May 4, 2014
We live in an era in which women, at least in the major cities, are well educated – and many are quite highly qualified. Today, the girls who graduate each year probably outnumber their male counterparts. But a hundred years ago society was very different. Even among wealthy and aristocratic families, girls were generally given away in marriage soon after the completion of their matriculation; and girls from less privileged families were lucky if they were even permitted to study up to the high school level.
It was in the year 1921 that the Apostolic Carmel, under the leadership of its Superior General, Mother Aloysia, founded St Agnes College, Mangalore. It was the first women’s college in South India outside the Presidency capital; only Queen Mary’s College, Madras, is older.
Mangalorean girls were now offered the opportunity of studying towards a graduate degree in their home town, but even so, during the early years of the college, not more than a dozen girls would have completed their BA degree each year.
Mangalore, 1939 - Nellie, aged 25, with her baby son Eamon (who died in childhood)
Calcutta, 1954 - with her husband John and children Glaph (Ranee) and Joseph (J B)
Mumbai, 2004 - Nellie, on her 90th birthday, with her children Ranee and J B
Tony and Eamon
It was on July 7, 1930 that 16-year-old Natalie Monica Lobo – who, since childhood, has been known as Nellie – was admitted to St Agnes College, having completed her matriculation from St Agnes High School earlier that year.
It was on February 18, 1934, at the age of 19, that she left the college, having completed her BA degree.
Over eighty years have since elapsed. Nellie Lobo-Peris is still with us and has completed a hundred years of age on May 4, 2014.
Considering the scarcity of lady graduates in the 1920s and 1930s – and the very slim likelihood of any person attaining one hundred years of age – it would be safe to conjecture that Nellie Peris is, in all probability, the only centenarian lady graduate in India today.
Natalie Monica Lobo was born on May 4, 1914 – the third of five children of Raymond and Lily Lobo of Bejai, Mangalore. Both her parents hailed from elite families of Mangalore. The male members of the Lobo Prabhu family attained senior positions in government service, especially the judiciary.
Nellie’s paternal grandfather Joseph Lobo and her maternal great-grandfather Lawrence Lobo Prabhu both attained the rank of Munsiff (Sub-Judge), which was the highest judicial position that a native Indian could attain in the 19th century. Both were also major philanthropists; Joseph Lobo gifted the land on which Bejai Church now stands; Lawrence Lobo Prabhu donated ten acres on Lighthouse Hill for the foundation of St Aloysius College. In a community such as ours, where little interest is taken in commemorating illustrious personages of bygone years, the name Lawrence Lobo Prabhu is now barely remembered, but in point of fact his contribution to the cause of education in Mangalore is on par with that of John Harvard and Elihu Yale, after whom the US universities of Harvard and Yale are named. John Harvard and Elihu Yale were not educationists but philanthropists; they made the pioneering donations necessary to see the colleges off the ground, but did not otherwise assume any major role in the college activities. Yet they are honoured to this day, their names being immortalised in their institutions, whereas Lawrence Lobo Prabhu is all but forgotten!
Nellie’s father Raymond Lobo died relatively young, but her mother Lily, despite her physical frailty, lived to a respectable age and is remembered for her virtue, humility, and silent works of charity.
In 1935, a year after her graduation, Nellie married John Peris who was employed at the British Residency, Hyderabad; here Nellie made a name as a tennis player. Following Independence, Nellie, John and their three children moved to Calcutta. Tragically, they lost their eldest son in 1949. Further trauma was to follow as John became slowly debilitated by Parkinson’s disease – devotedly nursed by Nellie till his death in 1967.
In the evening of her life, Nellie has had the satisfaction of seeing her children and their families attain considerable heights in their professions. Her son-in-law, Cecil Noronha, IAS, retired in 1996 as Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka. Her daughter Ranee, an eminent educationist, was Vice Principal, St Columba’s, New Delhi, Principal, Mallya-Aditi International School, Bangalore, and later Principal of the Dhirubhai-Ambani International School, Mumbai. Nellie’s son Joseph Benedict (popularly known by his initials J B), a PhD from Boston University, is a Professor of Religious Philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles. Her elder grandson, Jaideep, a PhD from UCLA, is a Professor of Business and Enterprise at Cambridge University, England; he is also co-author of a best-selling book, Jugaad Innovation. Her younger grandson, Jatin, has a degree in journalism and is based at Bangalore.
Credit for their success is due, in no small measure, to Nellie.
I would like to conclude this tribute by drawing a comparison between Nellie Peris and Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, who also lived to be a hundred.
I was on the faculty at a university in England in 1990 when that nation was celebrating the ninetieth birthday of its Queen Mother. They recalled her long life – virtually spanning the twentieth century – her marriage to Prince Albert in the 1920s, her idyllic early married life with the two young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the sudden assumption of responsibility when her husband had to accede to the throne that his brother had abdicated, the critical years of World War II and having to boost the spirits of a war-torn nation, the years of reconstruction following the War, the deep shock she underwent at the death of her husband at a young age – and finally her long spell as Queen Mother, beloved by all the nation, a role model, an inspiration. England and the world at large may have changed enormously in the course of the 20th century, but the Queen Mother remained the same.
Today, as Nellie Peris – who, incidentally, is my paternal aunt – celebrates her 100th birthday, I cannot help but observe several parallels between her life and that of the Queen Mother. Aunt Nellie’s life has also virtually spanned the 20th century and she has had her share of life’s joys and sorrows. Like the Queen Mother, I’m sure that Aunt Nellie too had a very happy early married life, with Uncle John and their three little children – Eamon, Ranee and J B. But then came tragedy as Eamon died in childhood – and perhaps an even bigger trauma, when Uncle John slowly became a victim to Parkinson’s disease, devotedly nursed by Aunt Nellie for over ten years. When Uncle John eventually succumbed, she must have felt intense pain, but like the Queen Mother, she slowly revived – to become a role model and inspiration to the younger generation. And in the evening of her life, Aunt Nellie has experienced the joy of seeing her children Ranee and J B, her son-in-law Cecil, and more recently her grandson Jaideep, all attain eminence in their respective professions. I’m sure that Ranee and J B would be the first to admit that they owe a large measure of their success to their mother – and I would go as far as to add that had Aunt Nellie been born in a later era, she herself may well have attained the heights that her children have – and, who knows, may even have surpassed them.
The prayers and wishes of the community are with her on her 100th birthday – and will continue to be with her in the years to come.