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Grieving After Crash, Friends Tend to Children

Padma Soundararajan, 28, pictured in the top row, wants to take care of her two surviving siblings, Sairam and Pavan, in the bottom row. The Soundararajan family of Gaithersburg posed for this photo in May 2007. In the second row are Priya, Lakshmi and parents Jayanthi and Raju, all killed in a crash in India.
Padma Soundararajan, 28, pictured in the top row, wants to take care of her two surviving siblings, Sairam and Pavan, in the bottom row. The Soundararajan family of Gaithersburg posed for this photo in May 2007. In the second row are Priya, Lakshmi and parents Jayanthi and Raju, all killed in a crash in India. (Family Photo)

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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

With school out for the summer, Raju and Jayanthi Soundararajan took four of their children to India on a spiritual pilgrimage to visit Hindu temples, a guru, and friends and family left behind decades ago.

But two weeks ago, while riding on a rural road in the southern part of the country, the Gaithersburg family's rented sport-utility vehicle and a truck collided head-on, killing both parents and their two teenage daughters, 14-year-old Lakshmi and 16-year-old Priya. Only the hired driver and two of the Soundararajans' sons survived, friends said.

Since then, the Washington area's Indian community has come together to bolster an older daughter, who was not on the trip and has told friends that she wants to care for her brothers. Friends are raising money for Sairam, 11, and Pavan, 20, because both faced years of medical and education expenses even before they were seriously injured in the collision.

Sairam is autistic, family friends say. Pavan, who is severely disabled with cerebral palsy, needs constant care. An Indian assistant helping the family with Pavan's wheelchair also died in the crash.

"The crisis is not only the accident," said Basil Rajakumaran, 76, a family friend in Gaithersburg whose cellphone rings every 10 minutes with people asking how they can help. "We have to take care of these children."

The cause is capturing attention beyond Washington, friends say, because Raju, 64, was a well-known classical Indian singer and performed in Hindu temples across the United States. He and his wife, 43, had taken the family to India in June for what was expected to be a one-month trip.

A prayer service held in their memory last weekend at Sri Siva Vishnu, a Hindu temple in Lanham, drew more than 800 mourners. The day of the accident, friends collected $7,000 in donations to pay for Padma Soundararajan, 28, and a friend to fly to India for the funerals of her parents and sisters. Both girls attended Clarksburg High School.

Friends attribute the outpouring to the fact that the Soundararajans reached beyond their own difficulties to help others. They remember how the family made sandwiches twice a month to hand out at a District homeless shelter. They recall how Raju, whose job entailed making sure Montgomery County's school buses were properly fueled, organized a two-day music festival every January at their temple and cooked vegetarian food for it at his own expense.

"They had so much to give in spite of so many challenges," said Daya Radhakrishnan, 40, a family friend in Boyds who taught classical Indian dance to Priya and Lakshmi.

The family's story, friends say, is a classic immigrant tale complicated by the children's health problems, likely caused in part by the fact that Raju and Jayanthi, in addition to being husband and wife, were also uncle and niece. That they were closely related was not unusual, particularly for arranged marriages in the kind of small Indian village where they grew up, friends said.

When they married, friends said, Raju was divorced and already settled in Montgomery with Padma, his daughter from his first marriage. When Jayanthi arrived in Maryland as a young bride in the late 1980s, friends said, she learned English by watching "Sesame Street" and "Barney." She worked at McDonald's and as a taxi dispatcher before discovering a talent for computers, Rajakumaran said. At the time of her death, she was a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin.

"They started at the lowest rung and made it by sheer determination," Rajakumaran said.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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