The adventures of Aleykutty: How a Kerala woman headed an Armed Forces nursing college

After leading an extraordinary life in pre-independent India, getting scholarships to study in the US and coming back to head the AFMC, Aleykutty died in Feb 2022.
Aleykutty Mani receiving a memento
Aleykutty Mani receiving a memento
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It is not among the five known attempts at Gandhi’s life, recorded in a book compiled by Teesta Setalvad, Beyond Doubt - A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination. But a woman who used to attend his prayer meetings in Delhi’s Birla Bhavan once told her daughter about witnessing another attempt on Gandhi’s life by the man who would later kill him – Nathuram Godse. It is not clear if it is a version of one of the last attempts on Gandhi’s life, mere 10 days before his assassination. In the woman’s version, the driver of her college bus had caught hold of Godse and brought him before Gandhi, and the latter said, “Chodh do usse” (leave him alone).

Late Aleykutti Mani, who was then a young woman studying nursing at the RAK (Rajkumari Amrit Kaur) College in Delhi, told the story to her daughter Elizabeth many years later. It sounds very much like the attempt made on Gandhi’s life on January 20, 1948, where a driver did become a witness in the case. Aleykutty was also among the lucky few who got to witness the moment India got independence on the midnight of August 15, 1947 and Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech.

On Saturday, February 19, Aleykutty breathed her last at her home in Kochi, aged 101, after leading a healthy life, till two days before her death. 

Aleykutty in her RAK days (bottom left)

She was born in 1920, in a village called Mamalassery in Piravom, a station between the Ernakulam and Kottayam districts. When she went to Delhi, far away from home in Kerala, at a time women hardly went out for higher education, she created a sort of history. “She had loved to study even as a girl and walked all the way to Aluva (a good 35 km) to join a school. It was called the Chraisthava Mahilalayam and my mother stayed at a hostel, becoming the first in the family to do so,” says Elizabeth Mani, Aleykutty’s only child.

Year after year, Aleykutty began achieving milestones – going to college in Delhi to learn nursing, winning a scholarship to go to the US to do courses in administration, coming back to head the College of Nursing, Armed Forces Medical College, and working there till her retirement in 1981. After that, she came back to Kerala, settled in Kochi and worked no more.

Aleykutty, sitting third from left, with the first batch of graduates of AFMC

“She always led a very independent life, having stayed away from home as a young girl all those years ago. It was not easy of course. This was pre-independence time and the family was opposed to sending a young girl away for education. But she was somehow able to convince them, and her father, a well-read man, supported her,” Elizabeth says.

Aleykutty, among the chosen 13 for higher studies in administration in the US

The family, which had been once rich, was then in dire straits and Aleykutty took it upon herself to revive the old glory. She studied so well that the Indian government gave her scholarship to study abroad, says the daughter. “Mother would tell us about going to the US on a ship. From the Cochin port, it took her 21 days of travel. Twice, she went to study in the US – once from 1950 to 1953 and the second time from 1961 to 1963. She’d say those were the most beautiful days of her life. She learnt a lot and admired the preparedness of the country. She’s day that if we thought for two years ahead, the Americans would be thinking for 25 years ahead,” Elizabeth shares.

SS Steelage, the ship that took Aleykutty to the US in 1951

But Aleykutty had no intention to stay in Michigan, where she attended University and won the Rockefeller fellowship. Elizabeth says that her mother said no to the job offers as well as proposals of love and marriage she received there. Aleykutty was clear that she wanted to come back and serve her country. Promptly, soon after her return, she was invited to be founder principal of the College of Nursing, Armed Forces Medical College in Pune.

Aleykutty, at her convocation in the US

“That happened in 1964. She was the first Indian woman to head an army institution, and a civilian one at that. After her time, it was all people with army background who took up the position,” Elizabeth says.

Aleykutty had not even thought of marriage until then, she was so dedicated to her profession. Eventually in 1964 she tied the knot with Elizabeth’s father – NM Mani – a lawyer who practiced at the Bombay High Court. Elizabeth was born in Pune and grew up there for the first few years of her life.

Aleykutty with her husband NM Mani

“By 1981, when my mother retired, we came to Fort Kochi in Kerala and set up home. She got many offers from hospitals to work as a faculty member or to be on the advisory board but she declined all of them. I was young and she settled into looking after me,” Elizabeth says.

Aleykutty with Elizabeth

Elizabeth too became a teacher, joining the prestigious Choice School in Ernakulam. She now heads one of its branches. She lives with her husband Anand, and sons Arjun and Ashwin. "Anand and my sons were very, very dear to her," Elizabeth says.

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