The Resilient Builder: Leelamma (George) Koshie, Kerala’s First Woman Engineer

Headline pic- Leelamma

Leelamma was one of the three women in the first batch of students who received their degrees from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG). The other two were A. Lalitha and P.K. Tressia.  While Lalitha received hers in Electrical Engineering, Leelamma specialized in Civil Engineering.  She graduated from CEG when she was only 19 years old.  Her story is one that can teach all of us the power of being resilient.

Early Life

Leelamma George was born on the 30th of March 1923, in the state of Kerala, the eldest of three children.  Her father A. K. George and mother Annamma were Syrian Christians (also known as Saint Thomas Christians).  A.K. George was educated in Great Britain, and was exposed to lifestyles that his study abroad afforded him and his children benefited from his non-parochial approach to  life.

From early on, it was evident that Leela was a brilliant learner and her father was determined to educate her as far as she could go.  In the 1920’s and 1930’s girls did not get much education. They were lucky if they completed their high school.  Leela started her studies at 4th grade level in a school in Trivandrum, a major city in Kerala, when she was only six and completed her high school in six years.  In 1937, at the age of 14, she completed her intermediate exams (the step prior to an undergraduate education) with high distinction.

The Road to CEG

Leela’s father wanted her to become a doctor and she was admitted for medical studies in 1938 at Christian Medical College, Ludhiana . At the young age of 15, Leela traveled thousands of miles by train from her home to Ludhiana, a five day journey in those days, to attend this college.  She was quite homesick, but completed one year of school, and entered the second year when you are usually taught Anatomy. Dissecting dead bodies was not something Leela could cope with on top of homesickness, and she decided to leave school. She started on her journey back home unbeknownst to her parents. On the five day train journey in the 3rd class (economy) compartment with no sleeping berths Leela made the trip sitting on hard wooden surface, with only army soldiers as her travelling companions.

Leela’s parents were flabbergasted, but her father was quite determined for Leela to complete her medical education.  He secured admission for Leela in Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi.   Leela’s aversion for dissection of dead bodies continued, and finally she quit medical college.

The two popular professional fields of education in India were, and are even today, Medicine and Engineering.  Leela’s father decided that she would get an engineering education.  He approached the principal of CEG at that time, Mr. Chakko, for the purpose and Leela entered engineering college in 1939 at the age of 16.

Life in CEG

There was no accommodation for girls on the campus (even though there was a residential requirement for the students!) and Leela and P.K. Tressia found accommodation in a hostel in the Little Mount area. Lalitha, the other classmate (Read her story here.) was local to Chennai, and was able to stay at home.  An essay written by Lalitha and Leela (feminists of their day!) in 1941 for the campus publication is quite telling in what these pioneering girls thought about their place in the engineering school.   The essay titled “Eves in Engineering” which was included in a book on the history of CEG, Survey School to Tech. Temple 1794-1994,  had some mundane and some profound thoughts:

On accommodations:

“We are in the first place bound to thank the Principal, Dr. Chakko, but for his boldness, may we say in this conservative world, sympathy and far-sighted policy, we would not have been here. We must also thank him for his continued interest in us, so much as to write to the Government for a separate women’s block in the hostel. This is the first and foremost necessity for lady students in a residential college with such a strenuous course. May we suggest that even if it takes some time for the buildings to come up, a small portion of the blocks may be reserved for us with all amenities provided in a self-contained manner?”

On Why Women should be equal participants in the field of Engineering:

“First, let us examine the problem of why women should not be shut out of the Engineering world.  We form nearly half the population of the world, and can this half, called the better half by the other half, be denied the knowledge of a subject which is primarily responsible for the present day civilization- this machine age when the machine does everything for our production, maintenance and destruction – doing the work of the Trinity – and has become the one and only Power?”

The essay makes an appeal to women:

“May we appeal to all our sisters to follow the lead, which has been our luck and fortune to have taken on ourselves? Old barriers are breaking down and the world is on the brink of diving into a new order. Can half the population of the world afford to be ignorant of a science and profession responsible for the creation and maintenance of the present day civilization?”

As I read the essay, I can’t help but feel the time has stood still. Today in U.S., in 2017, STEM education for women and gender diversity in the work place are much debated headline grabbing topics.

At 19, Leela graduated from CEG with a Civil Engineering degree, with distinction. She was one of the top 3 students in the university.

Post CEG

On her return to Trivandrum, she joined the Travancore service of Public Works Department (PWD) as a supervisor (nowadays called Junior Engineer). During this time, the junior queen of Travancore  Sethu Parvathi Bai   (who later became “Amma Maharani “- the mother of the last king of Travancore) took a personal interest in Leela to promote the achievements of Travancore women.  The queen wanted Leela to go to England to continue her studies, and offered her a fully sponsored trip to study town planning. Leela was promised advancement in her career, and responsibilities in the Travancore service.

Leela was not keen to make this trip because her father had fallen sick, and she did not want to leave him and go so far away. Her father George insisted she go, and ever the dutiful daughter, she honored his wishes, knowing that she may not see him alive when she came back. Even before completing a year in PWD, she sailed to England to study town planning.  Just as she feared, George died in 1945, when Leela was in England.  Today Leela’s sons have very little knowledge of Leela’s life in England or her time later in East Europe, especially in the post-World War II environment.

Leela returned in 1947 to India, a country undergoing tremendous changes due to independence.  These changes impacted Leela’s career due to the fact that the kingdom of Travancore itself was under great stress, and none of the promises she was made before she left for England materialized.

Leela married Thomas Koshie in 1949. Thomas had spent his entire life in Kerala, and worked in the Accountant General’s office in Trivandrum.  Leela, on the other hand, had been educated outside Kerala, and was exposed to a lot of different cultures.  Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Their sons believe it was their Christian belief that had kept them together in their long married life.  Leela’s three sons have followed their mother in engineering education. Mechanical engineering, Metallurgy,  and software are the fields they chose to enter.

In her career at PWD, Leela was responsible for the completion of many successful projects, including the planned housing colonies in Trivandrum during the time when she headed the now defunct City Improvement Trust.  Leela retired from PWD as Assistant Chief Engineer in 1978.

Leela’s planning skills also played into her religious life.  She and her family worshipped at the Christ Church in Trivandrum. Besides being fully committed to the Women’s Fellowship, she was active in the building of their centenary hall. In the 1970’s she was also involved in the planning of the extension of the church which was designed by the famous architect Lauri Baker.

Her life was an example that many parents held up for their children.  Ashley Koshie , from the Koshie family had this to say:

“When growing up, she was the shining example as the first lady engineer from Kerala which was rubbed into our psyche by my parents in the hope we would also achieve academic success.”

Leela’ son (George) wrote about how she spent her post retirement years:

“Soon after her retirement in 1978 Ms. Leela was diagnosed with having breast cancer. She was operated upon and treated for cancer and she survived and lived for another 11 years. During these last years she devoted most of her time to intensively and exhaustively study the Word of God, involve in Christian edification and outreach programs as well as some Christian social welfare programs for the downtrodden. She personally read through the whole Bible more than 2 times during this period. The great truths that she understood from the Word of God needed to be put into practice. For this reason she joined up with like-minded Christian ladies to start a Christian body called Christujyothi and involve in slum uplifting program in one of the major slums in Trivandrum at Chenkachoola.”

A life of Resilience and Devotion

From the time she was a very young girl to when she retired, Leelamma’s life had been full of twists and turns. In her troubling times she turned to God and weathered the storm. She embodies what it means to be resilient, take care of the family and still have a fulfilling career. She not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. She heeded her own words in the essay she wrote with Lalitha in her second year of college:

“It is only when women take their due and honoured place along with men in the Engineering profession that the country can march with clasped hands towards permanent national reconstruction and regeneration. We hope the experiment we are making will not be in vain, and we appeal to all sisters to join this College without any hesitation”

Acknowledgements

This post would not have been possible without the help of Leela’s sons.  Abraham Koshie, Leela’s middle son, put me in touch with George Koshie, the youngest, who had a very comprehensive write-up about his mother and was willing to share it.

A huge thanks to Ashley Koshie who put me in touch with Abraham.  Without this important connection, discovered in LinkedIn, there would have been no story!

Dr. Lalitha Jayaraman who retired from the Printing Technology Department at CEG was kind enough to send me a copy of the book on the history of CEG 1794-1994.  The essay which gives us a glimpse into the thinking of CEG students Leela and A. Lalitha came from this book.

Note:

This is the second write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG women.

My goal is simple – encourage more girls to study engineering & science, enter the work force and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of the world. I am hoping stories of the CEG women will inspire many to do so.

I will be writing more such posts here, and then collect them into a book for publishing.

If you have information about the women who are CEG alumni from the 1940s to 1960s please contact me to help make these posts complete.

5 thoughts on “The Resilient Builder: Leelamma (George) Koshie, Kerala’s First Woman Engineer

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