ChatlineSurgeon Rear Admiral Nirmala Kannan has many firsts to her credit.Priyadershini S.says she's an inspiring role model

In her crisp white uniform and smart cap, Rear Admiral Nirmala Kannan is a picture of poise and grace. In addition to the formal duties of a Naval officer, she is a sensitive doctor, a happy homemaker, a music buff and a sports person. Her distinction lies in the fact that she has been the first woman in several official capacities in the Indian Navy, a capable trendsetter!

Hailing from Meempat tharavadu in Malappuram, Nirmala is the sister of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, and Asha Gill, a doctor living in Kuala Lumpur.

The daughter of an Army officer, Nirmala was always an outdoor kid. Nirmala says she was very different from older sister, Nirupama. She remembers: “My mom would give us 10 sums to do on Sundays. I would do three and be out climbing trees or playinggilli danda,” unlike her studious eldest sister who would complete all the sums. While Nirupama was ladylike and gifted, Nirmala was “pretty unorthodox.” Perhaps it was her “unorthodox” nature that saw her choosing a career as a doctor in the Navy, at a time when women stuck to more conventional lifestyles. It was her father's wish that one of his daughters join the Services that prompted her to choose the Navy.

Joining the Navy

“It was a last minute decision to join the Navy instead of the Army.” After having studied in different schools across India – in Pune, Lucknow and Bangalore, she completed her medical studies from Aurangabad in Maharashtra. There were five girls in a class of 110 but there was no gender discrimination. This gender equality is probably the reason for Nirmala entering a male bastion by choice.

She joined the Navy in 1977 at the INHS-Asvini, the flagship hospital of the Navy in Mumbai. In 1992 women were inducted into the three arms of the Services. A gender sensitisation programme was initiated for all the men- officers, sailors and other categories. Nirmala had a major role to play in that task. She was selected to be guide and mentor to the first batch of 22 women officers, for a “smooth induction.” It was a job well done and she was awarded the VSM (Vishisht Seva Medal) the following year.

Time and again she has faced the challenge of being a woman in a man's domain but it has been smooth sailing for her. She was the first woman from the Navy at the Defence Services Staff College course, the only woman among 400 officers, but she says, “I never felt out of place.”

Her only guideline has been to conduct oneself with dignity.

Her first posting had her working in the Naval hospital in Mumbai where she enhanced her medical and administrative skills. As a gynaecologist she was on call, but she also had to shoulder administrative responsibilities. She believes that her commanding officers there moulded her personality by giving her the toughest jobs. It's quite obvious that she matched their expectations for she moved to the prestigious Armed Forces Clinic in Delhi. Her duties increased manifold and she was exposed to new challenges. “The hallmark of a doctor is good communication.”

In the course of her work, she forged a close friendship with artist Anjolie Ela Menon who encouraged Nirmala to pursue her innate musical talent, which was a pastime during her student days.

Many roles

In turn Nirmala, who keeps a beautiful home, says she learnt the art of decor from the artist. “I always feel you can be a woman in uniform and have a soft feminine side to you,” adding that she enjoys wearing saris, cooking and is especially good at preparing a good ‘naadan' meal.

A working woman has no excuse for not keeping a good home, she feels, adding that the unflinching support of her husband helps her blend several roles successfully. Her husband, Vice Admiral B. Kannan, whom she met through her music, has been a pillar of support. Her medical expertise by now saw her moving more into an administrative role. “Running a hospital well is an important task and I am constantly in touch with patient care. For a doctor the patient comes first.” As Surgeon Captain in 2002, she commanded INS Kalyani in Vishakapatanam, and in 2004 got selected for a course at the NDC (National Defence College), Delhi. Here too she was the first lady officer from all the three wings of the Armed Forces to attend this prestigious course. It was another feather in her cap and she was exposed to non-military matters.

This was followed by her taking over as Director General Armed Forces Medical Services, till 2008, after which she returned to where she had begun at Asvini in Mumbai, which, by now, had expanded to an 825-bed hospital. The wheel, it seems, was drawing to a full circle. “When I joined the services I never thought I would reach anywhere, become anything …I just took one day at a time... it feels good,' she says softly, her light eyes gleaming with satisfaction.

In Kochi as Command Medical Officer, Southern Naval Command, she oversees the different hospitals that come under its purview.

Her job entails travel and constantly attending to hospital-related duties. Her family too depends on her expertise heavily as she turns tele-doc for them. “Nirupama makes the first call to me when she is unwell.”

Her aged parents live with her. Away from the line of duty, Nirmala believes in living life to the fullest having done white water rafting, “all the 22 rapids” at age 53. She plays golf, badminton and recently took part in an all-woman car rally, where her team came second. For the past two-and-a-half years she has been learning to play the piano, “because learning music in old age wards off senile dementia.” To women in general she has a word of advice: take care of yourself, only then can you take care of the family.

That's the prescription and an order from Surgeon Rear Admiral Nirmala Kannan.

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