The first Malayalee woman engineer from Kochi State, P.K. Thressia and the first woman engineer from Travancore State, Leela (George) Koshy. Both of them received their degrees in 1943.
Mary Mathew has the distinction of becoming the first Malayalee engineer from Malabar. Mary was born on 3 March 1927 in a conservative Syrian Catholic family as the eldest of six children of Col.P.A.Mathew and Theresa. Col.Mathew was an officer in the British Indian Army.
I am the granddaughter of two Obstetrician-Gynecologists and the daughter of one. The Obstetrician’s basic tenet of watchful expectancy and masterly inactivity did not suit my impulsive personality. The prospect of spending my professional life staring at diseased female genitalia with their odoriferous discharges also did not charm. This is not the case with my mother, Dr. K. Radhakumari. At 82, she is still enthusiastic about her chosen field, Obstetrics and Gynecology.
When she started her career, Kerala was just emerging from the ‘dark ages’ as far as modern medical expertise and treatment was concerned. She talks of her post-graduation days when women with uteruses burst open and babies jammed inside were brought to Calicut Medical College. They were tied to make shift stretchers — usually bamboo ladders, and carried on the shoulders of men who walked many miles with their half dead burdens. The machete that rested permanently on the admission register in their Casualty (ER) was meant to cut the patients free of the ropes that kept them in place during their harrowing journey. If they made it that far, then remarkably many of them survived. Amma says that surviving the surgery was easier than what it took for them to make that trip alive.
Amma has forgotten the role that doctors like her played in midwife-ing the birth of their specialty in our state where it now stands on par with what obtains in the developed world. This fact was brought to her notice recently when a surgical oncologist, Dr. Chandramohan from the Regional Cancer Center, Trivandrum made a video. This video showcased the achievements of the pioneers from Kerala in Gynecological Cancer Surgery. Dr. Thankam, Dr. Susan George, Dr. Kalyanikutty and Dr. Radhakumari began this work in the 1960s. Dr. Sreedevi, Dr. Clara, Dr. Chandrika Devi, Dr. Shyamala Devi, Dr. Usha Sadasivan, and Dr. Chitradhara head the list of those who have carried that baton forward.
My mother tells a story in that video…
The place: Alleppey Medical College, Kerala, India.
Time: The late 1970s.
A young fisher woman was given her death sentence – Invasive Cancer Cervix. The only treatment option was the complicated Wertheim’s hysterectomy. This was a radical procedure in which the entire uterus, tubes, ovaries and upper part of the vagina along with all the pelvic lymph nodes, fat and soft tissue were removed. The urinary tubes and the rectum had to be carefully moved away during this procedure, to prevent them from being damaged. At least three surgical specialists had to work in tandem to ensure its success, a Urologist, a Surgeon and a Gynecologist. Even then, one fifth of the women who underwent this surgery did not make it out alive. Dr. Susan George in Trivandrum and Dr. Thankam in Calicut were the only ones who had had the necessary training to undertake this procedure.
This young woman was poor, barely surviving from day to day. Going to Trivandrum or Calicut was out of the question, you might as well have asked her to go the moon. “Can’t you do something, Doctor Amma? If you forsake me, I will die.” That was indeed true and those words went in deep. Amma talked this over with her colleague, Dr. M.K. Joseph, a Urologist. Neither of them had done this before or had received any training in this procedure. For a week, they pored over an old tattered Bonney’s Textbook of Gynecological Surgery, planning out their surgical moves. Next they needed an anesthetist and Dr. Unnikrishnan, an anesthetist, was willing to join them. The head nurse too nodded her agreement. The team was set to go.
That Monday morning, Amma reached the Operation Theater to find her nurse in tears. Internal politics. The Powers that be had pulled out every nurse from the Theater and reassigned them.
Amma looked around, saw her now dejected team, and took stock of the situation:
1. The Patient is ready.
2. The Surgeons are ready.
3. The Anesthetist is ready
4. Blood is ready.
“That’s it. We are doing this”, she declared. She had no nurses, so she called her other colleagues to help. My mother-in-law-to-be, Dr. Navaneetham agreed to be the surgical nurse. They set up a black board, the Head nurse was not permitted to assist but she knew what was needed. She wrote down the list and count of instruments and swabs. Then finally they started the procedure which took hours to complete.
Afterwards, when they smiled at one other over their masks, they could not have known that the chance they took, and the effort they made would give that young girl ten more years of life. They did know however that their success in that endeavor would give them the confidence to undertake many more such procedures and also to train the next generation of younger surgeons.
That video by the Regional Cancer Center informed me that Dr. Radhakumari aka Amma has many other firsts to her name. She is the first Gynecologist in Kerala to do Radical Oophorectomies, for ovarian cancer and the first to perform para aortic lymph node dissection to remove the lymph nodes around the major artery high up in the abdomen during Radical Hysterectomy. She is the first to do Hysterectomies using a Laparoscope and the first to do Colposcopies in the Medical Colleges in Kerala. Those firsts would have meant little if she had not been able to teach others these new skills. Working in the Medical Colleges ensured that she had the opportunity to pass on the knowledge she gained to hundreds of young gynecologists.
I know that in our country the pioneers in the medical field, those who take that first step behind which many thousands will later follow, are not always recognized or celebrated. Many of those pioneers have been women, who have not lagged behind the men in their thirst for new knowledge and their pursuit of excellence. They did this after overcoming challenges that their male colleagues have not had to face. Their names and achievements should not fade away and disappear with time.
We have to continue those efforts, to remember them and to remember our past.
[Meera Sukumaran is from Kerala, and is a pediatrician who practices in the US]
[Below are some translated excerpts from G Kumara Pillai’s biography of Lakshmi N Menon, and the obituary published by the Mathrubhumi newspaper at her death in 1994. These excerpts through much light on the induction of women into politics during the Nehruvian era. Kumara Pillai’s account projects her as a paragon of virtue in public life, endowed with all the qualities valued in Gandhian politics — simplicity, honesty, diligence, efficiency, humility, forthrightness. More importantly, it reveals the manner in which women who were not active in political parties, but pursued politics otherwise – as champions of women’s rights – could be inducted into politics in the Nehruvian era, unlike later times.
Education was not something women in Kerala could aspire to, at the turn of the 20th century. Even educated and progressive parents thought it fit and right to marry off their girls, once they completed their school education. Despite the odds, two girls, one in Thiruvithamkoor and another in Kochi State, were determined to go to College, that too to obtain a professional degree in Engineering. Fortunately their parents were able and willing to help the girls attain their near impossible dream.
[In the 2021 elections, the disappointingly few women candidates fielded by the leading political parties became a hot topic. The candidature of the IUML’s Noorbina Rasheed, a first in that party in twenty-five years, has also been of much interest.
Noorbina’s candidature, however, must be placed in a longer history of Malayali Muslim women’s struggles to enter politics, which actually dates back to the late 1950s. It is here that Nafeesath Beevi’s name should be remembered. Along with K O Aysha Bai, she was prominent as an educated Muslim woman who entered politics. Nafeesath Beevi was born in Alappuzha, the daughter of a textile-dealer, Abdul Kareem, and Hawwa Umma. Her father died when she twelve but she overcame many obstacles, being a good student, to join the Government Women’s College for a graduate degree and subsequently, training as a lawyer. The following excerpts and discussion are from a short biography of hers by Anilkumar PY, titled Aankaalathe Penthaarakam [The Female Star in Male Times], Trivandrum: The New Media Space Books, 2017]
[Ever since I read this account in the 1990s, I have often thought of this young woman and her tragedy. Married to a prince of the Travancore royal family who was the oldest – and so the heir – yet unfit to occupy the throne because of mental challenges, the emotional agony she bore must have been terrible. Even as she was surely expected to bow to the restrictions imposed by traditional respectability and too isolated from her peers and others for human comfort, it is quite possible that she was almost a non-entity. The matrilineal succession that the Travancore royal family followed meant that she was just that: even having a child would not secure her a place in the community of royals without her husband. Her family would have secured honours and resources, sacrificing her.
I contemplated often of what Miss Blandford would have meant to this unhappy young woman who saw no future ahead of her, and of the agency that she tried to grasp on her deathbed. It must have not just been the teachings of Christ, but also the strength that friendships give. Clearly, this woman was at the edge of a modern self, and in her death, embraced an interiority through her independent profession of faith. The tragedy seems to just grow bigger each time I think of it.]
[Mrs Murray Mitchell, a missionary, visited the south Indian Christian missions in the 1880s and published a memoir of this journey in 1885 called InSouthern India: A Visit to Some of the Chief Mission Stations in the Madras Presidency in which she made observations on women she met in Travancore, from princesses to the skilled lace makers of south Travancore who are probably among the first groups of skilled wage worker women in this region. Much of it, sadly, is less of observation and more of condescending approbation; however, there are some valuable passages. For example, her incomprehension of matrilineal marital and family norms which seemed to pose disadvantages to the husband is coupled with her observations about the extent to which caste practices were rampant among the apparently-cultured and well-off sudras (Nairs). She makes the former observation as a pure outsider, but the latter observation comes also from her own direct experience of being treated as a possible source of pollution by the upper caste people she met here! Some of her account is slightly mistaken too — for example, the princesses of Travancore did not marry men simply chosen for them. They were asked to chose from three young men who were found suitable for them (which actually put them somewhat close to marriage practices in 19th century Britain!)
In the nineteenth century, there was a generation of privileged women contributing to the traditional genres of Malayalam literature. Among them, Kuttykkunhu Thangkachi leads the list as the first dramatist and first-known female music composer from Kerala. While early historians may have tried to undermine her contributions as a capable homemaker and virtuous woman who managed to write poetry tolerable well, there is no denying her astonishing range of compositions in Carnatic music.
[The well-known progressive writer of the early 20th century, P Kesavadev (1904-83) wrote his memoir titled Ethirppu in the late 1950s, when he was at the height of his fame. Born in a declining matrilineal Nair joint family from Kedamangalam in North Paravur, his memoir contains interesting recollections of women’s labour in his family, especially in the challenging circumstances which included those from internal dissensions in the family as well as external pressures such as those from the First World War. Below are translations of some relevant passages, about his mother Karthyayani Amma, who labored very hard to support her large joint family and steer it through excruciatingly difficult times – battling the senior men of the matrilineal families who no longer cared much for their sisters and their children, and the near-poverty of war times.
[Elizabeth Kuruvila was a vocal champion of women’s rights in the Travancore Legislative Council in the late 1920s as a nominated member representing Women. The part that these women members played in extending women’s rights in Travancore is enormous, but they are among the most forgotten of those who strove to advance democracy in early twentieth century Malayali society. A few, like Anna Chandy or Tottaikkattu Madhavi Amma (in Kochi) may be remembered, but no biographies, not even simple biographical notes, are available of these women. Elizabeth Kuruvila is not an exception.
When I first began to seek out women writers in early 20th century who seemed to have disappeared except for the sparse writings they left behind, I often discovered that they were wives or sisters or mothers of very famous men. The same applies, it seems, for Elizabeth Kuruvila. The little information I was able to find out about her was from a biography of her husband, Mr K K Kuruvila who was a noted Syrian Christian educationist, legislator, social reformer, theologian, freedom fighter, and leader of the Mar Thoma Church (T Chandy, K K Kuruvila, Manushyasnehiyaaya Oru Karmayogi, Thiruvalla: Kraistava Sahitya Samiti, 2010, pp. 60-3). Below is the translation of the short section.
Not surprisingly, very little is devoted to her own work; she is projected as an exemplary wife who worked to further her husband’s ideals. There are but fleeting references to her intellectual prowess and causes – for example the admission that she even helped him write his speeches. ]
He [K K Kuruvila] chose as his life-partner Ms Elizabeth Zachariah M A who was the daughter of the famous Maaruthottathil Rao Bahadur George Zachariah of Vennikkulam, and the sister of the famous educationist Kuruvila Zachariah. The wedding took place when our hero [K K Kuruvila] was the headmaster of the M T High School — on 1924 May 15.
They were married at the Thiruvalla C S Seminary Church. … Elizabeth Kuruvila was a noble lady who adhered to our hero’s ideals of life perfectly. Her education began in Kozhikode where Rao Bahadur Zacharia was posted. She showed extraordinary talent for learning, attaining such a command over English literature that left even westerners dazzled. She passed the Literature Hons exam from the Presidency College, Madras, in flying colours and later, joined the YWCA as Students’ Secretary. She travelled in many parts of India to study the problems faced by students and also took part in the Students Conference that was held in China around that time. After working five years as the Students’ Secretary of the YWCA, she moved to Calcutta in 1922 to join the national council of the YWCA. She got married to K K Kuruvila in 1924.
Mrs Kuruvila was a highly educated, idealistic woman, endowed with unusual efficiency. She strove tirelessly to lead a fruitful family life and cooperate actively with our hero in his many fields of service.
There were many who readily exploited his tender heart. He was unable to bear the tears of others, and so some undeserving people took advantage of this ‘weakness’ and approached him, and he was made a fool of many a time. But once Mrs Kuruvila began to take over family affairs, this lack came to be remedied and unnecessary expenditure was curtailed. The management of income and expenditure became better organized. .. she stayed in the backstage of many of his public activities offering very useful support. Even in the drafting of his speeches, this noble woman helped her husband amply.
… On the strength of her higher education, considerable talent, the experience accrued from her work and travel associated with the YWCA, and sensible disposition, Mrs Kuruvila was able to do much along with her husband in public forums.
In 1928, this noble lady was nominated to the Travancore Legislative Assembly as a nominated member. This was public recognition of her ability and leadership qualities. The role she played in managing the kindergarten at M T School and the boarding were praiseworthy indeed. She was the president of a great women’s conference that was organized in Thiruvalla by the Kraistava Seva Samiti. Thus this great lady was able to gain a position of considerable dignity in society.
But how unfortunate! This couple could not spend the dusk of their lives together. In the high-noon of her life, she bid goodbye to her beloved husband and darling daughter. She developed a reaction when a medicine was injected to treat her rheumatoid arthritis and passed away quite unexpectedly.