Sisters of Mokama by Jyoti Thottam is the true story of six nuns from Kentucky, of various ages, who served as the “Sisters of Charity of Nazareth,” arriving in India to work with the Patna Mission. The year is 1947, a period of great upheaval in the newly independent India. The country is ravaged by violence, food shortage, disruption caused by the Partition, and the refugee crisis that has resulted.

The sisters are welcomed in a town named Mokama, a dusty railroad stop in Bihar, India. They find themselves housed in an unheated quarter, without running water. They don’t speak Hindi and must learn it to communicate with the locals. Yet they dedicate themselves to offering much-needed primary care for the poor and the sick in a missionary institution to be named, The Nazareth Hospital. Their nursing skills and the medicine they brought with them, will make this a success.

What motivates these nuns? “It was ambition and longing, passion and hunger. Not for what they would find in Mokama—they knew so little about the world they would enter—but for something more than what had.” So says the author, Jyoti Thottam, Opinion Editor of the New York Times.

Lacking adequate personnel, the sisters send a call out for recruits. Before long, young Indian women, some as young as 15, wishing to pursue a nursing career or take the vow to become a sister, find their way to Mokama, Thottam’s mother being among them. They’ve left their families behind and all they knew. They must live under difficult circumstances, but they, too, have dreams in their eyes.

Despite occasional personality clashes and other issues with these new arrivals, the sisters ultimately realized that “Nazareth Hospital would have to become something else—not a missionary hospital but a place run by and for Indians, an institution that would endure on its own terms.”

And it does. Although the book ends in 1965, Thottam reports that the hospital still exists today. Kudos to Thottam for this compelling debut attempt, a most remarkable story.

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