“My mother was part of a generation of women who inherited all the burdens of the past and yet found the will and the means to reject them,” writes Jyoti Thottam, a senior Opinion editor at the New York Times. When her mother was 15, she left her home at the southern tip of India and traveled more than 1,000 miles to Mokama, a small town in an area considered to be the poorest and most violent in the country. There, she spent seven years studying nursing at a hospital run by a handful of Catholic nuns from Kentucky. As an adult, Thottam found herself wondering: How did these unlikely events transpire?
After 20 years of meticulous research, Thottam has chronicled Nazareth Hospital’s history in Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India. This immersive, transportive read starts with the hospital’s founding in 1947, in the midst of the Partition of India into India and Pakistan. The fact that six nuns from Kentucky even managed to travel to Mokama at this time—much less stay and transform a vacant building into a successful hospital and nursing school—is nothing short of miraculous.
Once the sisters reached Mokama, they faced endless deprivations, including bone-chilling cold; suffocating heat; monsoons; a scarcity of food, medicine and supplies; and a lack of electricity and running water in the early years. Undaunted, the resourceful nuns nevertheless insisted on the highest of standards. They put a container of water upstairs, drilled a hole through the floor and ran a rubber hose down to the operating room so that surgeons could scrub under a continuous stream of water before surgery. One sister even built a still to provide distilled water.
Thottam has done an excellent job of transforming numerous interviews, letters and records into a compelling narrative that conveys the hardships and triumphs of these dedicated nuns and the nurses they trained. Everyone was overworked, and things weren’t always smooth. The young, homesick Indian girls were only allowed to speak English, and the nuns could be extremely strict. In telling their stories, Thottam makes a multitude of personalities come alive and shares a variety of perspectives without passing judgment.
On the surface, Sisters of Mokama seems like such an unlikely story. It’s a good thing Thottam has documented this little-known saga so that generations to come will know it really happened.