Snehalatha Sebastian was feeling nervous. She had to take part in a science exhibition at her school in Chennai. She knew the only person who could help her was her relative Sabu Cyril. And he obliged. He took the cover of a biscuit tin and converted it into the face of a clock. The working mechanism could be seen at the back. Sabu also made a water heater by using pieces of metal and a wire. “I won prizes for this, thanks to Sabu, who was a brilliant student,” says Snehalatha.”
When Snehalatha was in Class 12 and Sabu was in his second-year in the government arts college, she was convinced that Sabu liked her. One day she said, “Sabu, I hope you are serious. I don’t want to be taken for a ride.” Snehalatha expected Sabu to propose. Since he did not, Snehalatha decided to take the initiative. One day, while they were walking down a road, near her home, Snehalatha held Sabu’s hand and said, “I know that you are serious about me. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
But it was not going to be easy. They are first cousins: Snehalatha’s father’s sister is Sabu’s mother. When Snehalatha told her father, he said no. But despite his opposition, Snehalatha and Sabu went ahead and had a church wedding on June 9, 1986. Thankfully, sometime later, her parents reconciled with her.
Asked about the qualities of her husband, who is one of India’s leading art designer in films, Snehalatha says, “Sabu is a genius. His set designs are unmatched. His work on the sets of the films, ‘Enthiran The Robot’, ‘Om Shanti Om’ and ‘Kalapani’ are superb. He also has a heart of gold. Those who come across him have only good things to say about him. I have learnt so much about life from Sabu.”
Not surprisingly, for a creative and talented person like Sabu, work is everything. “It is his topmost priority,” says Snehalatha. “Family comes later. In the early years I would get upset about it, but when people praised his work, all my anger and frustration took a backseat. It is not easy to have a balance between career and family.”
Sabu’s concentration on his work also made him absent-minded at times. “Throughout our marriage, Sabu must have remembered my birthday about five times,” she says, with a smile.
Once, Snehalatha was celebrating her birthday with family and friends at their home in Chennai. Sabu was out of town. The family was teasing her that Sabu had forgotten to wish her, when suddenly there was a telephone call. It was Sabu on the line. But when they spoke, Sabu asked his wife about work-related matters and did not mention the birthday at all. But after an hour he suddenly called, apologised and wished Snehalatha on her birthday.
A few days later Sabu told Snehalatha how it happened. “We had given our birthday dates to the Chola Sheraton hotel where we are patrons,” she says. “They only had Sabu’s number and had called to wish me on my birthday. That was how Sabu realised it was my birthday.”
Just as Snehalata has accepted Sabu’s absent-mindedness, she has got used to Sabu’s short temper. “At work Sabu is cool and chilled-out,” says Snehalatha. “He never shouts at anybody. He handles the stress very well. But once he returns home, Sabu takes out the bottled-up pressure. I do get upset, because I am not an angel, but I understand why it happens.”
Undoubtedly, it has been tough to be the wife of a brilliant man. But in the past few years, Snehalatha has become relaxed. For one, she has a job as a part-time French teacher for Class 11 and 12 students at the KRMM Matriculation Higher Secondary school. “I enjoy my interaction with the students,” she says. “Thanks to the principal, I have found my calling.” Another reason is that her children, Shweta, 25, and Soumya, 21, have grown up and are busy with their lives.
“As a Dad, Sabu was too busy to spend time with the girls,” she says. “For many years, I had to be the father as well as mother. Sometimes, I had to be firm with them.”
Meanwhile, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Snehalatha says, “Every marriage has its ups and downs. What is important is the respect and space that you give each other. There should be an understanding between the spouses. For God’s sake, it should not only be the wife understanding the husband, but the other way around also.”