The University rules only said that “any person with the required qualifications” would be admitted to study, the term ‘woman’ was not specifically included.
The third winner of our March 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Swagata Tarafdar.
Ever since Bindubasini’s letter had arrived, Chandramukhi’s household was aflutter with activities. After all, it’s not everyday, not even every year, that she got to see her youngest and dearest sister- Bindubasini, an illustrious doctor of her time. So Chandramukhi strived hard to make all arrangements impeccably. Even her husband, Pandit Keswaranand Mamgain who was otherwise reticent and withdrawn from household chores, was not spared. He took it upon himself to personally supervise all the shopping expeditions to ensure that only the best and fresh from the farm products were procured to welcome his youngest sister-in-law.
Bindubasini would arrive by noon today. In between issuing frantic instructions to servants, Chandramukhi made sure to cook at least one dish herself. She took bath early and was already in the kitchen. Prabha, the cook, handed her the bowl of washed gobindobhog rice. Despite her old age and failing health, Chandramukhi herself was cooking the payesh.
“Prabha, please wash the raisins and the cashews. Quick. And hand me that container of sugar,” Chandramukhi instructed.
Meanwhile, a commotion was heard outside. The payesh was almost done. Chandramukhi quickly took a spoonful of payesh and placed it in her mouth. The taste was perfect. Bindubasini would surely love it.
“Maa, Bindu didi has arrived,” yelled one of the servants from the courtyard. Chandramukhi’s wrinkled face lit up with joy. She hastily put the anchal of her saree on her head and stepped out of kitchen to welcome Bindubasini, her dear Bindu.
It was time for post-lunch patter. Both the sisters lounged on Chandramukhi’s bed. The slanting rays of the afternoon sun filtered through the window created chiaroscuro on the bedroom floor.
“How are you didi?” Bindubasini asked gently.
“I can’t say I am doing good. My health is failing, you see. What else can you expect at this age of 67 years?”
A gentle breeze was blowing in the valley of Dehradun.
“Tell me something about yourself Bindu. How are you?”, asked Chandramukhi affectionately.
“I am also an old woman like you, didi.”
Bindu fished out a piece of paper from her bag. “See this, didi. I came across this cartoon when I went to Calcutta this time. I thought I should bring this to your notice.” Bindubasini handed the paper to Chandramukhi.
“Wait. I can’t read properly now-a-days without putting on my specs.” Chandramukhi rummaged her bedside table for her spectacles. Finally, putting her specs on, she looked at the paper. It was indeed a cartoon, though it failed to invoke any humour in her. It showed a woman on her way to work, looking rather ungainly in a saree and a shirt, high heels, and a long umbrella tucked under her arm, titled, ” ‘Etodin karini tai!’ Officer pathe mahila”, literally “‘Because I haven’t done it so far!’ A woman on her way to work.” The name of one Binoy Kumar Basu was mentioned as the cartoonist.
“Do I need to say anything?” Chandramukhi sighed. “The cartoon says it all about the prevailing attitude in society towards women’s education and participation in workforce.”
Chandramukhi’s mind drifted towards the memory of her girlhood years. The years of so much struggle, anguish and hopelessness. All those finally bore fruit in the form of the sweet fruit of success. And what a success it was!
She was just sixteen. Young. Naive. Her eloquent eyes gleamed with her desire to make it big in life. And those eyes were now staring at the imposing structure of the Calcutta University in awe. Would she ever be able to walk along those hallowed corridors of knowledge? She had already sought admission for the entrance examination of Calcutta University. Her application, done under the influence of a missionary David Heron, while at Dehradun, created quite a stir in Calcutta’s elite society. Women and higher education? How ridiculous!
At that period of time, North Calcutta had seen considerable Bengali Christian academic activities. Chandramukhi’s father too came under missionary influence and eventually converted to Christianity at the age of 16. He subsequently moved to Dehradun by taking up teaching responsibilies there. A Bengali-speaking-Christian, she enrolled herself in the Dehradun Native Christian School in 1880.
Calcutta University, 25 November, 1876
A meeting was held for the sole purpose of discussing Chandramukhi’s application in the Calcutta University. The University rules only said that “any person with the required qualifications” would be admitted to study, the term ‘woman’ was not specifically included. A ‘person’ was automatically taken to mean only one gender in the visible public space. The women simply had no legitimate space in the public sphere.
The meeting started with the Registrar reading in detail the application of Chandramukhi Basu, the dauntless daughter of Bengal.
Frantic discussions ensued soon among members of the Calcutta University Syndicate. After a couple of hours, the Registrar’s baritone voice reverberated in the hallowed hall, “… (A)ccording to the received interpretation of the Regulations for the examination, I am unable to entertain the girl’s application. Yet empathising with the girl’s desires for higher education, I have arranged for her being examined privately under the supervision of the Head Master of the Mussourie School, on the understanding that she is not to be considered a registered candidate. In case she passes the examination, her name should not appear in the list of passed candidates.”
Poor Chandramukhi. It seemed that all her dreams were shattered just because she was born as the ‘wrong’ gender. When the news of that fateful meeting arrived to her, how hard she tried to suppress the tears stealing down her cheek. “Will I ever succeed?” she whispered to herself, drenched in the darkness of the night, on the terrace of their house in Calcutta. Darkness was all around. An all-encompassing darkness seemed to envelop her life.
“You know Bindu, I still appeared for the entrance exam, though I knew in my heart that it was pretty pointless. I was not going to be accepted anyway.”
“But you actually topped that exam didi. Not just that, you set a precedence. So many girls were encouraged to apply after you took the first step.”
“Yes. I can still vividly remember that time. Even so-called progressive men like Keshub Chandra Sen of ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’ maintained that a woman’s highest duty was to care for her husband and family. Even in that kind of prevailing social conditions, I managed to come this far. And you too.”
“Yes, didi. You have always been my personal role-model. Inspired by your luminous life, I took admission in Calcutta Medical College. You used to tell us, me and Bidhumukhi, that the future belongs to us. That success will be ours in the future.”
“Yes. Even today I believe so. If my life has taught me anything, it’s this one thing that success will be ours in the future, however distant that future may seem. These morons think that education and career are the exclusive privileges of only one gender. But I do believe that a day will come when women will have equal participation both in higher education and in workforce. That day, those educated women will make fun of people like this cartoonist for their ridiculous, patriarchal, chauvinistic notions. Only you and I will not be there to witness that sweet success of our own gender.”
Both the women burst into a fit of laughter.
payesh: a Bengali dessert, made with rice and milk.
gobindobhog: a variety of fragrant rice.
Author’s note: The fiasco created by the Calcutta University was rectified the very next year. On 27 April, 1878, the new rules were declared by the Syndicate, “From now on female candidates are allowed to appear for all University examinations.” Consequently, a year and a half after she appeared for the examination, Chandramukhi Basu became one of the first two women to enter Calcutta University. The other was Kadambini Ganguly, the first woman to study medicine in India.
Chandramukhi and Kadambini graduated from Calcutta University’s famous Bethune College with a BA degree- they were the first women in the British Empire and in India to get college degrees. Chandramukhi Basu ALSO became Empire’s first woman postgraduate-degree holder. She taught English at Bethune College as it’s first woman lecturer, and some years later, became the principal of the college- the first woman to head one in all of South Asia!
Two of her sisters, Bidhumukhi and Bindubasini, were also renowned. Bidhumukhi Basu, graduating in 1890, was among the earliest women medical graduates from Calcutta Medical College. Thereafter, Bindubasini Basu graduated from Calcutta Medical College in 1891.
This short-fiction, in the form of conversation between Chandramukhi and Bindubasini is purely fictitious and a product of my imagination, though I have tried to present the historical facts as accurately as possible. Crediting historical information to two books – Unstoppable: 75 stories of Trailblazing Indian Women by Gayathri Ponvannan and Literature, Gender, & the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence by Debali Mookerjea-Leonard.
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 March 2020 – March is Women’s History Month. And who epitomises Indian women’s history to where we are today, than Savitribai Phule, the woman who started education for girls and women, as well as for the Dalit-Bahujan samaj in the mid-1800s? As a co-incidence (there are no co-incidences, someone has said!), the anniversary of her death is on 10th March – she passed away on 10th March 1897, while helping people suffering from bubonic plague in Pune.
Savitribai Phule’s life and work was not known much till a few decades ago, to some extent as a result of the discrimination she faced as a ‘lower caste’ woman, promoting education for those traditionally kept away from any knowledge. But let’s not forget, that today we, Indian women, can read and write all thanks to her. She has recently been honoured by the naming of Pune University as Savitribai Phule Pune University. You can read a quick timeline of her life here.
There is not much saved of her words, though a book of her poems, Kavya Phule, is still in print in Marathi. A few of her letters written to her equally illustrious husband Jyotiba Phule while she was recuperating from an illness at her parents’ home, also survive, and the English translations are also available in book form – an excerpt from this book can be found here, from which I have taken the cue for the March Muse of the Month.
The cue is this quote by her: “Success will be ours in the future. The future belongs to us.”
Swagata Tarafdar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from Tagore Stories on Netflix
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