The AFMC College of Nursing completes 50 years this year. Aleykutty Mani, its first principal, recounts her experiences in the profession

Aleykutty Mani says she is short of hearing. “What do you want to know? My story? Okay, I will tell you my story….” As she talks, events and episodes unfurl in perfect chronological sequence. She pauses and repeats dates and names for my benefit. At 92, Aleykutty’s memory is sharper than a scalpel, cutting through years of academic excellence and experience to pick out only what is relevant.

At her house in Fort Kochi, the founder principal of the College of Nursing, Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, who travelled to the U.S. twice on scholarships, says her remarkable journey began at Mamallassery, a small village in Muvattupuzha district, where she was born and brought up.

“I am from an orthodox Syrian Christian family. But my father wanted to educate his daughters. He wanted us to learn and speak English confidently,” she says. After her SSLC, she expressed a desire to study nursing. Scudder Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, Ranipet, in Tamil Nadu, was chosen and by 1944, she passed out, topping the course. “In those days, few women ventured out of the State to study.”

Academics called out to her, in a way she could not ignore. She went to Delhi in 1946, when the Government of India started the first College of Nursing, where she did a one-year Tutor’s Course. Aleykutty was soon appointed the Clinical Instructor of the college. “In pre-Independence India, there were few Indian nurses. I was among the first.”

The Independence struggle was raging and, being in Delhi, Aleykutty found herself in the middle of action. Witnessing Jawaharlal Nehru’s historic “Tryst with Destiny” speech, was a moment of great pride. “I had the honour of seeing the handing over of the Indian administration to Pt. Nehru by Lord Mountbatten,” she says. Aleykutty was also among those invited to the “At Home Party” at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, where she met Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and many other freedom fighters.

All the exhilaration could not mask the “pain” of partition, she recalls. “Our college, which was functioning out of a building called the Constitution House, was filled with refugees. I have visited several refugee camps. I remember taking deliveries in some of them. At that time, Gandhiji used to call for prayer meetings at the Birla House and we were regulars. One day, in 1948, when the meeting was in progress, a loud blast occurred. There was a lot of smoke and I remember all the crows were flying." It was an assassination attempt on Gandhiji.

The fact that she did not have a “full-fledged” degree was a niggle. In 1951, she won a scholarship by The Rockefeller Foundation to study nursing at the Syracuse University New York. “Everyone liked me there. It was a condensed two-year BSc Nursing course from 1951-1953. But because I did so well, they gave me another year.”

The journey to the U.S. was fun-filled, she says. “It was a 26-day journey by ship, a cargo-cum-passenger vessel with just 12 passengers on board. There were three of us women—one from Ceylon and one from China. The Rockefeller Foundation took care to orient us to the new surroundings and culture. We never felt out of place.” The foundation had also arranged for the students to visit London, Amsterdam, Geneva, Paris and Rome.

After her return to India, she went back to her alma mater at Delhi, soon becoming senior lecturer. Aleykutty was not one to be content with the knowledge she had acquired. In 1961, she won yet another scholarship by the Agency for International Development to do her two-year MSc at Wayne State University, Michigan. She was back in India in 1963 to take charge as the Vice-Principal of the College of Nursing, Delhi.

It was around that time that the graduate wing of the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, wanted to start a college of nursing. “I was selected for the Principal’s post to start the first programme for nursing in AFMC in 1964. As a civilian, it was a rare honour to head the college. I was on deputation from the Health Ministry and it was just for three years. But the Defence Ministry wanted me to stay on. They made me Civilian-Colonel and I ended up working there for 16 years until retirement in 1981. It was one of the most satisfying experiences, professionally. Nursing is an important job and training Army nurses required patience and determination.”

During her eventful life, Aleykutty found time for family, too. She had married a lawyer, N. M. Mani, who was with the Bombay High Court. After retirement, the couple settled in Kochi. Their daughter Elizabeth Mani teaches at Choice School, Kochi.

As she lives out the rest of her life “without bitterness, and without complaints”, Aleykutty says she wished nurses became kinder and understood the patient better. “A nurse has to understand the needs of the patient. She has to take care. Above all, she has to have love.”