To the world I may be Dr. Anandi Joshi. But it would please me immensely if you could call me Yamuna. It is the name that I was given at birth.
The second winner of our February 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar.
MARCH, 1886, PHILADELPHIA
The visitor stepped into the garden of the women’s hostel in Philadelphia. Although it was early spring, a chill wind was blowing from the direction of the Schuykill river. Seated in the edge of the fountain, Anandi glanced up in some surprise at her illustrious guest. It was the great Pandita Ramabai herself, known for her work in emancipating widows and orphans as well as her vast knowledge of Sanskrit scriptures and ancient Hindu texts.
As Anandi bent down to pay obeisance in the traditional Maharashtrian manner of touching the Pandita’s feet thrice, the Pandita held Anandi back and enveloped her in a warm, almost motherly hug.
“You do me a great honour by touching my feet. Come Anandi, today is the last day that you will be called a mere Anandi….You will be Dr. Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi henceforth!! You have graduated Medical College with Honours and the ceremony takes place tomorrow, a moment of personal and national pride to us all….particularly all Indian women!”
Anandi looked at the legendary figure with awe. For the Pandita to make this long trip across the ocean and to attend her graduation was an honour and also, an emotional moment for Anandi.
She burst into tears.
It had been a restless night for twenty-one year old Anandi, racked in equal parts by doubts as well as a persistent cough. Nearly two years ago, she had arrived here alone, after a long journey by sea from Kolkata, one of the first Indian women to be accepted into The Women’s Medical College of the University of Pennysylania.
Ill health had been her constant companion for the past two years as a student here in Philadelphia. The intense winter cold had been a shock to this young girl who had lived in the sunny tropical climate of India till she was nineteen. Her cough, worsened during the long journey by ship had intensified due to the smoking fireplace in her room. Furthermore, the unfamiliar food had left her nauseous and weak.
“Taai (elder sister), to the world I may be Dr. Anandi Joshi. But it would please me immensely if you could call me Yamuna. It is the name that I was given at birth. And was called by, until I was twelve years old and was renamed after marriage. No one calls me Yamuna anymore. Let me be Yamu, at least for a short while today.”
The Pandita, who had always been clairvoyant in her understanding of women, drew back and looked searchingly at Anandi’s tired face, the dark circles under her eyes and wan countenance for a moment.
“Come, Yamu… Let us sit on that bench.” The Pandita continued. “We have time to converse before you will need to depart for the docks. I am told that your husband, Gopalrao Joshi arrives today.”
As they walked to the bench, the Pandita looked at Anandi in some surprise.
“Why are you wearing this Nau Vaar Sari (nine yard saree), Yamu? You are feverish, and the weather is still chilly, although it is the end of winter! The drape does not cover you adequately, in spite of the heavy shawl that you have around you.” the Pandita exclaimed.
Seating herself and huddling into the shawl, Anandi smiled, “Yes, I am chilled. When I first arrived here, do you know, after all the Herculean efforts to get admission here, and metaphorical Agnipariksha that I had to undergo back home, I almost turned back due to the weather. My nau-vaar saree left my legs and midriff exposed. I was unwell, chilled to the bone…. even moving was impossible. But I drew inspiration from the Bhagvad Gita ….our body is but a vessel for our soul….so what does it matter if we cover ourselves differently?”
The Pandita nodded. “Yes, if the soul can change the body like we shed clothes, why do we obsess about the clothes that the body wears!”
Anandi smiled as a memory came to her, “Hmm…My local guardian, Mrs. Carpenter, whom I call Carpenter Mavshi ( Aunty) now, found a female seamstress and we improvised. For two years I wore a Gol Sadi, with petticoat and a long thick blouse like I have seen the Gujarati women wear, And I survived the winter.”
Anandi paused here, and said with a sigh. “And here I am, a graduated Doctor of Medicine at last. But today…today, my husband comes from India, and I have not dared to inform him about my change of dress. So I am back to wearing what he is used to seeing me in, even if it means that I will be an icicle by the time we reach home.” She finished with a chuckle.
Sensing the Pandita’s change of mood, she looked up warily.
Reining in her sharp words, the Pandita said, “Do what you must, Yamu. But are you sure that Gopalrao would object?”
Anandi nodded sadly, “One day, a photographer took a picture of us at a summer picnic at Carpenter Mavshi’s home. Everyone was smiling, and so was I. I sent it to him in a letter. He wrote back asking why I was smiling at the man who was behind the camera and why my clothes were not concealing my body adequately.”
Ramabai was non-plussed. “But was he not the one who has always encouraged you to learn and educate yourself, even going against his own family and your parents. Indeed, he was the one who was exposed to more ridicule and called many insulting names when he announced that you would be studying medicine and that too, in America.”
Anandi replied, “Initially, I was very hurt when I read his comments. But later, I realised that that staying back in Kolkata, alone, shunned, ostracized… that must be straining his good nature and his masculine pride so very much. I can only imagine what people must be saying about me and adding fuel to the fire. After it was announced that I had received a grant and admission in the University here, for many days we could not even step out of our home. People would gather on the street and say spiteful things very loudly. Some even threw clods of mud, cow dung, trash at us.”
The Pandita said, “Yes, I know how spiteful society can be. When I married, society boycotted me because my husband was thought to be lower in caste. But marrying him – it was my choice. But now, they are also targeting my daughter. Ha! little do I fear them.”
Anandi looked up at the Pandita, her eyes sparkling with interest, “Ohhh. You have a daughter. You are, indeed, lucky. Bhagyavaan ahat tumhi. A life to nurture, to look after, to love and be loved for yourself alone.”
Ramabai’s face softened with maternal fondness, no longer the formidable Pandita. “Yes. Manorama is now a typical 5 year old, inquisitive and affectionate. The joy of my life. She is what kept me going after my husband passed away.”
A tearful Anandi said, “Do you know that I had a child, a son? He lived for a scarce 2 weeks. That little life that I nurtured within me for nine months. I was inconsolable when they took him away. I was just fourteen years old, almost a child myself. But I loved him with every fibre of my being. He would have been 7 years old had he received the care that he should have. I hear him cry when I fall asleep every night. And when I wake up I am more determined than ever, to be the physician who can treat women and children and save them. Even my medical thesis was on Obstetric Care. Whatever fears I have inside me, my desire to overcome them, to win, is stronger! ”
They sat silently together, these women who were bound by loss, adversity and their willingness to go against the tide.
Anandi continued, “My husband, a reformer to the core, made so many sacrifices for me, so that I could be an educated woman, fluent in 3 languages, and later, a physician. But I was married to him at the age of 12. Which 12 year old wants to study when she can play hopscotch or marbles or climb a tree? Once, someone called me to the kitchen to help. So off I went, leaving my ‘paati-pencil’ and my books scattered, thinking this is a legitimate excuse to play hooky….I got a beating from my husband that day!!”
Ramabai was aghast in more than one way, “Whoever heard of a husband beating his wife for doing the housework! It is usually the other way round!!”
Anandi nodded, “I was too young to marry, let alone be a mother. I often wonder what it would be like to not be married so early, to study like my brothers did and not be ostracized or ridiculed for it….?”
She paused in some internal contemplation of an alternate universe, one with a multitude of choices.
Sighing, she continued, “Social stigmas mean that physicians either ignore or do not examine women properly. Medical care should be given regardless of the patient’s gender, religion, caste, political leanings or social stigma. If I can do this much back home, then all the hunger, cold, ridicule, insults will be not matter!”
“Hmm. Do not think that your achievements have gone unnoticed, Yamu. I know that Queen Victoria is sending you a congratulatory telegram for graduating with Honours. Lokmanya Tilak himself is speaking of writing an editorial in ‘Kesari’ in your praise. And the progressive and liberal people of Bombay are arranging a welcome for you on your arrival, my dear doctor!”
Anandi’s face lit up with joy.
Ramabai looked at her with affection. “Yes, Yamu. Women like you are opening the gates for others. This is the thin end of the wedge. Dr. Kadambini Ganguly is another young woman like you who is now a physician and aiming to practise in Bengal. A young woman, Rukhmabai, with the help of some local reformers has filed a petition in the Courts seeking to dissolve her child-marriage. She has expressed her desire to study medicine. Changes will soon be made to the Law, changing the age of consent for marriage.”
Anandi looked sad. “RamaTaai, sadly, my own health grows frail. My medical knowledge tells me that I may be suffering from tuberculosis. Western medicine has no cure for it, although Ayurveda does. My husband writes to say that he has lost his job, and penury awaits us upon our return. I am fearful about our future. Will all our sacrifices be in vain?”
The Pandita clasped Anandi’s hands and said gently, “No. They are not in vain. Please know that I and generations of women after me are grateful for your determination and sacrifices. I will do all that I can to help you. May God bless and take care of you.”
Author’s note: Although Dr. Anandi Joshi was diagnosed to have advanced tuberculosis, she was refused treatment by the ship doctor on the return journey, and an Ayurvedic physician near Pune, who felt that she had crossed the “bounds of acceptability” by going abroad, learning Medicine, living with strangers, and eating their food. By then, her family was in a state of extreme penury and living on donations and grants given by well-meaning people, which distressed her greatly. She died of tuberculosis on the 26th of February, 1887, at the age of 22 years, her dream of helping women who needed medical care, unfulfilled.
She lives on as an inspiration to all women who have many fears to conquer before they win.
Editor’s note: It’s the new decade of the new millennium, and here’s a fresh theme for our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month. In 2020, we bring to you quotes feminist women achievers around the world – we hope to bring you some food for thought, and look forward to the same engaging short stories that are a hallmark of our Muse of the Month contests.
Here’s the woman for February 2020 – 38 year old tennis wiz Serena Williams has 39 Grand Slam titles under her belt. She has gone through much in her life, not the least of it was racism in a high profile game, making her the perfect pick for Black History Month as a black woman mover & shaker world over. She has since then worked her way to the top after injury, pregnancy, and childbirth too. In January 2020, she has won her first singles title since her maternity break, in the 2020 Auckland Open, showing that she is indeed one of the best.
The cue is this quote by her: “Whatever fear I have inside me, my desire to win is always stronger.”
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the movie Anandi Gopal
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