Jyoti Thottam’s book, Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women who Brought Hope and Healing to India, is more than just the extraordinary story of six nuns, belonging to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Nelson County Kentucky, who travelled by ship and railway in 1947 at a fraught time to set up Nazareth Hospital in the little-known town of Mokama in Bihar. It’s also the story of her mother who left her Kerala home when she was 15 years old to train as a nurse at the hospital. The book doubles up as a historical and social account of America and India right up to the 1960s, taking into its sweep Partition, and the communal riots and migrations that followed. Thottam, Senior Opinion Editor with The New York Times and former South Asia bureau chief for Time, spoke to Uday Balakrishnan in a zoom call. Excerpts:
How did this book emerge in your mind?
My mother occasionally talked about her nursing school in Mokama but I wanted to know more. Why did those nuns leave Kentucky? How did they end up in Mokama? And why did all young women like my mother leave their homes to study nursing there? Answering these questions took me deep into the history of Kentucky, the history of America during and after World War II, the history of India after Partition.
I found that threads of all these histories were connected in unexpected ways. The book is a way of placing my family’s story in the larger American story. It is the outcome of 20 years of research, accessing archival material and personal papers preserved by the families of some of the sisters. Without these documents, the story of Nazareth Hospital would remain lost to history. For instance, no one would know about the Mokama hospital’s care for lepers.
Where did the idea of setting up a hospital in Mokama come from?
The head of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN), Ann Sebastian, a conservative nun, was persuaded by two Jesuit priests that Mokama in distant Bihar in India offered an excellent opportunity to serve the poor and needy. They were told that their mission would help realise the vision of a maverick catholic priest, Marion Batson, to set up a hospital there. However, it must be noted that the SCN order, like others of its kind, jealously guarded its independence and agreed only after being convinced.
Who were these Sisters who went to Mokama and why?
The six sisters who went to Mokama were a mixed bunch of nurses and teachers. Three were in their twenties, two in their forties, and the team leader, Lawrencetta Veenaman, was an experienced administrator. In the conservative male-dominated world of Kentucky, becoming a nun was a liberating experience, contributing to society and leading fulfilling lives. Trained professionally as nurses, teachers and administrators, they could be all those things.
Going to Mokama was exciting, something to look forward to, but records indicate there was apprehension too, as they would be going far away to a strange unknown land. The driving force was, of course, a firm belief among the nuns that they owed it to their communities who had generously supported their venture in cash and kind to make a success of their mission.
In many ways, the women of Nazareth who left their homes to go to India, and young women like my mother who left their villages to study nursing, were animated by the same impulse. The years after World War II in the U.S. and the years after Partition in India were filled with trauma and tumult. Pain and loss were everywhere for women of the time. But some women saw it as an opening to create for themselves lives that would never have been possible otherwise.
What kept the team together under challenging circumstances?
Leadership and keeping a group of independent-minded young sisters together was competently handled by Veenaman, 51. It helped that she was older. One of the nuns, Sister Ann Cornelius, more conservative than the rest, did not approve of several things, and her discontent was certainly apparent. But others found a balance. The sisters’ letters are full of amusing anecdotes. They conversed, wrote letters, read magazines and in later years, watched television. I met Sister Ann Roberta, the last surviving “pioneer” sister as her order called those who founded the mission in 1947. She was 86 years old when I met her in Gaya, where she had come to spend her last years, but vividly recalled the first months of setting up the hospital — scrounging for supplies, improvising beds and bandages, planting a garden, and learning to bargain for vegetables in Hindi. I asked her what kind of patients they would get in early days, and she immediately recalled the orphans. This was in the first years after the traumatic Partition, and she told me about a tragic story of a toddler who had been brought in, well fed and beautiful.
How involved were Indians in the setting up of the hospital?
Several Indians including Celine Minj who hailed from the tribal Oraon community, trained as a nurse, and an Anglo-Indian, Dr. Eric Lazaro, was the first doctor to be employed by Nazareth Hospital in Mokama. Dr. Lazaro and Josephine ‘Babs’ Gillard, who married later, were central to the success of the Mokama mission. Without Celine Minj it would have been very difficult to make the mission acceptable to local communities. Sadly, the order had no record of her. I tracked her down through the Indian Oil Corporation, her former employer from whom she received a pension. Celine spoke to me for hours, over two days, and seemed thrilled that someone was finally listening to her amazing life story. The voices of women like Celine rarely appear in history, and it was my privilege to include her in the book. Many belonging to the Anglo Indian community, in positions of authority during independence, helped the sisters overcome otherwise insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles.
What made young girls from Kerala go all the way to Mokama to be trained as nurses?
The priests in Kerala gave a lot of confidence to parents in Kerala to send their girls to Mokama to train as nurses. They trained well, and many, like my mother Elsamma Thottam, had long professional careers in India and America. These trainees from Kerala were a rebellious lot, revolting against the ‘English-only’ rule the Kentuckian nuns enforced, and they never could adjust to a diet of chapattis.
How did an order, established in the early 1800s, handle the question of race?
The SCN served black communities too even in very segregated times. Today it is a racially diversified order. It will perhaps come as a surprise to many in India that its president Sister Sangeeta Ayithamattam and vice-president Sister Jackulin Jesu are both Indians, from Kannur and Ramnad, respectively.
What’s the state of Nazareth Hospital now?
The SCNs are still very much involved in Mokama, although the hospital itself has changed and adapted to the needs of the community. It serves as a primary health clinic, and the sisters do other kinds of work in the area, and did their best to provide care for COVID patients during the worst of the pandemic. Their most lasting legacy may not be the hospital building itself; it’s the example they set of serving people regardless of caste or community, and what I would call a radical project of building and maintaining an institution run by Indian women, in an otherwise patriarchal society.
Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India; Jyoti Thottam, Penguin Random House, ₹1,199.
The writer’s academic interests are in contemporary history and public policy; he teaches at IISc — Bengaluru.