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A Mother’s Beginnings, a Nation’s Past (Sisters of Mokama, by Jyoti Thottam)

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

In 1947, the year India got its hard-won independence from British rule, six nuns from Kentucky voyaged to India to set up a hospital in Mokama, Bihar. They named it Nazareth Hospital. In the 1960’s, the author’s mother went from Kerala to Nazareth Hospital at the age of 15, to be trained as a nurse, like many other girls and young women who sought a better life.

Ostensibly the story of the six nuns and the young women they trained, Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India is more sweeping in scope. In precise, beautiful writing, Jyoti Thottam – an editor at The New York Times, and formerly Time’s South Asia Bureau Chief in New Delhi – weaves the story of the sisters of Mokama and her mother’s history with the parallel threads of the history of India and the world during that period.

The book, published by Penguin Random House, was released in April.

The nuns’ arrival was preceded and facilitated by the presence of American Jesuits who established the Mokama Mission in the 1920s, and later Marion Batson, who arrived in Mokama in 1938 to convert non-Christians. Soon after, World War II began, and India, reluctantly involved, paid a heavy price: its soldiers were used and discarded by the British empire, and left penniless. Communal strife loomed, and as India’s resources were drained by Britain’s war efforts and its food supply chain disrupted, famine set in.

In 1942, Indians launched the Quit India movement to oust the British. The independence movement delayed and thwarted Batson’s efforts. It wasn’t until the war ended that there was once again an opportunity for American Jesuits to pursue their mission in India.

In writing about their voyage to India, Thottam brings to life the wonder the young sisters must have felt, the varying difficulties they experienced in learning Hindi to prepare for the lives in India– one tossing the textbook into the sea, and another chatting with a young child, gaining fluency day by day.

We get to know each of the sisters, their individual traits, their strengths, their weaknesses. For example, Crescentia with her background in physics played a critical role in establishing the clinic in its early days. In the absence of running water, she rigged up a system to have water flow in and out of the clinic, and furthermore, set up a still to produce distilled water for surgery, using wine bottles to store the water until the standard bottles arrived. The arrival of Sister Mary Wiss, a medical doctor trained at Georgetown, expanded the healthcare Nazareth Hospital was able to provide. Their determination and resourcefulness allowed them to serve ever-increasing numbers of people, and resulted in greater trust from the communities they served. But not from everyone: we learn about the Bhumiars or landlords, their strategies for securing and retaining land, and their oppression of the working class to continue to cement their power.

Thottam describes the soil, fruits and plants in Mokama, the unrelenting heat, the cold nights, the rain. The endless work would affect their health, and an annual retreat to Darjeeling with rejuvenating mountain air would revive them.

One of the first Indian women to come to the hospital in Mokama seeking work was Celine Minj. Through her story, we are introduced to tribal communities, and the extraordinary history of the Oroan tribe who converted to Christianity en masse, and the role of Belgian missionaries in the protection of their tribal lands.

The first nurses to be hired at Nazareth Hospital were Anglo-Indian. After Partition, many Anglo-Indians left, most for Australia, and Indian nurse trainees began arriving, nearly all from Southern India, most from Kerala. There are riveting stories of the circumstances of the lives of Rose, Bridget, and Elsy, some of the girls from Kerala: the story of Syrian Christians in Kerala, their lives and secluded habits, and the deep desire of the girls to have a life different from what they had.

At Nazareth Hospital, the girls would speak with one another in Malayalam, upon which the sisters instituted an English-only rule. “But the English-only rule,” writes Thottam, “collided with one of the most sensitive issues in the first two decades of free India – language.” She goes on to provide an insightful perspective of the formation of different states in India, demarcated by language into “linguistically coherent states.”

As time went on, changes in the church and state resulted in many shifts. The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, led to the influx of immigrants from Asian countries. One of them was the author’s mother, Elsy, who arrived in New York in 1974. The Second Council of the Vatican recognized the need for the church to adapt to an increasingly secularized world, and the rules for missions and missionaries changed: they had more freedom to make decisions for their order.

Today, many private clinics have proliferated, and among them all, Nazareth Hospital still stands, continuing to serve those most in need. It has served thousands of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the conclusion of the book, the author reflects on the legacy of the sisters, and their premise: “every person who crossed its threshold was entitled to an equal dignity.” She continues, eloquently, “This alone was a radical idea in a place where the bodies of Indian men, women, and children had been quite literally starved in the service of empire.”

Thottam considers the matter of migration and belonging, asking, “Once you have left your home behind, where do you belong?” She considers this equally for her parents, who left India for the United States, as for the sisters, who left Kentucky and made a home in India, some choosing to return to India as their final resting place.

Sisters of Mokama is a thoroughly researched, impressive treatise, with meticulously collected information. It is a fascinating story, presented factually in clear prose. It is a distinguished work, weaving together the personal and the political, placing her mother’s story in a historical context. It records, on the one hand, what a group of committed, determined women accomplished together, and on the other, presents an important addition to the body of work on India’s independence and partition, emigrants and immigrants, on empire and its unsavory aftermath. In telling the story of her mother in the context of the social and political events in India at the time, Jyoti Thottam elevates a moving personal story into something more remarkable – the story of India herself.

This review was published in India Currents on May 2, 2022.

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