At 40, he hacked his uncle with a chopper, went to jail and fought a long legal battle, not against his murder conviction, but for prisoners' right to organ donation. Eight years later, he gifted a kidney and a new life to a 20-year-old woman. This is a unique tale of now 48-year-old Sukumaran's redemption. Onmanorama narrates the extraordinary story of repentance and sacrifice which is probably the first in the country.
A brawl and murder
Sukumaran of Pattambi town in Palakkad district landed in Kannur central jail in 2010 as a life convict for homicide. He had a brawl with his father's younger brother who wanted to install a mobile phone tower on their family property. “In a fit of rage, I grabbed a chopper from my uncle, attacked and killed him. I thought a mobile tower would have adverse impact on the ecology and people living near it. There was also a property dispute between us,” says Sukumaran. After trial at Palakkad fast-track sessions court, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Tale of repentance
Sukumaran says he was a peace-loving person. In jail, he got involved in all social activities organised by the authorities and the correctional administration department. Kannur central prison welfare officer SV Mukesh recollects Sukumaran as 'an enthusiastic youngster' who was 'keen' about the initiatives for the uplift of prisoners. “Sukumaran headed the Panchavadyam Kalari at Kannur central prison. When we failed to provide enough Chendas for the 10 percussion trainees, Sukumaran wrote a letter to Malayalam film actor Jayaram. The actor immediately came up with an offer to sponsor the instruments of our Panchavadyam Kalari. Sukumaran always had innovative ideas and a strong will to achieve his dreams,” says Mukesh.
In 2015, Sukumaran, a regular reader of contemporary literature at the jail library, came across the story of Aarya Maharshi from Kunnamkulam in Thrissur district. Maharshi and his wife had entered the Limca Book of World Records after donating one kidney each on the same day. Sukumaran spotted an opportunity to 'make good' of his mistake by donating his kidney and lending life to a person in need.
“Maharshi's compassionate act moved me. I deeply regret my mistake which took the life of my close relative and the bread-winner of a family. I thought I should redeem it by donating one of my kidneys to someone and gift that person a second life,” says Sukumaran.
On his first parole, Sukumaran visited the reno-vascular department of Medical College Hospital, Palakkad, where he met Sreekumar, a 22-year-old man with kidney dysfunction. “His face filled with joy when I expressed readiness to donate my kidney to him, free of cost,” recollects Sukumaran.
But the laws were against Sukumaran's decision. The rules banned prisoners from undergoing optional medical procedures that can be postponed or cancelled. Sukumaran started writing applications to the authorities, seeking a change in rules. In 2016, Sreekumar died without getting a 'matching' kidney donor.
New avenues open
Pained by Sreekumar's death, Sukumaran wrote a letter to then chief minister Oommen Chandy. On the strength of a clean inquiry report on Sukumaran's conduct in jail, the state cabinet modified the law with a rider. The rule said prisoners could donate organs to a close relative with matching biological profile.
“Now that was again a hurdle in my struggle. None of my relatives was in need of a kidney. I wanted to help a renal patient from a financially backward family to regain his/her life. I wrote to Aarya Maharshi who, on the receipt of my letter, visited the jail and gave us a lecture on organ donation and its relevance in today's society. Six other prisoners also expressed their readiness for organ donation. We signed a joint petition and couriered it to the chief minister's office,” says Sukumaran.
On his second parole, Sukumaran visited Uma Preman, a social activist and the founder of Shanti medical information centre. A donor herself, Uma Preman's life story inspired and motivated Sukumaran. He found another patient who awaited a kidney transplant and signed up to be her donor. Even as he continued his legal fight for prisoners' right to free organ donation, she also died.
A clean chit, life in open prison
Sukumaran was moved to Nettukaltheri open prison in 2016, considering his clean conduct. He got involved in recreational and welfare activities in the new prison. Then director general of prisons Sreelekha visited the place. Along with several pleas for better food, accommodation and speedy release submitted by other prisoners, Sukumaran's request to remove the legal barriers, which restricted prisoners from free organ donation, reached her. Sreelekha called him to the jail superintendent's office and held a brief inquiry. She took the petition to the chief minister's office with a personal note on Sukumaran's fight. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan took up the issue and the next cabinet session in January 2018 approved a second alteration to the law, allowing prisoners to donate organs to non-relatives too.
By the time Sukumaran won the battle, he was released from jail three years prior to the completion of his term. “I couldn't donate my kidney as a prisoner but I know I have inspired many prisoners to sign up for organ donation. Also, I could remove the legal barriers in doing so,” he said. Sukumaran was freed in July 2017.
Princy, the lucky teen
Princy Thankachan, a 20-year-old Kollam native, hails from a family with a history of kidney disorders. She lost her mother and uncles to kidney dysfunction. At 19, she was diagnosed with the same medical condition which warranted regular dialysis. Doctors said a kidney transplant was the best option, considering her age. Sukumaran contacted Princy through Uma Preman. After a meeting, Sukumaran expressed his readiness to become Princy's kidney donor. Princy's neighbors crowd-sourced money to support the surgeries.
“She reminded me of my own daughter. I have a 20-year-old daughter and a younger son. My daughter is married and my son is employed. After I was sent to jail, my wife divorced me and I lost contact with my children. I call Princy 'Ammu', the name I used to call my daughter,” says Sukumaran.
Princy said Sukumaran was like father to her. “There was a time when I had my heart full of dreams but zero hope in life. It was then Sukumaran uncle came up with an offer to donate his kidney free of cost. His blood group and biological specifications matched perfectly with mine. He is indeed my father in my second life,” says Princy.
After a series of medical examinations, Sukumaran donated his kidney to Princy in simultaneous twin-surgeries conducted at Medical Trust hospital, Ernakulam, in May 2018. Princy's body accepted Sukumaran's kidney without much repulsion.
All along Sukumaran's journey through imprisonment and legal battles, he was supported and motivated by his childhood friend Babu (name changed.) Babu paid regular visits to both the jails Sukumaran spent his term and offered him financial and emotional support. But while Sukumaran spent his final year of imprisonment in Nettukaltheri open prison, Babu died in a road accident leaving behind his ailing wife and a four-year-old son.
“Samitha, Babu's wife, is a victim of medical negligence. There was an error in the appendicitis operation performed on her. It left her with edema all over the body. She is unable to earn a livelihood by herself. I tagged her along in my life and started a new family,” says Sukumaran.
He was a welding worker prior to his surgery. Now, he is a daily wage employee in a lottery centre. He admitted his adopted son to kindergarten this year and is all set to start life anew. “Maybe, because I gave Princy a second chance in her life, God gave me one more chance to start a family life and live peacefully,” says Sukumaran with a contented smile.