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Dr Anandibai Joshi defied all tradition and went to the United States to become a “lady doctor”. Sadly, she died soon after she returned to India, which ensured that her husband directed the telling of her legacy.
We have all heard about Dr. Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to cross the Atlantic and to study medicine at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Married off to a widower many years a senior, she was 12 or 14 when she gave birth to a son who died even before his naming ceremony could be performed. It was this tragedy that drove home the fact that Indian women didn’t have access to modern medical care, and led to Anandibai defying tradition and going to the United States to become a “lady doctor”. Sadly, she died soon after she returned to India, which ensured that her husband directed the telling of her legacy.
According to the popular narrative, it was Anandibai’s husband who was a progressive zealot obsessed with ensuring she became a doctor. He was, apparently a controlling husband, who didn’t shy away from inflicting physical violence on his young wife to ensure she studied well. Her success, according to this narrative, was entirely scripted by her husband.
Was Anandibai merely a puppet who was directed by her husband? Could a woman completely lacking in agency have managed to survive (and even thrive) two years in a completely alien environment without giving up her identity? Did Anandibai have dreams and aspirations of her own, or did she merely do whatever her husband directed her to do?
These are the questions that Shikha Malaviya attempts to address in ‘Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems’. In this poetic biography, the narrative is centred around Anandibai, and the picture that emerges is of a strong young woman who knows exactly what she wants, and who is willing to make small compromises without losing the essence of who she is.
The story traces the development of Anandibai from the eight year old who sits on a swing:
“pumping my legs furiously
to see how high I could go
braids flying, skirt rippling, sun winking
toes trying to touch the sky
my only witness a green pigeon
whose wings I conspired to steal”
To the nine year old who looks her prospective groom in the eye and says, “Majhe nav Yamuna Ganpatrao Joshee aahe”. (My name is Yamuna Ganpatrao Joshee)
The young woman whose leaking breasts remind her of the baby she lost even before the 11th day when they were name him, and to whom she says:
“through your loss I find purpose
my son with no name birthing a dream
and I volunteer myself to my countrywomen
as I take the oath of Hippocrates
to heal and heal, to do no harm, to don
the white coat only men have worn”
The Anandibai who emerges from the pages of the book is not a woman in need of a saviour. Her husband may have wanted her to become the first lady doctor in India, but it was a dream she dreamt too, and she was the only one who made it happen.
The conflict between the fears and ambitions of Anandibai’s husband and her are brought out beautifully in the poem “LOVE ACROSS BLACK WATERS”, written in the form of letters crossing before they reach. While the first letters are of a proud husband and a wife who misses him, his tone soon changes:
“What I was afraid of has happened
all I taught you undone like a knot
style of saree altered, and what next?
Will the next photograph be of you in Western dress?”
In the letter that crosses this, she writes:
“my integrity greatly measured from such a long distance
under your able guidance I thrive in this new land
I never tire of upholding my native
all during the day a saree draped on my person.”
The contrast between the two cannot be starker. He is jealous and fearful of losing control over her. She is full of hope. She knows she made compromises where she had to, but also knows she remains true to who she is. He was not, however, able to tolerate the woman she was growing into when far away from him. This is not the tale of a young girl moulded by her husband; this is the story of a woman who grabs whatever opportunities she can without losing a sense of who she is.
This is an unabashedly feminist retelling of the story of Dr. Anandibai Joshi, and the very first poem sets the tone for what is to follow:
OUTSIDE THE CHAUKAT
Kalyan, Maharashtra, Nineteenth Century
If you want to know what happens in this bustling town by the sea, Kalyan, which in Sanskrit means well-being but whose shores have thrice been plundered by the Mughals, the Portuguese, and the British, despite the shade of a fortress and a long city wall with four gates and eleven towers, whose welfare is erased and renamed Kallian and Cullian
-ask the men, for they are the ones who wear shoes that take them outside the chaukat. They are the lucky ones, who, donning their turbans, smell the dung of many homes, hear the hum of horses hooves, darken their hands with the ink of newsprint, read the khabar of the day while sitting on a jhopala in the courtyard, dragging a puff from a gurgling hookah
– whereas the women tiptoe softly, their bare soles hardened walking from kitchen-to-cowshed-to well, fingertips charred from stoking the chulha, thoughts spilling over like water from vessels balanced on their heads, of what lies beyond a door frame, that make a splash and then evaporate
At every stage of her life, Anandibai recognises the fundamental gender inequity in the Brahmin society she inhabits. She questions why mothers teach their daughters many useful skills but “never do they tell us why the kunku worn after marriage is so red, why we refresh the badge of blood on our foreheads morning after morning.”
When she moves to Philadelphia, she encounters other kinds of inequities. She wonders if the people around her see her as a person or as a curiosity. She muses about whether she is fundamentally different from the freaks she saw in a circus. When she visits the boarding school at Carlisle where Native Americans were sent to so their traditional ways could be replaced by modern European thoughts, she cherishes the fact that she was able to hold onto her apparel, her food and her spiritual views, even while getting a modern education.
‘Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems’ is an important book to read, because it goes beyond the bare facts of the life of one of India’s pioneering women. While it draws on letters, journals, articles and old photographs, by using Anandibai’s voice and the medium of poetry, the book centres the narrative on the woman, her thoughts, her challenges, and how she reacts to the environment of her times. This is certainly a book I will be recommending to many of my friends.
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Image source YouTube, and book cover Amazon.
Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...
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