A Mother Dies Without Seeing Her Son Go Free
I got word Sunday that Nalini Vedam had died the previous day.
This was a shock because I was supposed to drive Mrs. Vedam to the state prison in Huntingdon on Monday to see her son Subu.
For those of you who don't know or remember Subu’s story, here is a brief summary: In 1983, Subramanyam Vedam was found guilty of murdering his college roommate and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. He and Thomas Kinser were 19 at the time of Kinser’s death. Subu maintains that he didn’t do it.
When I visited Subu in Huntingdon in 2014, I was hoping he would somehow convince me of his innocence. He didn’t try. We didn’t know each other. Why would I believe his protestations? Why should he think I could do anything for him? We were just getting acquainted. It was too soon to talk about his case.
After meeting Subu, I found myself questioning the sentence more than the verdict. He has now been in prison for more than 30 years. If he lives as long as his mother he will spend another 30 years behind bars for a crime he committed – or maybe did not commit – when he was still in his teens. Never mind determining whether he is a danger to society, or the madness of a punishment that has no end.
But as sorry as I felt for Subu, I felt sorrier for his mother. After the death of her husband, Penn State Professor Kuppuswamy Vedam, in 2009, she resisted moving to Vancouver where her daughter Saras lives because she refused to abandon her son.
Nor would she give up hope that a judge would grant a new trial, and that Subu would yet be exonerated.
I saw Mrs. Vedam a couple of weeks ago. At 84, she looked and sounded frailer than the last time I visited, but chatted away about food and family – the two great loves of her life.
As her daughter wrote in an email sent to friends over the weekend, “Her last week was filled with everything she loved: she cooked and baked, her eldest granddaughter spent the weekend with her, she spoke with family members…, held a new baby, and she told her famous stories about India, and about coming as a bride to State College as the first Indian woman to settle here in 1956.”
I first heard about Subu through those who had taken Indian cooking classes with his mother. I noticed none of them called Mrs. Vedam by her first name. When I wrote about her I said she was too regal for such informality. This made her unhappy.
“First let me tell you that there is nothing regal about me,” she demurred in an email. “People younger than me in India never use first names and since… all my generations of cooking students were younger than me I was Mrs. Vedam to most people.
“The few Indians in State College older than I am do call me Nalini. Vedam [her husband] and I came to this country in 1956 and we became the respected parents for succeeding generations of graduate students and visiting faculty. Vedam was the beloved and respected person. I was only his wife.”
During my recent visit, Mrs. Vedam told me – pointedly, I thought – that I was still on Subu’s visitor list, which is why, after letting 18 months slide by, I offered to drive her to Huntingdon this week.
When I wrote about Subu in 2014, a reader who knew the Kinsers noted that unlike Tom Kinser’s family, Mrs. Vedam could still see her son. I couldn’t argue with that. I can’t imagine losing my own son to a violent death.
But neither can I imagine losing him to a lifelong prison term. Life without parole is not just a lifetime punishment for the convict. It’s a lifetime punishment for his loved ones.
I didn’t get to drive Mrs. Vedam to Huntingdon on Monday, but as per her daughter’s group email, I can pay tribute in other ways:
“…If you wish to honor her memory,” Saras wrote, “we ask that you cook something she taught you, or something you cook well, and share the dish with someone else; spend a day wearing a sari or kurta, proudly; invite someone home who has no family in town; read a classic novel; write a letter by hand; tell a story about far away family; or just embrace and hold those darling babies to your hearts.”
Mrs. Vedam suffered terribly from Subu’s imprisonment. By staying in State College she got to see him regularly, but what she wanted above all things was to have him home, to embrace and hold her darling baby to her heart.