Two jewels gone

In the first week of August, the world lost two jewels: the first African-American to win Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison, and India’s first woman external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj. There are no parallels between the two except for the fact that both were women and that both carved a niche for themselves in the fields in which they chose to work.

Morrison and Swaraj died in a gap of one day, the American author being the first to go on August 5.

Morrison was one of the rare American authors whose books were both critical and commercial successes. She wrote 11 novels, and several children’s books and essay collections. The books included Song of Solomon, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She won the Nobel in 1993.

Her work explored the black identity in America and in particular the experience of black women. In her Nobel citation, it was said that her novels are characterized by visionary force and poetic import through which she gives life to an essential aspect of American reality. In an article in The New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that for mid-20th century readers, one of the most striking things about Morrison’s work was that it delineates a world in which white people are largely absent, a rate thing in fiction of the period.

“What was more, the milieu of her books offers an escape from stereotyped black settings – it is neither plantation nor ghetto,” Fox wrote.

Morrison was 88 and she died at Monteflore Medical Centre in New York. Her novels are The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015).

In India, former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj died a day later when she suffered a heart attack at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi on the night of August 6. She was 67.

Swaraj was known for her fiery speeches inside and outside the Parliament. The charismatic leader began her political career in 1977 when she won the Ambala Cantonment Assembly seat at the age of 25 and became the youngest cabinet minister of Haryana. She retained the seat in 1987.

Swaraj was an advocate in the Supreme Court, where she met her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, before she took the plunge into politics in early 1970 when she joined the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students’ wing of the BJP. In 1977, she became president of Haryana unit of BJP.

She was a member of the Rajya Sabha for three terms between April 1990 and May 2009, and was elected four times to the Lok Sabha — in 1996, 1998, 2009 and 2014. In 2019 general election, she did not contest owing to her bad health.

Rajya Sabha Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu said she was like his sister, who always addressed him as anna [elder brother]. “She was a regular at family and cultural events at my residence for a long time. Every year, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan, she used to tie rakhi on my hand. I will be missing this honour this year… I have lost a valuable sister in her demise, which is an irreparable loss to me,” he said in the obituary reference.

In Swaraj’s death, India has lost an able administrator, an effective parliamentarian and a true voice of the people. She had several firsts to her credit: she was the youngest minister at the age of 25 in the Haryana government, the first woman Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the first woman “outstanding parliamentarian”, the first woman Chief Minister of Delhi and the first full-time woman External Affairs Minister.

Leaders called her a role model as she remained committed and devoted to the cause of the people and country during her four decade-long stint in public life.

Chandan Mitra, editor of The Pioneer and former MP, called her a storehouse of appropriate Hindi and Urdu couplets in his obituary in the Hindustan Times. “She rattled them off her memory, while drawing parallels from mythological texts over which she had complete command,” he wrote.

“Unparalleled as a fiery orator both in public meetings as well as on the floor of Parliament, she almost always spoke extempore, holding forth for an hour or more,” Mitra wrote.

As the external affairs minister in Modi’s government between 2014 and 2019, Swaraj was always active on Twitter. Some of the most-talked-about incidents that defined her tenure included the release of Hamid Ansari in 2018 (Ansari was imprisoned in Pakistan for 6 years), evacuation of Indian citizens from Yemen in 2015 and release of 140 Indians stuck in war-torn Iraq in 2015.

She didn’t follow anyone on Twitter and had more than 13 million followers.

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