A certificate from the school that GK Meenambal spent many years at and retired from as Assistant Headmistress
With her sister and brother-in-law
With her brother
“Prajnya Trust’s call for articles from readers of “The Hindu” regarding the first woman graduate in the family has evoked nostalgic thoughts of our Great Grand Aunt, G.K. Meenambal in our Gudalur family.
All the family members remember Meenathai/Meenakka as she was fondly called, as a grand and majestic lady with great erudition and a quick temper. As children we used to look at her with awe as even our moms weren’t as sophisticated and educated as she was. Her majestic presence left a fond memory for all of us who had been fortunate to interact with her. A devout disciple of Pujya Sri Chinmayananda, she used to talk about Swamiji at length and also gifted us books written by him. Her actions inspired a great deal of respect for her though very little information about her life was passed on to the next generation. The depth of the tragedy in her life, gutsy move by her father despite social stigmas and the achievements of this remarkable woman are still not fully known by many of our family members.
Our family hails from Gudalur (Theni Dist.), a small, beautiful, agricultural village nestled in the lap of Western Ghats. It is in Cumbum Valley surrounded by lush green vegetation, lovely ponds and the life sustaining Mullai Periyar river. G.K. Meenambal was one of the children of Sri.G.V. Kalyanasundaram Iyer (an advocate by profession). She grew up with many siblings in a big joint family setting. As per the social custom of the day, she was married off at the tender age of 11 as young girls were given in marriage mostly before they attained puberty. Even before the marriage could be consummated, she was tragically widowed at 13 when her husband died of the plague epidemic that was prevalent then.
The society treated child widows unkindly then. These young girls had to tonsure their heads and wear only white saris. They were given only minimum bland food under the pretext of the need to control their senses, and made to do household chores. They were prohibited from going outdoors or participation in festive occasions and forced to mourn for life. The parents could do nothing but to cry silently, afraid of breaking the custom due to the fear of social stigma.
But Meenambal’s father was a courageous man. His love for his daughter didn’t allow him to be a silent spectator to these social evils that were awaiting his little intelligent daughter. He made up his mind to take her to Chennai (it was Madras then) and leave her in the custody of Sister R.S. Subbalakshmi Ammal (herself a child widow) who was a great visionary and social reformer committed to this cause. Her home was a refuge to young brahmin child widows. Encouraged by her success many parents willingly left their unfortunate girls widowed at a tender age with “the Sister” who was like a ray of hope to them. G.K. Meenambal also joined this stream because her father took a bold decision in the midst of strong social opposition.
With increasing numbers of child widows, Pujya Sister soon opened a widows’ home in Egmore (Ice house) which rehabilitated and educated these young girls. The widows’ home became a hostel and school (TGSTS – Triplicane Government Secondary and Training School) and eventually metamorphosized in to The Lady Willingdon Institute for higher education.
For G.K. Meenambal getting admitted in Ice House was just the beginning. She graduated with Bachelor of Arts (B.A) and did her teacher’s training (L.T) in The Lady Willingdon College. She was employed in “Saradha Vidyalaya” started by the Sister in 1927, as a teacher, like her other college mates. She retired as the Assistant Headmistress of the school after a glorious career.
G.K. Meenambal dedicated her life to the school and also the upbringing of her siblings and their offspring. Having overcome numerous difficulties in life and settled in Chennai, she remained as the main anchor for her family and played an important role in the upbringing and education of her siblings and also the next generation. She was a towering personality and well respected by all family members. Her life in an excellent example of courage, hard work and determination in the face of adversity and opposition, which lead her to rise to prominence rather than being relegated to obscurity within the confines of the unfair boundaries imposed by the society.
After her retirement, G.K. Meenambal devoted her life as a librarian at Sri Chinmaya Trust in Powai, Mumbai. Later she joined the Chinmaya Mission Ashram in Sidhapari in H.P as a Brahmacharini. Her contributions there are still acknowledged and she is fondly remembered as Meena Patti in both locations. For those who visited these locations she left an impression with her erudition and majestic voice. She spent her final days in Sidhapari until she reached the Lotus feet of Lord Shiva.
The torch lit by the great visionary Sister Subbalakshmi Ammal was carried forward by those like G. K. Meenambal whom she had uplifted. What an achievement!
PS: Sister Subbulakshmi Ammal has also referred to G.K. Meenambal in her notes.”
Contributor: great nephew Sadasivam Ramakrishnan
With her brother and sister-in-law