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Elusive voices: the lives and letters of Anandibai Joshi

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Malavika Karlekar   |   Published 04.09.07, 12:00 AM

In 1886, the year Kadambini Ganguly became a GBMC (Graduate of Bengal Medical College), a 21-year-old Maharashtrian woman also qualified as a doctor in faraway Philadelphia. When Anandibai Joshi died in 1887, she left behind a rich body of correspondence that she had had with her husband, Gopalrao, as well as with those who had helped her go to America. These provided grist for the biographical mill, beginning with one by an early American feminist, Caroline Healey Dall, a year after Anandibai’s death. Dall, who had met Anandibai, aimed to make available the life and motivation of this young Indian woman for the American audience. Women’s education — often at the behest of missionaries — took centre-stage, Anandibai being a prime example. In Crossing Thresholds: Feminist Essays in Social History, the historian of 19th-century Maharashtra, Meera Kosambi, points out that although the biography is influenced by Dall’s Orientalism, it nevertheless iconizes that “little brown baby whose future no one suspected”.

Kashibai Kanitkar’s 1912 biography, the first Marathi one in this genre to be written by a woman, also relied on letters, information given by Gopalrao, and some family friends. Kosambi feels that despite the limitations of her work, Kashibai did manage to bring Anandibai’s voice into focus by quoting extensively from her letters. On the other hand, the fictionalized Anandi Gopal (1962) by S.J. Joshi, which follows her life very closely, projects Anandibai more as a victim, a helpless recipient of all Gopalrao’s depredations and untrammelled ambition. In doing so, Kosambi adds, he subverts the earlier two books, both by women. Published originally in Marathi and adapted for the stage, Joshi’s novel was immensely popular, an English translation appearing thirty years later.

Though Anandi is the heroine, in Joshi’s version, the postmaster Gopalrao’s life-consuming obsession with women’s education makes the reader focus on him — even in anger. Abuse of his child-wife, violence towards her — all in the name of making sure that she had a single-minded interest in education — are described in detail. So is a cringing, dominated Anandi. One day, when she was found helping her grandmother in the kitchen, Gopalrao flew into an uncontrollable rage and beat the young girl with a bamboo stick. The neighbourhood was agog: husbands beat wives for not cooking — but whoever had heard of a wife being beaten for cooking when she should have been reading? Soon after, a son was born to the couple — but died shortly thereafter. He had been treated by the local doctor, as the one who was trained in Western medicine was a Christian and an outsider; neither Anandi nor her child could be seen by him, lamented Joshi.

Gopalrao’s fixation with educating his wife grew exponentially, and he decided that with the help of a Mrs Carpenter, a Philadelphian missionary, he would send Anandibai to America to train to be a doctor. Before she sailed for New York from Calcutta (where her husband was then employed), Anandibai addressed a full hall at a public meeting. This was in 1883, not long after Kadambini and Chandramukhi Basu had graduated from Bethune College. Anandi spoke of the lack of women doctors and added, “I volunteer to qualify myself as one.” She went on to point out that existing midwifery classes were not sufficient, and in any case, “the instructors who teach the classes are conservative and to some extent jealous”. Brave words from a mere slip of a girl who, Joshi writes, hid timorously behind her husband as loud applause broke out. But did she indeed do so? Or was she smiling proudly at the audience?

Anandi survived the long sea voyage in the company of a missionary couple and was met in New York by Mrs Carpenter who instantly bore her off to her family home in Roselle, a three-hour train ride away. On a family picnic, a photographer was sent for and Anandi mailed the visual back to Gopalrao to whom she wrote diligently every week. Gopalrao was not pleased; who was the man she was smiling at (the photographer, presumably), and why was her sari not covering her breasts adequately? Anandi was crushed; but overcame her sorrow by burying herself once again in her books at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. By now the strain of a different culture, the cold and damp had affected her and she developed a persistent cough.

To add to it all, Gopalrao decided to come to America. Latterly, Anandi had felt even more estranged from him, his sarcastic barbs about her having become at heart one of ‘them’, unbearable. By the time Gopalrao arrived in Philadelphia, he was met by Dr Anandibai Joshi. It was time to go home, and a visibly sick Anandi boarded the ship with her husband. Soon after returning to a heroine’s welcome in Bombay, consumption claimed yet another victim, and the 21-year-old died without a chance of practising in her country. Her ashes were later sent to Mrs Carpenter who had them interred in her family cemetery at Poughkeepsie.

Kosambi finds agency in Anandibai’s tragically short life — an agency missing in S.J. Joshi’s account as he had chosen to look mainly at Gopalrao’s dictatorial, and later unnervingly self-abnegating, letters. She quotes letters where Anandibai speaks openly of her husband’s violence (“I had no recourse but to allow you to hit me with chairs and bear it with equanimity”) as well her own motivation to study medicine. Different Anandis fashioned by different authors — so much so that Kosambi muses candidly, “has the ‘real’ Anandibai Joshee eluded us?” Here is the biographer’s ultimate conundrum: presented with a cornucopia of raw ‘data’ (that is, the letters), how are they to be read? Whose voice is to be presented? Given that it is not always possible to reproduce entire letters, what parts are significant? The novelist’s concentration on those of the husband served to highlight the worldview of patriarchal Marathi Brahmin society. Joshi portrays Anandibai’s emotions, a deep anguish, in the third person; her words are rarely heard. On the other hand, Kosambi gives a voice to the young woman who nevertheless felt that she owed everything to her husband, tyrannical though he may have been. She is able to do so by her choice of letters and her interpretation of their relationship.

Was Anandi a victim or did she intelligently make space for herself? The truth clearly lies somewhere in between. Perhaps as biographers struggled to deal with or ignore Jane Austen’s one instance of fragility — her fainting at hearing that the family had decided to move to Bath from the home at Steventon where she had been born — there are defining moments (apologies to Cartier-Bresson!) that determine how a subject is to be viewed. Such moments grow or diminish, depending on the orientation of the biographer. For, biography-writing “involves a messy, often contradictory, mixture of approaches” writes Hermione Lee in Body Parts: Essays on Life-writing. (Lee is an Oxford don and author of two recent well-received biographies of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton.) The game of inclusion and exclusion is further complicated if the subject’s own writings are also part of the mélange. How does one make sense of the mess? How does one avoid being hagiographical, or super-critical — and merely ‘objective’? Or does this much-maligned word have absolutely no space in contemporary biography-writing?

Anandibai Joshi’s life has been dissected from several perspectives, unlike that of Kadambini, about whose life there is little available to dissect. Both women were amazing — and, interestingly enough, both were married to widowers appreciably older than themselves. Widowers committed to educating their wives. But was Dwarakanath as autocratic as Gopalrao? Did he quail when he felt that his wife was escaping from the mould he had carefully constructed? Was he involved in the minutiae of his wife’s intellectual life — and barely concealed his jealousy at signs of any other existence? As we have no way of knowing the answers, we are free to dream them up. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to form her private word-image of Anandibai — and fantasize endlessly about Kadambini who escaped being at the receiving end of a biographical venture.

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