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A life of service -Akkamma Devi was the first woman graduate from the Badaga community .
A life of service
Active as ever: Akkamma Devi.
PERCHED on a hill above Aravankadu, Hubbathali Village in the Nilgiris is the home of an exceptional woman, Akkamma Devi. She was the first woman from the Badaga community to graduate from college. Akkamma Devi was determined to share the value of this experience and devoted her life to social work. Wearing the pristine white shawl traditionally worn by Badaga women, she greets us with great enthusiasm and warmth on our arrival at the house she has lived in since she married in 1943. Akkamma Devi, with her charming smile and cheerful demeanour, quickly puts us at ease. She immediately recalls meeting my friend Manoharan in 1965.
An active life
Inspite of keeping indifferent health Akkamma Devi remains active. She maintains an interest in the welfare of the Nilgiris, receives visitors and everyday carefully reads The Hindu (without glasses!). Akkamma Devi is alert, highly articulate and possesses an impressive memory of her long and productive life. She recalls that her entry into formal politics in 1962 began with a summons to Madras from Chief Minister Kamaraj. Akkamma travelled under the assumption that she would be asked to contest an assembly seat in the Nilgiris but was speechless upon hearing that Kamaraj wanted to send her straight to Delhi. He had assigned her the Nilgiris Lok Sabha seat, arguing that the constituency had so far lacked a representative from the hills. Further, Akkamma Devi's educational achievements and fluent English meant she was ideally qualified to participate in parliamentary life. Akkamma Devi also retains fond recollections of Jawaharlal Nehru who encouraged her parliamentary activity. The loyalty to Congress and the Nehru family remains strong. Once in Delhi, Akkamma Devi promoted the Nilgiris with energy. She was deeply concerned by the plight of small tea growers and worked to build institutions like cooperative factories that would make them more secure. The cause dearest to her is the education of girls.
The story of Akkamma Devi's eventful life has been narrated in detail in a book authored by her daughter, Hema Raman. The volume, Daughter of the Mountains (published by East West Books), is nimbly written and will appeal to readers of all ages. The book was deliberately written so that children would read it and appreciate the value of education and social service.
Akkamma Devi is quick to pay tribute to two important men in her life. Her cherished husband, Joghi, supported and encouraged her work. Her father, Motha Gowder, made great sacrifices to advance her education. He walked his daughter five miles to St. Joseph's Convent School in Coonoor every day. His dictum, educate a woman and she will educate her entire family, was put into practice by Akkamma Devi as a mother, social worker and member of parliament. She promoted schools and women's self help groups in the Nilgiris. A long and distinguished career of service was recognised by a Lifetime Achievement Award from the All-India Women's Conference (AIWC). The AIWC award recognises members aged over 70 with 50 years of social service. Given the devotion to service and the needs of the villages of the Nilgiris, it should come as no surprise that Akkamma Devi took inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and recalls his visit to Coonoor during her childhood. She continues to value simplicity and the welfare of others.
Akkamma Devi also esteems highly two women close to her. Her mother Subbi was a pillar of strength who spread happiness and humour in her family and village. More recently, Akkamma Devi's daughter, Hema Raman, has become another pillar of strength, lavishing care and attending to all her mother's needs. To spare her daughter's blushes we are told this with a twinkling smile when Hema leaves the room briefly.
Akkamma Devi has no regrets for herself. Even losing the Nilgiris seat in 1967 is borne philosophically. It was simply the wind of the DMK that took it away. However, she fears that the tradition of service in political life is in danger of being lost. The sense of service is still strong. Akkamma Devi is ready to vote in the assembly elections. She made it a point to see that her name and those of her family were on the list. Akkamma also takes a close interest in the success of local schools and lends support where she can. Leaving is difficult, the farewells are warm and we stop to look at photos in the hallway, waiting for a torrential downpour to ease. Leaving, I feel hugely uplifted to have heard the story of a remarkable woman's life.