Dr Undaunted

Happy family: Mary with husband Judge K.K. Lukose, daughter Grace and son Poonen. Happy family: Mary with husband Judge K.K. Lukose, daughter Grace and son Poonen.

Right from her school days in Thiruvananthapuram, Dr Mary Poonen Lukose (1886-1976) wanted to become a doctor. Perhaps the desire was kindled by watching her father, Dr T.E. Poonen, at work as the superintendent of the General Hospital there. As her father himself had studied medicine in England, he was keen that his academically brilliant daughter follow in his footsteps. England was a revelation to the young Mary—right from getting accustomed to wearing high heels to doing her Christmas shopping at Selfridges to watching Shakespearean plays in London.

One of her clearest memories in the UK was about taking an examination at the end of her first year in medical school. She was one of only four students who were not from a science background. (She had done her BA in history and economics from Maharaja’s College in Thiruvananthapuram, and was the first woman to be admitted to the college.) She feared she would fail in physics, if not in biology and chemistry. When the results were announced, in her nervousness, she perused the wrong lists and found her name missing from all of them. She was terribly disappointed and about to collapse when a friend came and congratulated her. The relevant results had been, apparently, put up in another part of the building. Her name was there on all the lists. Overjoyed, she sent a cable to her father. There was great rejoicing at home, with everyone, including the servants, celebrating her success.

Trailblazer is a book about this remarkable lady, who was the first female graduate of Kerala, the first woman chief of the Travancore Medical Department and the first woman legislator in India. She was also appointed the Durbar Physician—a rare honour for an Indian woman—and served four generations of the Travancore royal family. Her memoir tapers off after she takes charge of the Women and Children’s Hospital at Thiruvananthapuram, soon after her return to India following her father’s sudden death. While she could not finish her autobiography, the rest of Trailblazer is in the form of tributes paid to her by her daughter-in-law Alen (she came up with the idea of the book), her grandchildren, and various others who knew her.

In 1917, Mary got a marriage proposal from a lawyer, Kannukuzhiyil Kuruvilla Lukose, who would eventually become a judge of the Travancore High Court. She was older than he was and when she asked him why he was not yet married, he replied: “I have been waiting for you.” They got married and had two children—Dr Grace Lukose and K. Poonen Lukose, who became a diplomat.

For many years, Alen had been holding on to the typed-out, crumpled and fast-yellowing pages that Mary had written. I am glad she compiled them into this beguiling book. It is simply written but compelling, because the life of the person it chronicles was so compelling.

Some of the most endearing parts of the book are written by her grandchildren—Mary, Sara and Kuruvilla, who called her ‘Oma’. Kuruvilla, for example, recounts an interesting incident from his early teens when his cousin and he pilfered brandy from their grandmother’s cupboard. They stealthily went up to the cupboard and swigged the brandy by turns, ensuring they did not empty it. Fired up by the spirit, the two decided to sneak out to catch a movie. Just as they were about to leave, they found Oma quietly standing outside the room. “The next morning we understood that Oma had heard us talk and so it was a good thing we had not tried to sneak out,” writes Kuruvilla. “Also realized that the brandy bottle had actually contained soya sauce.”

Trailblazer: The Legendary Life and Times of Dr Mary Poonen Lukose

Publisher: Malayala Manorama

Pages: 130

Price: Rs300