Continued from part 1

Sister RS Subbalakshmi, courtesy Wikipedia

When Miss Lynch met Subbalakshmi in Madras, a Widow’s Home took shape, with Peepal Tree House as its headquarters. Subbalakshmi styled herself Sister Subbalakshmi claiming that she was sororally attached towards widows and would like to help them. To begin with, three young widows joined the Home and came under the care of the redoubtable Chitthi. All of them enrolled at the P&T just opposite and began their studies in right earnest. Subbaakshmi, meanwhile, cleared her B.A. in 1911 with Honours and the highest marks in the Presidency. She was offered several lucrative jobs, in the neighbouring provinces, but preferred to join the P&T as a teacher at Rs. 50 a month. In her spare time, she prepared for her Licentiate of Teaching exam, which she cleared in 1912. The number of students in the P&T, meanwhile, kept increasing and a second school for girls, to which the Tamil section could be attached, was opened.

The number of widows at the Home too kept increasing. Sister managed to save around Rs. 2,000 for a new building for the girls. Chitthi had by now begun holding lectures on the Ramayana and Mahabharata at the Home for women of the neighbourhood, who formed the Sarada Ladies’ Union. These women contributed cash and soon nearby Adi Cottage was acquired for the Home.

The search, however, was for an existing school to be taken over. Negotiations with a school in Mylapore failed when its promoters insisted that the various castes be segregated. Around this time, there were feelers from a school for girls in Triplicane founded by the Maharajah of Vizianagaram. The only condition the founder made was that the school’s status be raised to that of a high school. Miss Lynch saw to this and the school was taken over, with another ardent champion of women’s rights, Miss Mildred Prager, as superintendent and Sister Subbalakshmi as the superintendent of the Widow’s Home. The Home was shifted to Tulasinga Perumal Koil Street, Triplicane, much to the disgust of the local residents. They would shout abuse at the girls as they set forth each morning to the school. Over time, this diminished. But the landlord of the building ordered the hostel be vacated claiming he needed the property himself.

Miss Prager and Sister set out house-hunting, but with no success. One day, someone suggested that Ice House , the one-time warehouse where an American company had stored and sold ice, might be suitable. Its owner, a Zamindar, agree to rent it out at Rs. 160 a month, till the actual purchase was completed. But orthodox Triplicane was not amused. Several predicted that the ghost that was said to haunt the building would soon take care of things. It didn’t – and by late 1914 and early 1915, the girls moved in. The shift was not without its shocks, for two girls went missing, and were finally discovered in the cavernous of Ice House – searching for ice!

By 1918, Miss Lynch, who was now Mrs. Drysdale, was made Director in charge of girls’ education in the Presidency. When she returned in 1922 to England, she was confident that several of the girls in the Widows’ Home and the schools were on their way to becoming doctors, teachers and educated housewives. Sister herself was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind medal in 1920. Successive First Ladies of the Presidency, such as Lady Pentland and Lady Willingdon, also began taking an active interest in Sister’s activities.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Sister, the Lady Willingdon School for Girls came up in Triplicane in 1922. In 1927, Sarada Vidyalaya, sponsored by the Sarada Ladies’ Union, was established. The school moved from Triplicane to Mylapore and, finally, to Mambalam. In 1932, Sister became superintendent of the Government Hobart School on White’s Road for a short while. Later, she moved to the Government Secondary and Training School, in Cuddalore. In 1936, she returned to Madras and, in 1938, the Ramakrishna Mission offered to take over Sarada Vidyalaya, which Sister then handed over on behalf of the Sarada Ladies’ Union. The only condition she laid was that the name should not be changed. The Mission had no problem with that, for Sarada Devi was the wife of their patron-saint, Swami Ramakrishna Pramahamsa.

Tthe 50th anniversary of the Sarada Ladies’ Union was held on January 21, 1962, during which Sister was feted and honoured. She had by then been a member of the Madras Legislative Council as well. She had also been co-founder of the Vidya Mandir School, which today is a landmark institution in the city.

Sister Subbalakshmi passed away on December 20, 1969. But that does not matter. For, a person like her never really dies. By dint of her efforts, she lives on in every girl child that is educated and every woman who strives for a new life after the loss of her life partner.