A BRIEF BIO-NOTE (by Ammu Joseph)
Anna Joseph (nee Poonnen), aka Baby, was born in February 1918 into a Syrian Christian family in Kerala, which belonged to and had close associations with the (Protestant/Anglican) Church of South India: both her paternal and maternal grandfathers were CSI pastors.
Her maternal great-grandfather was a lawyer. A maternal uncle went to Columbia University (NY) in 1927, returning with a doctorate in education and taking up a job as Professor of Education at the Maharaja’s Training College in Mysore. A paternal uncle got a scholarship to study at the Forest College in Dehra Doon and served in the Forest Department of Travancore State.
Her own father initially followed in his uncle’s footsteps as a forester with the government but later turned to private enterprise in both forestry and agriculture. Her mother was an active social worker, helping girls from lower middle-class families access education and earn a living (she established a kindergarten school and candle-making unit for this purpose); an excellent cook, she also used to contribute recipes to magazines and newspapers of the time!
After primary school in Thodupuzha (adopted as their home town by her parents, who were originally from Kottayam), Anna went to boarding school in other towns: first the Nicholson School for Girls and then the Christava Mahilalayam. In the 4th Form (8th Grade) she won a government scholarship of Rs. 5 a month (her monthly school fees then was only Rs. 3.50!).
In 1933 she joined St. Teresa’s College in Ernakulam (a compromise because the Maharaja’s College of the then Cochin State decided that year not to admit students from Travancore State and because she was under-age for the Women’s Christian College in Madras!), taking French as her second language. Having completed the course with a First Class in the “Distinction” category, she received the Kirupabhai Satyanadha Memorial medal from the University. Her academic record got her a seat in the English Honours course in the Presidency College, Madras, which she joined in June 1935.
Since Presidency College did not have a hostel for women in the 1930s she lived in the Queen Mary’s College Hostel. She always talked about the excellent teachers they had there, including Prof. K. Swaminathan and Mr. V.K. Aiyyappan Pillai. The Presidency College students also had the benefit of the famous British teachers of the Madras Christian College (MCC), attending their lectures twice a week. She graduated in 1938 with the 1st Rank in Madras University (which then covered the three states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and two gold medals.
In her first job she was lecturer in English at the Sarah Tucker College for Women in Palayamcottah (Tinnevelly District), Tamil Nadu. She travelled there by herself, taking two buses, two trains, walking two miles and finally getting a ride on an ox-cart to reach her destination! Subsequently, in the early 1940s, she was a tutor at the Union Christian College (Alwaye) and a lecturer at the Andhra Christian College (Guntur) before getting married.
In 1943 she married the man she had met while they were both in college in Madras (he was at the MCC), who was already a deacon in the Orthodox Church, preparing to become a priest. Not only was theirs not an arranged marriage, but it was highly unusual in those days when there was little inter-marriage even between Syrian Christians belonging to different Christian denominations (it was the equivalent then of an inter-religious or inter-caste marriage now).
Dr. K.C. Joseph (later Rev.) joined the faculty of the Union Christian College in Alwaye and they made their home there till 1960. Since the college had a policy against spouses of faculty being paid employees of the college, she was able to teach only when there were jobs for which no qualified men applied! However, she was closely involved with her old school, Christava Mahilalayam. And in 1958 she took up a job as Professor of English at the Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam (where she spent the weekdays, coming home on weekends), partly to help repay the loan they had taken to build a house of their own. All three of their daughters (Rebecca/Reebe, Sarah/Samu and Mary/Ammu) were born during this period and grew up on the UCC campus.
In 1960 Anna, her husband and youngest daughter left for Ethiopia, where Rev. Dr. K.C. Joseph was to start the Faculty of Theology for the Haile Selassie 1st University in Addis Ababa and head it as the Dean. (Having always worn the traditional Syrian Christian Mundu-Chatta attire, she reluctantly changed into a sari only in Aden, en route to Addis!) She taught for three years at the Nazareth School (a convent school for girls) and went on to become the first non-English Senior Teacher of English and Head of the English Department at the Empress Menen Girls’ School.
In 1967 they moved to Geneva, Switzerland (where KCJ joined the World Council of Churches as the Secretary for Education). But before that Anna went to London to do a course in teaching English as a foreign language. In Geneva, she joined groups to learn conversational French (with her two years of French as a second language in the Intermediate coming to her help!). At the request of European friends and neighbours, she also set up a group to teach conversational English; most of those women became close friends of hers.
In addition she taught English to a Japanese neighbour who was so grateful for the “new life” she got as a result of being finally able to communicate with people in Geneva that she insisted on calling Anna “mother” and returned the favour by teaching her English teacher ikebana (it turned out that Sumiko was a highly accomplished ikebana expert from the Sogetsu school).
After they left Geneva in 1972 the Josephs were in Vellore for a year (where Anna taught English to students of the School of Nursing and the Lab Technicians’ course of the Christian Medical College). During a subsequent year in Melbourne, Australia, she worked in the library of a technical school and taught English to migrant children from Europe studying in the institution. During their second spell in Vellore in the mid-1970s she taught part-time at the Ida Scudder School and also helped develop the school library.
Anna Joseph passed away peacefully in her sleep on 14 September 2009. She had quietly slipped into a deep sleep-like state (not quite a coma) around 7.30 pm on 28 August after a perfectly normal day. This was her first experience of being bed-ridden and, luckily for her, she was not fully conscious of the situation. All three daughters were with her through her last days.
At 91 going on 92, she had led a long, healthy, interesting, fulfilling and useful life. She leaves behind precious memories not only for members of her family and wide circle of friends across the world, but also for several generations of former students in India and elsewhere who remember what an inspired and inspirational teacher she was.