Mary Clubwallah — The angel of mercy for city’s underprivileged for decades
In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
The have-nots ought to be supported in any society to ensure equitable progress. And the city of Madras has been at the forefront of institutionalising charities and most of that credit goes to Mary Clubwallah from the 300-strong Parsi community of Madras.
At some point in her life, Mary Clubwallah Jadhav was associated with 150 organisations that were offering social service.
When questioned on her obsession for starting new social service organisations and spreading the butter thin, she would remark that if the cause was good, money would flow. And it actually did.
The Parsis had migrated to Madras in the late 1700s and settled in Royapuram. They had to wait for a century to pass before they could have a prayer place of their own — the traditional fire temple. It was donated by Phiroj M Clubwallah, whose son Nogi had married Mary from a distinguished Parsi family settled in Ooty. Mary’s mother had even been painted by Ravi Varma (the painting is in the art gallery of the Madras Museum).
With such an illustrious lineage, Mary’s life would have been destined otherwise. However, travelling to Europe with her husband, who was recuperating from health disorders, she was widowed at the age of 27.
What made the ordeal more harrowing was her being stranded with her infant son in a foreign shore with no one to offer immediate succour. That perhaps had a lasting impact and she spent the rest of her life in serving society rather than moping in self sympathy.
The Guild of Service (later Seva Samajam) had been started in 1923 by the wife of Rev EH Waller, a renowned Anglican clergyman, as an informal band of volunteers offering their spare hours for public assistance.
Freshly widowed Mary joined it as a volunteer and within a few years had become its moving force. It was Mary who made the guild the force to reckon with against poverty and need in Madras. Mary’s life thereafter was intertwined with the growth of Guild of Service.
Fluent in Gujarati, Hindi, English and Tamil, Mary was a frontline worker never hiding behind administrative duties. The wives of the Governors of the Madras Presidency were traditionally involved in the guild and many of its fundraisers were held in the banqueting hall.
The last of the British first ladies of the Madras Presidency, Lady Nye, later mentioned that in Mary she found “a good friend, a quick receptive mind, a great organising capability, and — most important of all — a warm heart and a real love for helping those in need.”
During World War II, with the fall of Singapore, Madras became the centre of allied resistance in Asia. Many thousand troops were stationed in a city unprepared for the influx.
Mary started the Indian Hospitality Committee with volunteers from the Guild and introduced canteens on wheels and arranged entertainment programmes for soldiers under stress. Hospital visits and support for injured servicemen too was organised.
Mary’s volunteers received training from St John’s Ambulance and worked as auxiliary nurses. Others were encouraged to take courses in air raid protection and were taught fire-fighting, use of the stirrup pump and providing first aid during possible bomb attacks.
The guild of service donated eight ambulances by organising the Gold and Silver Trinket Fund to collect jewellery from donors and use it for the war effort. General Cariappa once called her ‘The Darling of the Army’ and had gifted her a Japanese sword they had captured in the World War as a token of appreciation for her war efforts.
The king Emperor deemed it fit to make her MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). Post-war, the guild was associated in every form of social service, be it for the handicapped, dying or running hostels for the immigrants.
Destitute and handicapped children were her focus and the homes she started were often considered as models for replication for similar purposes throughout the world. Post-Independence, amongst other projects, daily milk distribution to 50,000 children was taken up for four years throughout the State.
Perhaps the first Working Women’s Hostel in Madras for underprivileged women was set up in 1963 in Adyar. So focussed was Mary on social work that she created the second college in India to teach social work as a career.
The Madras School of Social Work in 1952 still offers various courses in Community Development.
The ceremonial position of Sheriff of Madras was created in the Madras Charter of 1726 and was often given in recognition of services to the people. The first woman to be the Sheriff of Madras was Mary Clubwallah Jadav in 1956.
Mary also received the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan over her long career.
The guild installed a bronze statue of Mrs Clubwallah Jadhav in the Guild of Service headquarters, Egmore for her centenary.