Updated: June 9, 2019 7:09:00 am
One afternoon in January 2015, Madhavi Kolhatkar received a call from Meera Kosambi, requesting her to stay the night at her residence. It was an unusual request from the reclusive sociologist and author. But Kolhatkar, aware that her friend and neighbour in Pune was in the last stages of cancer, came over. The next morning, Kosambi was admitted to a hospital, where a handful of friends cared for her in the absence of immediate family.
Nearly a month later, Kolhatkar, on a break from hospital duty for the day, got a call from Aban Mukherji, an old and close friend of Kosambi. “As Meera lay suffering, hovering between life and death, we felt something was holding her back. I took a chance, and asked Aban to tell Meera that we will make sure her biography of Anandibai Joshee is completed and published. That afternoon, she passed away. The day was February 26, Anandibai Joshee’s death anniversary,” recounts Kolhatkar, who is a Sanskrit scholar. Kosambi was 76.
Her friends have kept their word: Kosambi’s biography of India’s first woman doctor, A Fragmented Feminism: The Life and Letters of Anandibai Joshee (Routledge), edited by Kolhatkar, Mukherji and Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, will release in August.
Kosambi’s biography of Joshee is by no means the first. The life of the first Indian woman to get a doctor’s degree (from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, US) has been memorialised in many biographies, Marathi novels and films. What sets it apart is that it challenges the popular narrative that she was entirely shaped by her husband Gopalrao Joshee. “The patriarchal retellings of Anandibai’s story have done a great disservice to her by portraying her as a passive Galatea to her husband Gopalrao’s Pygmalion. Meera’s book relooks at all the sources and material on Anandibai, especially the letters written by her, to reinterpret her as a woman who had her own agency and independent thought,” says Kolhatkar.
Anandibai was born in Pune in 1865 as Yamuna , the fifth of Gangabai and Ganpatrao Joshi’s nine children, and only the second of four to survive. The Joshis belonged to a land-owning family in Kalyan — today, a Mumbai suburb — that fell upon difficult times but retained much of their social status.
Anandibai’s biographers note that her childhood was marred by her mother’s strict, excessive insistence on discipline. Kosambi contextualised this in her introduction to the book by pointing out that such behaviour was not uncommon among families “anxious to stamp out all traces of a free spirit from a girl’s psyche lest she suffer cruelty at the hands of her in-laws”.
In one of Anandibai’s letters to an American friend, she wrote: “My mother never spoke to me affectionately. When she punished me, she was wont to use not just a small rope or thong, but always stones, sticks, and live charcoal. Fortunately, my body does not bear any scars, and her severe beatings did not leave me maimed, crippled, or deformed.”
Her father, in contrast, was affectionate and introduced her to education. Kosambi notes that this might well have been a way to tame the mischievous child rather than a progressive impulse. For, Ganpatrao did not hesitate in marrying off his young daughter at the age of nine to a man 17 years her senior, as tradition demanded. Later, after her marriage, when husband Gopalrao insisted on educating her, Ganpatrao discouraged him.
Gopalrao, a 26-year-old postman in Sangamner, was a believer in the reform movement led by the educated among Maharashtra’s upper castes, but his ignorance of English often made him the subject of ridicule in his youth. He agreed to take a child bride on the condition that he be allowed to educate her. Anandibai’s parents agreed. Gopalrao changed Yamuna’s name to Anandibai after the wedding.
Over the years, they moved from city to city, including Bhuj, Mumbai, Kolhapur and Calcutta, from where she eventually sailed for America at the age of 18. “In the nine years after her marriage, Anandibai picked up six new languages, including Kannada, Gujarati, Bengali and English, over which she gained a fair amount of mastery, as is evident in her letters,” says Supriya Atre, the Pune-based author who, along with CN Parchure, translated Anandibai’s letters from various languages in Anandi-Gopal: New Profiles from Unpublished Sources (1997). Atre adds that she could write in Devanagri, Modi and Roman scripts.
Gopalrao pushed Anandibai towards education, often personally teaching her, and enrolling her in several schools. But the young girl was taunted on her way to school, ridiculed by passersby and even pelted with pebbles. More importantly, she did not want to study. When she resisted Gopalrao’s endeavours, she suffered physical and verbal abuse. It is only when she became a mother at the age of 12, an early and complicated childbirth, and lost her 10-day-old son, that Anandibai took to education. Kosambi argued that this, more than Gopalrao’s ambitions for his wife, perhaps, nurtured in her a dream to become a doctor.
Kosambi views Anandibai’s relationship with her husband as “complex”. In a letter to Gopalrao written by Anandibai while she was in America (around 1885), she speaks of the abuse but without dismissing his contribution to her education. A part of it has been reproduced by Kosambi in her book: “It is very difficult to decide whether your treatment of me was good or bad. If you ask me, I would answer that it was both. It seems to have been right in view of its ultimate goal; but, in all fairness, one is compelled to admit that it was wrong, considering its possible effects on a child’s mind. Hitting me with broken pieces of wood at the tender age of 10, flinging chairs and books at me and threatening to leave me when I was 12, and inflicting other strange punishments on me when I was 14—all these were too severe for the age, body, and mind at each respective stage…
“A Hindu woman has no right to utter a word or to advise her husband. On the contrary, she has a right to allow her husband to do what he wishes and to keep quiet. Every Hindu husband can, with advantage, learn patience from his wife. (I do understand that without you I would never have become what I am now, and I am eternally grateful to you; but you cannot deny that I was always calm.) I was born to endure all that. But I am quite content now,” she wrote.
Over time, Anandibai grew into an independent thinker, able to reflect on the condition of women in her homeland (as evident in her letters) but she was unable to openly talk about Gopalrao’s abuse, patriarchal traits and the shortcomings of the culture she came from, often defending traditions such as child marriage to her friends in America. While Gopalrao wanted her to become a doctor, he did not wish for her to work as a professional.
Kosambi uses the term “fragmented feminism” to describe the mix of the traditional and the modern in Anandibai, which, perhaps, stemmed from her nationalistic ideas — she refused to stay in America and work, for instance — and pride in her culture.
Kosambi’s friends believe that this is also where the author’s interest in Anandibai was rooted. “She sensed a sort of kinship towards her subject. Meera came from the same region as Anandibai and mirrored many of her qualities. Like Anandibai, she, too, had to struggle to master English as her schooling was entirely in Marathi. Just as Anandibai had to live up to the expectations of her husband, Meera had to live up to the exacting standards of her father, the late mathematician and scientist DD Kosambi. The grit and determination Anandibai exhibited in overcoming all obstacles resonated with Meera’s life, where every success was wrung out of personal trials and tragedies. They were both proud of their cultural heritage, observing customs yet exhibiting a remarkable degree of freedom of thought and action,” says Kolhatkar, who knew Kosambi for well over a decade.
Neelima Gundi seconds Kosambi in her belief that Gopalrao is given more credit than due. But the Pune-based author of Streesamvedh: Streecha Bhavvishyacha Shodh (1997), a book of essays on Indian women achievers that has a chapter on Anandibai, says that one need not see tradition at constant loggerheads with progressive thought. “Had she not been traditional enough to believe that a wife needs to follow every command of her husband’s, she may never have become the progressive feminist she did.” Anandibai went on to admit a need for women’s movement, especially one for widows. She supported women’s education, and, in a letter to a friend, would criticise the institution of marriage.
While posted in Kolhapur in 1881, Gopalrao wrote to a missionary in New Jersey, who had formerly been posted in India, seeking help to take Anandibai to the United States for further studies. This was unthinkably radical — because upper-caste Hindu women never went anywhere alone. For men, too, it was taboo to cross the seven seas.
The missionary did not oblige but published the correspondence in a magazine, The Missionary Review. Months later, Theodocia Carpenter, a housewife in Roselle, New Jersey, happened to read the exchange. Her heart went out to Anandibai and she wrote immediately to offer help. Thus began a regular correspondence that grew into a deep friendship over the years. In one letter, Anandibai writes: “I, of late, have been ill with something or the other. In higher classes, women generally are very weak in India. I ascribe the cause to the custom of early marriage prevailing in all India, but as you complain of the same, I think there [is] some wrong in the marriage system.”
Eventually, Anandibai would sail to live with the Carpenters, who not only sheltered her but also helped her get admission to Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Anandibai’s proto-feminist ideas, Kosambi said, must have crystallised when she received exposure and affection in the three years she spent in a foreign land (1883-86). Though of modest means, the Carpenters showered Anandibai with warmth and opened their home to her, accepting her as part of their family. “Mrs Carpenter…was more of a mother to her than her own biological parent. Anandibai felt secure in the liberal atmosphere of the land. Colleges vied with each other to get her to enrol in their courses. Dean Bodley of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania took a personal interest in Anandibai’s welfare and looked after her when she was too ill to live on her own. It was only because of the warmth and generosity that she received in America that she could survive and complete medical education,” wrote Kosambi.
How then did Anandibai’s achievements and efforts become eclipsed by Gopalrao’s personality? Ramaswamy, the third editor on Kosambi’s book and a friend, believes that Gopalrao was at the root of a lot of the myth-building. “When you read Meera’s book, you realise he wasn’t a savoury character. His motivations to educate Anandibai are selfish. He comes across as a bizarre mix of things — a man who fights society to send his wife alone to the States to study and also one who expects her to wear the nine-yard sari in the harsh American weather,” Ramaswamy says.
Kosambi’s introduction to her book establishes this point. She writes, “Gopalrao’s vanity, his wavering reformist ideals, his propensity to hedge his bets, keeping one foot in the orthodox camp while professing to be a reformer… gross ingratitude towards their American benefactors was a form of torture inflicted on his wife. He would publicly rail against Americans and their culture when he joined Anandibai in the States. But he was ready to drop his professed nationalism to settle down in America, a proposal vehemently opposed by his wife. All this leads us to view Gopalrao as vain, shallow, publicity hungry, frustrated and ungrateful — a view that is largely ignored by most of Anandibai’s biographers.”
Atre seconds Kosambi, adding that the popular Marathi novel on Anandibai, penned by Shrikrishna Janardan Joshi (1915-89) has had a huge role to play in this myth-building. “The book Anandi Gopal (1968) dramatised the missing bits of Anandibai’s life to make it ‘entertaining’. Written by a man, it shifted the credit from Anandibai to Gopalrao. This is evident from its very title, which is in contrast to how Anandibai referred to herself, Anandi Gopalrao Joshee.”
Anandibai’s biography wasn’t the only unpublished book that Kosambi left behind. She had also been working on a biography of the social reformer Pandita Ramabai, which she finished before her death. Ramabai (born in 1858) was Anandibai’s contemporary. She went to Britain in 1883 and moved to America in 1886, where she attended Anandibai’s graduation ceremony. The two women seemed to have struck up a friendship, exchanging letters occasionally. Ramabai’s book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman (1887), is dedicated to her friend.
“They were both brave women who dared to break the shackles of illiteracy and patriarchy and travel across seven seas to study. But when Anandibai got admission in the American college, Ramabai’s venture to the foreign land and conversion to Christianity became a counter. People would warn Gopalrao that Anandibai may follow Ramabai and convert, eventually adopting the western way of life,” explains Gundi.
Anandibai had to address these concerns in order to find a passage to America. She did so at a public lecture, delivered in February 1883 at Serampore College in Bengal, where she spoke about her desire to study medicine and the need for it. Having lost a child and unable to conceive again, she saw a dire need for women doctors because many Indian women would rather die than allow an unknown man to touch them. She was acutely aware of her Brahmin origins and its place in the caste system. “When she told the attendees that her aim was to train other women in medicine so that women don’t have to bear the touch of a man, her point struck home. Anandibai also assured — almost promised — them that in the bargain, she would never compromise the Hindu value system,” says Kolhatkar.
Kosambi recounts how Anandibai chose to wear traditional Indian clothing even in the harsh winters of Philadelphia, swapping only the nine-yard sari for a five-yard one. “Instead of coats, she would drape shawls or quilts sewn out of old saris and stick to a vegetarian diet, chiefly comprising potatoes,” adds Atre. By the time she graduated, Anandibai suffered from a constant cough, refusing to take Western medicine.
She returned to her homeland in 1886 to join a university in Kolhapur, where she hoped to train other women. But she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, to which she succumbed in six months at the age of 22. Her story inspired several women after her. Her first biography was written in 1888 by American feminist Caroline Dall, which Kosambi said, is laced with racial condescension. Her own book heavily references Kashibai Kanitkar’s biography of Anandibai as well as her own research from visiting the American college and meeting the Carpenter family descendants.
In 1886, a short play titled Taruni Shikshan opened in Pune. It spoke about the “perils” of educating women, connecting reform with undesirable Westernisation. Penned by the then-popular playwright NB Kanitkar, the play found resonance among the audience as well as newspapers, which promoted it. Among those who did not support Kanitkar’s views was his own nephew Govind and his wife Kashibai. The couple decided to counter it with a true story of an educated woman. In 1912, Kashibai Kanitkar published Dr Anandibai Joshi Yanche Charitra. (Kashibai is celebrated as the first contemporary Marathi woman novelist.)
Latika Jadhav, who did a PhD thesis on Kanitkar, believes that it is crucial to remember the time and context in which the three Brahmin women — Ramabai, Kashibai and Anandibai — lived and learnt. “I wouldn’t view Anandibai from a caste lens because at the time women across all castes was oppressed. But let’s not forget that the pioneer in terms of education among women in Maharashtra was Savitribai Phule (1831-97) and her friend and aide Fatima Sheikh. Phule was a Dalit and Sheikh a Muslim, yet they educated themselves in order to take literacy and the cause of education to women of the lower castes.”
At the busy junction where Bajirao Road crosses Laxmi Road in Pune, a two-storey building sits largely unnoticed. A hoarding says that it serves as the Pune branch of Bharat Gayan Samaj but more prominent on its facade is a circular plaque in blue, which announces in Marathi, “Anandibai Joshi (MD, Pennsylvania): This is where she was born and died.” “I would say Anandibai was a global citizen. She not only managed to travel and live alone in a country she was alien to but also forged strong bonds with the people there. All this without giving up her own culture,” says Gundi.
As a parting gift, her American friends had sewn together pieces of cloth into a quilt. It hangs at the Kelkar Museum in Pune today. The initials of the friends, the year it was gifted and other such details are embroidered on the fading cloth. “And while we struggle to keep her memory alive today, Anandibai rests in peace at the Carpenter family’s lot at Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, New York, where her remains were laid down by her American friends,” says Gundi.
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