukkal. This is because he felt that the latter looked at his Western military training with a degree of contempt.  Especially after Sushil developed arthiritis and pain in his hips and knees. Gurukkal pointed out that people who trained in the kalari regularly developed no such ailments even after they aged. Despite this, Sushil made contact with Satyan and talked at length with him about the Attakulangara school. Satyan also promised him his support.

Sushil regales the audience at the Bach music festival organised by the Clef and Canto music school

I used to drop in often without notice just to sit and talk with Jane and Sushil on their verandah.  Jane would bring in lemonade, the dog Lola would scamper around and it seemed like a scene right out of Enid Blyton. Except for the flowering bougainvilleas.  It is indeed in one such session that I found out about the Chief Town planner and decided to petition them and the Secretary, Arts and Heritage Commission to turn both Attakulangara School and Chalai bazaar into a heritage zone. Sushil signed this petition too and would ring me up to congratulate me when he read any report about our activities.

Presenting a memento to one of the artistes

Couple of years ago, they did some work on their house, Vichitra, which was built by Laurie Baker in 1971. This was done by Costford. Sushil spent a great deal of time supervising the workers in his characteristic style. Always gentle, encouraging and respectful. This is how he had led his troops too. No wonder so many of them came for a final salute. I notice that his daughter  Alpana too has inherited this trait as she manages several FabIndia stores around Kerala.  Sushil showed me around the completed house. I still remember the pride with which he told me that Alpana had designed her own room and bathroom.

Listening attentively to Prof. Kunhikrishnan at the Tree Walk around the Secretariat, June 2012

As a Malayali who had grown up outside Kerala- speaking, reading and writing Malayalam was a bone of contention for him. He would warily ask, whether the proceedings of the meetings were to be conducted in Malayalam. I would reply that if I a Marunadan Malayali could manage, I was confident that he could too.

Last July, the Clef and Canto school organised a Bach Music Festival. Sushil and Jane were the chief guests. Speaking at the function, Sushil regaled the audience by his story about Jane arriving in India to get married with nothing but a heavy suitcase filled with Western classical music records. That is how he got introduced to the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Sushil and S  Santhi examining some leaves - Tree Walk around the Secretariat, June 2012

I write this with the hope that you the reader will be inspired by this man who lived in our midst, trying to make his surroundings a little bit better not just for himself but for all of us. Not too long ago I asked him about his health. I checked to see if every organ was in working order. When I asked him, “What about your heart ?”. Pat came the response, “That is perfectly fine. I have given that away to Jane.”

Sushil and wife Jane to his side at the Bach music festival organised by the Clef and Canto music school, July 2014

A man of war who spread the message of love. Adieu, dear friend. We will try to live up to your dreams and execute all your cherished projects.

Rest in peace, gentle soldier.

Asha Gopinathan
Neuroscientist, Consultant, Photographer and Writer.


Photo credits: Asha Gopinathan for all photos expect the ones taken at Clef and Canto event 





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Gen Sushil Pillai was a gem of a man. He was modesty and kindness personified, qualities unusual in a soldier, but those that made him a greater solider and a leader not only of the army but of the whole of humanity
Ramesh Kumar, on Apr 17, 2015 10:06:36 PM
Pillai sir was a wonderful man and I am sure he would still fight for us from the trenches, only if our system allowed him more space. Well written.
Thomas Issac, on Apr 18, 2015 12:45:32 PM
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