A Courageous Heart – Mythili Sundaram

Swapna Narayanan

mythili4When disaster strikes, here is one woman who will relentlessly work and ensure all the help possible from her end is offered. Be it 2015 floods of Tamil Nadu, Cyclone Vartha of 2016, Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, and the recent devastating rains in Kerala, you will find that a small team from a small town in the southern tip of our country – Nagercoil – led by a very large-hearted woman – Mythili Sundaram – is doing some big work to rebuild the impacted lives.

Yes, a large heart along with a strong vision and efficient management skills is all one needs to help the society around. Provided you carry the intent to help and the zeal to work hard.

Eyra recently caught up with this amazing woman – Mythili Sundaram, who is a Deputy Area Commander of Home Guards, Kanya Kumari. Apart from this, she dons many hats including being the Director of a leading Tamil publication group – Kalachuvadu Publications.

Three years in a row, we have seen her do her bit, making her an instant woman achiever in our eyes.

Swapna: Hello Mythili. A passionate, focused and determined woman with a strong zeal to make a difference in your own way – is what people describe you today. But behind this woman, must be a childhood seeped in strong values and surrounded by exemplary
mentors. Tell us more about your childhood and your journey so far.

Mythili: Born and brought up in Chennai, I belong to what you can call an ideal average family and my father worked in Chennai Port Trust, the only earning member of a family of five. I have an elder sister (now in Mumbai) and a younger brother (now in Chicago, USA).

My father by nature is a very organized and punctual person and he was the one who taught us the value of being systematic, clean and perfect. Our training started when we were around five years old. From early morning till bedtime, we always had a systematic routine for every single thing. Rolling our mats, keeping them in proper assigned places, getting ready for school, washing our plates, walking to school, arranging our books in the bag, checking everything before leaving and upon return, placing the shoes in proper place, washing, eating our snack, playing, studying, etc. Everything was very organized.

At that time I could not understand the importance of this regimen, and used to be often
angry with my father. Even during holidays, we were allowed to play only after writing one page each in English and Tamil, tables till 12 and Tamil uyir mei varisai.

My friends and relatives used to make fun of this regime of our house and I used to be
ashamed of it. But later I realized, these habits which were forced upon us in our childhood proved valuable and moulded me to become a better person, without even realizing it.

Today, I am proud of both my mother and father who inculcated the basic good things in me and I will always be indebted to them for bringing me up the way they did. Till my twenties, I did not have much exposure to the various aspects of outside world, since my social circle was relatively small. After my school, I finished my post graduation in Statistics and started my career as a software programmer – a greatly admired and envied position in the 90s! I must add that entering into this field was a struggle since no women were allowed to join the software team in my company before me! I was given a challenge that if I am able to complete the task they gave within stipulated time, I would be given a post in the much coveted ‘Coding’ room.

Well, I did it! And this job opened up new challenges and gave me a different exposure and perspective in my life. My wedding was a turning point and a major milestone (in a different sense) in my life. A whole new world sprung before me which I was totally unprepared for.

My father in law, Sundara Ramaswamy, a renowned Tamil Writer was popular not only among the literary writers’ circle, but also among painters, musicians, sculptors, artists and numerous other fields. Every day I got introduced to famous personalities and though I was amazed, it was very difficult to cope up with the tremendous changes happening in my life initially.

Expecting a simple and normal married life, my journey started from Chennai to Nagercoil, but I was totally unprepared for the business and hustle bustle of the big house – with a much larger aspect of life. I had to leave my comfortable smaller circle and move into life with more purpose.

Swapna: Your journey from a metro to a small town is inspiring for many a women around you. But what inspires you? Where do you get the zeal to work so hard and fearlessly go to the terribly hit places and help on the ground?

Mythili: The journey from a city to a small town in the southern tip of India, was definitely painful in the beginning. Before my wedding, I did not even have any idea where Nagercoil existed in the map. There was not even a direct train from Chennai those days. We used to get down at Tirunelveli to catch the connecting train/bus to reach there.

The continuous array of dry palm trees and endless stretches of barren land on both sides from Tirunelveli railway station was a shocking sight and for the first time, I was scared about the place where I was going to spend the rest of my life.

But the scene changed completely when we were a few kilometres away from Nagercoil. It was so lush green with a lot of water bodies and paddy fields, coconut and plantain groves with shadowy mountains in the background. The cool, fresh and gentle breeze was overwhelming and I fell in love with the quaint little town when I first entered twenty-five years back.

My husband and in-laws were all very supportive, understanding and were a great source of motivation for me. They gave me freedom to explore new avenues in business, society and my other interests. Slowly I had a large network of friends and well-wishers who were there to support and encourage me in all my activities.

Whenever I came across any news relating to social atrocities, women abuse, corruption, sufferings of the underprivileged, my emotions used to run rampage and I used to be so outraged and anguished. I always felt that it is my duty as a human being to do something to help them ease their pain.

Initially, I thought it as a normal reaction to the news I read or heard often. I used to hear it, get upset and then carry on with my usual activities – prior to 2008. In 2008, I joined Home Guards as Deputy Area Commander, a voluntary Organisation parallel to Police Department wherein about 165 women home guards are doing their service similar to the police.

I had the opportunity to interact with them personally and got a firsthand clear image of the problems they faced in their families and society, and this changed me completely. I slowly started doing whatever possible to ease their pain and troubles. This brought a sense of contentment and happiness in me and I realized I had been wanting this all my life. Slowly I started my social activities through Inner Wheel Club to various parts of our district.

Swapna: Tell us more about your activities and efforts.

Mythili: In 2016 when Vaartha cyclone ransacked Chennai and Cuddalore, help was pouring out to Chennai from various parts of India. Our home guards organization in all the districts of Tamil Nadu also extended their helping hand. I decided to do my part from our district and started mobilising funds from local friends and business contacts.

Mythili1After 3 full days, we were ready with 20 tons of relief material and that night, standing in our office in the cold wind, I decided that I had to go personally to the affected areas and
handover the relief measures in person, rather than sending it away through someone.

It never occurred to me to fear about the journey or the situation there. I just had the overwhelming thought to be among the sufferers to share their grief and help in any small possible way.

That’s how the first journey started.

mythili3Next came the Ockhi cyclone in December 2017, completely destroying the nature and tranquillity of the lovely town mercilessly, which I had started loving as my own place.  This time I ploughed into work from day one in the field, collecting data with local NGOs and started mobilizing relief measures and was able to serve the worst affected areas, where no form of help could reach. Wherever I went, I was always helped by friends and a team of like-minded people, who were ready to be on the ground working relentlessly.

Last month when Kerala saw the historical floods, we traveled to Pathanamthitta – one of
the worst affected places and stayed in a small camp and distributed relief measures to
a small town Rani, through the students there.

Visiting in person to the affected places, meeting and sharing the grief of the people there, is the most important way of relief, apart from the materials. This is the only way I accept myself as a true relief giver to people in need.

Swapna: Being a social crusader is a daunting task. Did you get scared the first time, when you stepped out of the cocoon of your safe and privileged environment? How did you manage your own demons, as well as the expectations and binding of the society around you and step out?

Mythili: Frankly speaking, I never felt any fear in these past years about anything and never bothered about the expectations or bindings of the society. Maybe because I had the unflinching support of my husband, children and the entire family. Even while studying or working, I never had any fear as a woman about anything in my life. I never hesitate to travel alone or do things, something many women may not even consider.

I just cannot tolerate any atrocities in front of me and I always express my views very strongly. Criticism will always be there when you are involved in social work, but never pay heed to those voices. People who are idle, always talk and just talk!

The biggest support for me have been the women in Home Guards. Small town women have amazing levels of grit and determination. They carry within them a spirit to achieve, to excel, to fight and to make a mark. They are truly an inspiration for us city-bred women who are still scared to step out.

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