Notable Neighbors

August 30, 2022 at 12:50 p.m.
Notable Neighbors
Notable Neighbors

By DEAN LAUX Columnist

Her Life Reads Like A Fairy Tale
When it is finally written, the story of Sushila Cherian’s life probably should start with “Once upon a time, a ‘princess’ was born to a young couple on the far-off island of Singapore ...”  

Let’s look a little further. Sushila’s parents, J.B. and Nahomie Appadurai, were not of noble rank, but they were well-to-do and high in social standing on that tiny island nation, though they had been born and raised in the enchanting land of the Raj, India.

In Singapore, J.B. made a name for himself as a teacher, supervisor, inspector and eventually a director of education in the island government. When their marriage was blessed with a daughter, J.B. and Nahomie named her Sushila (“golden heart”), and they raised her to be, in her father’s terms, “a global citizen.” Singapore was (and is) an island of mixed ethnicities, and the children learned the lessons of tolerance at a very early age.

Sushila breezed through primary and secondary school in Singapore. She was a quick learner, and her favorite subject was mathematics. At the age of 11 she took up the piano, and at age 14 she made her concert debut at Victoria Memorial Hall. She was talented enough that her piano teacher recommended her for a musical scholarship in England. “My mother wouldn’t hear of it,” Sushila says. “She didn’t want me to leave Singapore at my tender age.” Sushila confesses that she had a little bit of rebel in her, and at age 17 she somehow persuaded her dad to let her take driving lessons. Her mother was horrified. “It was unheard of for a woman to drive in those days,” Sushila says. “We all had chauffeurs, and if we needed to go somewhere, we had our driver take us there. Whenever I drove the family to church, my mother died a thousand deaths.”

Drive or not, Sushila stayed in Singapore and went on to the University of Malaya (now the University of Singapore), majoring in English language and literature, with minors in philosophy and art history. “What did I expect to do?” she asks rhetorically. “We girls weren’t really expected to work for a living.” Some went into teaching, but Sushila got a job as a travel consultant with an agency located in the world-famous Raffles Hotel.

She enjoyed the experience, but that career didn’t last long, because her mother – and her Aunt Leela and Uncle Victor, who lived in Madras (now Chennai) at the time – arranged something else for her: a marriage.

“It was a Machiavellian plot,” she says. “They coaxed me into taking a trip to India, and while I was there they ‘arranged’ a dinner party at the home of Dr. P.V. Cherian and his wife Tara, who were very well-known nationally and even internationally.” P.V. was an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) who became Surgeon General of Madras and later its mayor, and Tara still later became the first female mayor of Madras. The Cherians “arranged” for their son J.V., then a Lt. Commander in the Indian Navy, to be at the party, and they somehow “arranged” to leave the two alone for a while. J.V. and Sushila got talking, and they found each other very compatible – including a shared sense of humor. They both liked Tom Lehrer, the Harvard mathematics professor who composed and sang hilariously macabre songs as a sideline. One thing led to another, and within three days Sushila found herself engaged. Three weeks after that she and J.V. were married at St. George’s Cathedral in Madras.    

As a new bride, Sushila didn’t go to work.  “I was raised in privilege,” she says. “I had never cleared a table or washed dishes or made a bed or done any other domestic chores, but I had to do something. I couldn’t be idle. So I joined the Goethe Institute and learned German.” In the meantime, J.V. was furthering his medical studies as an ENT physician like his father, and he signed on for a three-year program in otorhinolaryngology in Preston, Lancashire (England) with the intention of coming back to India and establishing his own ENT clinic.

But every fairy tale has its ogres. Their ogre was polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder which struck J.V. during his first year in England and required dialysis until a kidney transplant could be arranged. Sushila, who had never lifted a finger for housework and had no medical knowledge, had to take intensive training in hemodialysis for three months and thereafter had to give J.V. dialysis for 12 hours at a time, three days a week. “J.V. was able to see patients and do his surgeries when not on dialysis, but I had no life,” she avers. This went on for five years until J.V. received a renal transplant and was able to resume a normal life without having to depend on a machine.

The couple relocated to Vermont, where J.V. did his ENT residency, because his medical qualifications as an ENT surgeon in England were not recognized in this country at that time. Meanwhile, Sushila got a job as a computer programmer for National Life Insurance. Computer programmer? “I loved it!” she declares. “I also loved the weather in Vermont, and it was there that my husband and I both took lessons in Tae Kwon Do. I learned enough to disable a 300-lb. man, but before I could get my black belt we moved again,” this time to upstate New York. That was in 1982.

Not long after they arrived, J.V. had to attend a medical meeting in Tampa. Coming from frigid Albany, they found sunshine, palm trees and people wearing shorts! This was J.V.’s kind of weather! Within a few months after returning to the cold north, J.V. gave his notice, they packed up their belongings, and they moved to Punta Gorda, Florida. They didn’t have much money in the bank, Sushila says, but J.V. opened the private practice he’d always wanted and built a very successful career over the next 17 years until his passing in 2000.

J.V. had many conferences and meetings to attend over the years, and Sushila always accompanied him. “I especially loved the museums,” she says, resplendent as they were with their artwork and their historical and cultural exhibits. But she also treasured the landscapes, the wildlife and the people she met. She and J.V. traveled throughout the British Isles and most of Europe, including tiny Liechtenstein and Monaco as well as sprawling Russia, Italy, Austria, France, Spain and Germany. While in Bavaria, Sushila visited Oberammergau, famous for its passion play performed once every decade. They also got to see the pyramids of Egypt, the outback of Australia, and the bustling city of Hong Kong, at that time a British colony.

After J.V. died, Sushila didn’t stop traveling. She hooked up with a university friend she had not contacted for years, and the two ladies visited five Asian countries – mainland China, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, “where I circumnavigated the world-famous Shwedagon Pagoda,” and Cambodia, where they saw the world’s largest temple complex at Angkor Wat. She also made trips closer to home, to Haiti and Cuba, and she went with a peace delegation to both Pakistan and Iran.

And Sushila is not done traveling yet. “I have a bucket list,” she declares. “If I were younger, I would have trained for the Iditarod,” the annual dogsled competition from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. “My first choice is to live in an ice hotel in the Arctic – not for a couple of days, but for a few months.” Her other top choices include warmer spots: an African safari, a trip to New Guinea, a visit to Morocco with a side trip to the Sahara for a couple of days, and finally a deep dive in a marine submersible.

What’s not on her list is rappelling down the side of a seven-story building or skydiving from 13,000 feet. She’s already done that. “The rappelling was for a fundraiser for Drug-Free Charlotte,” she says. The skydiving was a whim of her own. She’s a peaceful peace advocate, if you will. “I don’t believe in violent confrontation,” she says, “and I don’t give money, but I raise money by donating my time for good causes.”

Her good causes are many.  She’s been on the board of directors of the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity, the Homeless Coalition of Charlotte County and the Charlotte Behavioral Health Care nonprofit. She’s on the committee that operates the Honor Flights for veterans in Southwest Florida and has been a Guardian on several flights. She volunteers as a driver for Meals on Wheels and as an usher for performances of the Punta Gorda Charlotte Symphony and the Gulf Theatre of the Military Heritage Museum. She’s an active member of the Historical Society and is involved with the local arts community. She’s a sponsor of three murals in Punta Gorda as well as a room at the Virginia Andes Volunteer Clinic in memory of her husband. On the side she has been mentoring students in the local schools who need help.

Whew! For these activities and many more, on April 19 last year, Sushila was recognized by the Board of County Commissioners with a day in her honor – just the most recent of many awards she has received for service to her community. She is what every community would like its citizens to be, and she thrives on that.

Perhaps we could say she’s living happily ever after. Just like in a fairy tale.

Dean Laux is exploring  interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: [email protected]. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.