Jyoti Thottam, author of “Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India,” recently visited the Nazareth campus for a special book release event. During her visit, Jyoti answered questions about her book, which explores the lives of six Kentucky Sisters who traveled to India in the 1940s to establish Nazareth Hospital. 

Jyoti’s inspiration for the book began with a piece of family history she had heard growing up. Her mother was one of many young Indian women who studied nursing at the hospital in Mokama under the guidance of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Jyoti was fascinated by these women and what motivated them to travel to a small, impoverished Indian town. In her book, Jyoti sheds light on her mother’s experience, the history behind Nazareth Hospital, what life was like in India following Partition, and the significant roles of women and Women Religious in shaping the course of India and the United States. 

As Jyoti learned more about the story of Mokama, she was impressed with how committed the Sisters were to their work, ensuring quality of care at the hospital and their own personal and professional development. These women were not only health care workers but also engineers, administrators and politicians of sorts as they navigated a very political and patriarchal environment. 

“They took it all so seriously in a way I think all women could really learn from,” Jyoti said. 

The May 16 visit was not her first to the Kentucky campus, as Jyoti worked closely with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Archival Center, Sisters and staff to conduct research for the book. Jyoti said she was delighted by the level of details in the Sisters’ documentation of daily life, and those details helped her create a vivid picture of life and experiences during the time.

Kathy Hertel-Baker, director of the Archival Center, said while such personal letters and records from the Sisters are not typically available to the general public, an exception was made for Jyoti’s research.

“Seeing the finished project, it has been an honor to have been able to help with this,” Kathy said. “It provides such a wonderful and full picture of our pioneer Sisters, of our pioneer Indian Sisters and the women who went through the nursing school and were able to change the trajectory of their lives through the work of the SCNs in India.” 

The Sisters welcomed Jyoti’s return to the campus as they gathered in the Columba Room for the event. Jyoti read an excerpt from the book’s introduction and signed copies for the Sisters, who extended their hands to and blessed her.

Sangeeta Ayithamattam, SCN, president of the Congregation, praised Jyoti for her thoroughly researched and well-written publication.

“I feel so proud. We are all so proud,” Sister Sangeeta said. “What a wonderful tribute to the six pioneer SCNs who went to India and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth as a whole.”

Sister Sangeeta, who previously served at Nazareth Hospital in Mokama and spent several years in the town, said Jyoti’s book means a lot to her. 

“The people and places you name are so familiar and have been part of my life as an SCN,” Sister Sangeeta said, adding praise for how Jyoti lifts the contribution of women in India at a time of turmoil and suppression in the country.

The sentiment was shared by other Sisters in attendance Monday. 

Margaret Rodericks, SCN, was a Novice and Postulant at the time she remembers trainloads of leprosy patients coming to Mokama for treatment. When others feared or rejected these people, the Sisters showed them compassion and helped them.

“You talk about pioneering, fearless and courageous; that was the spirit of our early Sisters,” Sister Margaret said. 

This spirit of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth is showcased in Jyoti’s book, as is the unprecedented global impact of these ambitious women. What sets the Sisters apart from other institutions working abroad, Jyoti believes, is a willingness to change and be changed by the people and places around them.

Video from the May 16 event can be viewed here. “Sisters of Mokama” can be purchased online here. 

Jyoti Thottam is senior opinion editor for The New York Times. Born in India and raised in Texas, she currently resides in Brooklyn with her family.