A sister and a lady with the lamp
Yuva Bharati|August 2021
The room in Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama in Sasthamangalam appears small but bears all marks of subtle nobility. There are pictures of the divine trio – Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada, and Swami Vivekananda – on the walls as well as some memorabilia and books on a bed. A frail woman in her mid-eighties sits in a corner chair, her eyes faintly lighting up as she smiles in welcome.
Adhyaksha Maharaj Sw. Mokshavratananda

Usha Menon, a former teacher at Loyola School, is at first reluctant to speak, but as she begins, her words reveal the joy she feels as she meanders through her past gathering moments from her very rich childhood that was full of the presence of the woman she adores the most—her sister Kalyani, who was also known as Sister Kalyani, India’s answer to the famed British founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale.

Much like Florence Nightingale, Kalyani was also born into affluence, and taking to nursing was a rebellious choice that she made out of free will. Quite unlike now, when nursing is either a forced-choice or a lucrative one in foreign lands.

Kalyani was being groomed to be a doctor by her father Mudiyil Kerala Varma Govinda Pillai, who was the principal of engineering in a college in Bangalore. Her brilliance in studies was what prompted the dream. Also, her family, with deep ties to Sri Ramakrishna Mission right from the time the movement began to take roots in Kerala in 1906, had an illustrious lineup of doctors from Dr. Raman Thampi to the famed surgeon Dr. Kesavan Nair. It was the time when women in Kerala were being opened to the world of modern education, the matrilineal setup among some communities set the stage for such a transition. It was in this milieu that Kalyani was offered the opportunity to pursue studies in medicine.

She relented at first to her father’s wishes and secured admission at St. John’s Medical College in Bangalore. But her sense of service was so strong that she felt only a nurse could serve the needy in full care and compassion.

What shaped such a belief was her family’s long-standing ties with the Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition, which embodies the concept of ‘service to man is service to god’.

The saga of her family’s ties with the Ramakrishna movement began right from the time it reached Kerala's shores from Bengal where it had become a trend-setter especially among educated youngsters such as Subash Chandra Bose. In 1892 itself, the charismatic Swami Vivekananda had set the scene for the movement here when he spent more than a month in Kerala. The mantle to take it forward then fell on Swami Ramakrishnanda, one of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa's direct disciples. Among the ones who got inspired by him was Padmanabhan Thampi, the police commissioner of the erstwhile royal kingdom of Travancore.

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