Kodaikanal International School has long been a caring community, suffused with a compassionate spirit, of staff to students, school members to the Kodai community at large – and to strangers who have made their way to this hilltop getaway.
The story that follows exemplifies this spirit. The words in the title were the last words spoken to my mother, Ginny Johnson, in 1975, by Philippa Cullen, just before she passed away at Van Allen Hospital in Kodaikanal, at the age of 25. Mom never forgot those words or her interaction with this young woman.
Philippa’s story began in Australia, where she began dancing at a very young age. As her biographer Evelyn Juers writes in her book The Dancer, Philippa was “ahead of her time, an inspiring visionary artist” known for the innovation of movement and for using various forms of technical devices to assist her in the expression of bodily flow: “As a dancer, Philippa had created a wonderful weighty flow to her movement, which very few dancers have.” Phillipa traveled the world seeking inspiration for her vision of dance. That search eventually led her to India, and in 1975 she moved to Madras to study kathakali, then made her way to Pondicherry and on to Auroville. But once there, Philippa began to feel unwell – possibly due to jaundice – and was encouraged to travel to the hill station of Kodai, as her biographer wrote, “an arduous journey at the best of times, an endurance test for someone who is sick.”
Once in Kodai, Philippa was initially happy, though in dire need of rest and peace of mind. On June 19 she wrote in a letter, cited by Juers, that she hiked to Perumal Malai with “a group of friends and children from KIS” who made her feel welcome and were “immediately friendly and straightaway accept me with a “Hi!”. She described Kodai as “a clean place with polite people and an abundance of birds …and enormous eucalyptus trees …and a little stone bungalow [Roseneath Cottage].” She may well have been reminded of her native Australia. Juers noted that In another letter, Philippa wrote that “she was sure that the International School in Kodaikanal would offer her a full-time position to teach dance.”
Earlier that same year, 1975, Gay and Ginny Johnson joined the staff at Kodai School, as chaplain and teachers, after twenty-five years of working in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
In the meantime, Philippa continued to feel ill, and just a couple of days after the hike, she arrived on the doorstep of Lewis Cottage, where my parents lived, seeking help because of severe stomach pain. My brother Alan said he can “still picture Philippa when she first came to the door.” Mom arranged for her to see Dr. Desai at Van Allen Hospital, and on June 21, Philippa underwent an emergency appendectomy. A mere eight days late, on June 29, Dr. Desai performed a procedure for sepsis and found Philippa bleeding internally from all her organs. In much pain, on June 30 she wrote to her father, in a letter that contained a postscript: “Philippa dictated this to me; all that she says is true. She is very ill. Sincerely, Virginia Johnson.”
During those few days, Mom visited Philippa daily, along with staff members Karen (Bjornstad), Bev (Warkentin), and Rocky (Nichol). They sang to her, read to her (Philippa loved the poems of T. S. Eliot), and were just present with her. On July 1, 1975, Philippa’s mother in Australia received a telegram: “Philippa operated on twice; condition critical.” The next day, when Mom went to Van Allen to visit her, Philippa reached out her hand and touched Mom’s cheek and said, “Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come.” And on July 3, at 2:30 am, Philippa took her last breath. She was cremated that same evening, at the request of her mother. Mom and other staff members “wired Philippa’s family and friends in Pondicherry, but she died before anyone arrived.” Dr. Desai also wrote to Philippa’s father, describing what his daughter had been through, adding, ”I would like to reassure you that during her sickness Philippa was looked after very kindly by teachers of the American school whom she had come to know. Philippa was not a single minute left alone.”
Years later, Philippa’s friend Evelyn Juers – biographer, essayist, and art and literary critic – began to document Philippa’s life. Dauntless in her research, she contacted Manjusha Ninan at Kodai School in 2018 to procure contact information for those who had been so good to her friend. Manjusha directed her to Ginny Johnson, though long retired, and the two began to correspond. Mom told Evelyn everything she could remember about Philippa in amazing detail, as the memory of Philippa’s life and the story had never left her. In Mom’s words to Juers: “Philippa seemed to accept us as we were, and I can honestly say I came to care for her deeply. She touched my heart… ”so much that Mom included this moving story in the memoirs she and my dad wrote in 2008. Evelyn thanked Manjusha for her assistance, and Mom for her “warm response,” adding that Philippa’s family was “enormously relieved” to know that she had been comforted in her final days.
This story is a testament to the caring community that Kodai School was for Phillipa Cullen. The staff, along with Dr. Desai, worked together to show tenderness and compassion to a young woman almost fifty years ago, a spirit that is alive and well to this day. Juers also wrote that “more than anything, Philippa wanted to be cared for.” At Kodai, she received that in abundant measure, and Evelyn herself was “moved to hear of the kindness which Ginny and others showed Philippa,” though Mom “wished she could have done more to make her comfortable.”
Ginny Johnson passed away on July 11, 2021. A few days later a message arrived in her email account from Evelyn, informing Mom that the book had finally gone to print, and thanking her again for her gracious input in the telling of Phillipa’s story. She planned to mail a copy of the book to Mom.
Knowing of their correspondence over the previous years, I emailed Evelyn to inform her of the sad news of Mom’s passing. In October, a signed copy of the book The Dancer arrived on my doorstep from Australia, followed by an email from the author saying she “wished Ginny could have read it, as she played such a significant role in Phillipa’s life – a kind of blessing.”
The Dancer, by Evelyn Juers, Giramondo Publishing Company, Artarmon, Australia, 2021.
Our India Sojourn, Gay and Ginny Johnson, Masthof Press, Morgantown, PA, 2008.
Noted by Juers: “Body Sonata, 1976,” a dance dedicated to the memory of Philippa Cullen, and two recent documentaries made in Australia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Philippa’s death whilst exploring her creative genius.
Katherine Johnson Narney (Class of ’71)