The oldest active gynaecologist at the Kasturba Hospital in Chinnalapatti near Dindigul, Dr. R. Kousalya Devi still goes on night calls and carries out her myriad duties from dawn till well past midnight.

What gives her so much energy at 83? “I am happily unmarried and still able to work by God’s grace,” she says with a warm smile. Having delivered three generations of babies and with people for miles around referring to her kai puniyam or blessed hands, she has quite a cult status in the region, but she doesn’t seem to notice it.

Adviser to Kasturba Hospital and Managing Trustee of Gandhigram Trust, the apex body, Kousalya Devi initially came to this rural hospital in Tamil Nadu on a two-year deputation, quitting a secure government job, on the request of its founder, Dr. T. Soundaram, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and the daughter of eminent industrialist T.V.S. Sundaram Iyengar.

When she joined the unpretentious hospital nestled between the Sirumalai and Kodai hills 44 years ago, it had just 22 beds and she was the only doctor with clinical expertise. Today, Kasturba Hospital is a 350-bed top referral centre for high-risk obstetric cases, premature babies, and ailing newborns. It does nearly 400 deliveries a month and 4,000 tubectomies a year.

Under Kausalya Devi’s stewardship, the hospital has won the State Award 14 times and the National Award twice for its contribution to family welfare services. “Working here is a great experience because you see the direct impact you make on peoples’ lives. Acceptance of family planning has gone up, birth rate has decreased, and birth intervals increased,” she says.

Deeply influenced by the founder’s ideals — it is said that despite being an affluent businessman’s daughter Soundaram owned just three saris, one to wear, one to wash, and one to spare — Kousalya Devi says, “I advocate and practise simplicity and whoever works here with me does so by choice and not for want of money and fame.”

Kousalya Devi has refused several awards including the Padma Shri. “It is team work,” she says, “we are serving the rural poor, not doing anything unique.” Kasturba Hospital has a record of treating every patient irrespective of the individual’s capacity to pay or not. For 25 years, the hospital has also run an orphanage and is one of the recognised institutions in Tamil Nadu for in-country adoption.

Over the years, she has busted several myths by introducing the path-breaking re-canalisation procedure, promoting artificial insemination, and raising awareness on hygiene. “Today,” she says, “when a girl from Chinnalapatti gets married, she first checks whether her marital home has a toilet. This is real achievement."

A two-decade-old battle against breast cancer is another hardship she wears lightly. “God has been kind to me. He has not burdened me with worries,” says the self-effacing doctor.