True Grit

Winter is the season of Doctor’s conferences in my city, when super specialists of many branches of medicine meet to discuss professional research and new developments. Among these are many women who are working shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. It is difficult to imagine that just over 150 years ago, a woman doctor was unheard and undreamt of. This reminder was strongly communicated in a recent performance that traced the life of India’s first female doctor–Anandibai Joshi.

Anandibai Joshi is known to be the first woman of Indian origin to graduate with a degree in medicine in the US.  Her story of grit and determination is an inspiration, and a trailblazer.

Born in 1865 as Yamuna, the third unwanted daughter, she was married off at the age of nine to a widower postal clerk 20 years her senior. Her husband Gopalrao took charge of her life by first changing her name to Anandi; but also encouraged her to study, which was unusual for that time. Anandi was a bright and curious girl-child, balancing between her innocence, her thirst for learning and her expected chores and role as ‘wife’. She became a mother at the age of 14, but lost her 10-day old child due to lack of medical care and facilities. Traumatised by this event, she began to dream the undreamable– to become a doctor so that she can help other women like herself. In a time when a girl going to school was spat at, and looked upon with intense disapproval, Anandi was supported to some extent by her husband.

Even more unusual is the story of how she reached America. A letter written by Gopalrao to an American missionary asking if Anandi could study medicine in America, was published in some American magazines, where a woman called Theodicia Carpenter read it and wrote to the young girl with an offer of a home and support if she were to go to New York. Against opposition from all quarters in India, Anandi embarked upon this journey into the unknown, reaching New York after an arduous two-month ship voyage. Once she reached, with support from her mentor Theodicia, Anandi Gopal Joshi applied to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was granted admission at the age of 19. Medical school and life in an alien land was extremely difficult; but Anandi met the challenges head on—the extreme cold weather (she changed her attire from the traditional nine-yard sari to the six-yard one), the food (at one point she became so nutritionally deficient she had to start eating eggs), very poor health, loneliness, hostile classmates and neighbours, and nasty letters from her suspicious husband. Anandi persevered towards her goal and got through medical school, graduating in 1886. She returned to India the same year and was appointed as the physician-in-charge at the Albert Edward Hospital in the then princely state of Kohlapur (in present day Maharashtra).

Tragically, before she could finally make her childhood dream come true, by practising as a doctor, Dr Anandi Joshi died of TB in 1887, just over a month before her 22nd birthday. As per her wish, her ashes were sent to Theodicia Carpenter, who placed them in her family cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The true-grit story of Yamuna/Anandi was brought to life in a solo performance by Manasi Prabhakar Joshi. Titled Dr Anandibai this powerfully transposed the story of the path breaker in the context of the challenges that women face even today—reminding us that while on the one hand much has changed, on the other, much remains the same. Anandibai’s story continues to remain an inspiration and a beacon.

–Mamata

 

 

My Tribute to Mother India

‘Mother India’ considered one of Bollywood’s classics, was released 61 years ago today (Oct 25). It was India’s first entry for the Oscars.

I saw the film when I was in my twenties, probably on Doordarshan. I remember thinking it was over-dramatic, over-emotional, over-the-top. It just seemed too much–one woman facing one tragedy after the other; struggling every day, every month; everyone out to exploit her. And still holding nobly to her values.

30 years have taught me quite a few lessons. One of them is that there is a Mother India in every street, in every lane.

This was brought home to me poignantly only last week, when I had occasion to spend a lot of time with the lady who takes care of our office. At personal inconvenience, she was going out of her way to help me in my time of need. The time we spent together gave me insights into her life.

Born in a family of agricultural labourers, she dropped out of school at 10, to take care of younger siblings. At 12, she joined her mother in the fields. Her father died of cancer, and things got even worse. She did any work she could get—from labour on construction sites, to digging wells, to everything in between.

At about 17 or 18, she was married off. Her mother was told that the groom was on the verge of getting a permanent government job, and she would live a life of comfort. The husband was semi-handicapped, but more devastating to her, completely lazy and good-for-nothing. As a three-month bride, she started work as a domestic help.

Life went its usual course. A son came along, on whom she pinned all her hopes. The husband worked at casual jobs about 10 days a month. The other 20 days, he lazed around the house. She slaved from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the month, at multiple jobs, to put the son through a good school, and he got his polytechnic diploma.

She thought her troubles were almost over. The son, rather than find a job, announced he wanted to get into engineering through lateral entry. She was thrilled—an engineer in the family. She worked harder than ever, as the husband lazed, and the son bought himself a motor cycle and fancy phone in keeping with his status as an engineering student.

One year went by and then tragedy struck. She found that her son, not being able to cope with his studies, had quietly dropped out of college without even telling her; that he was using the money she was giving him for fees and expenses, on feeding his bike with petrol and hanging out with friends.

With the help of relatives, friends, and well-wishers all around, the son has been coaxed, cajoled, threatened and re-admitted into college. Several fingers are crossed. Who knows what he will do?

I have worked with the mother for four years now. It seems impossible to believe, but she has never taken a day off. She is there half an hour before us, and stays half an hour after the last of us leaves, to clean and close up. I have never known her not to smile. I have never known her to take any shortcuts. I have never known her to ask for money. I have never known her to not sympathize and offer a cup of tea if I complain of headache. I have never known her being backward in helping any of us. I have never known her to be less than dignified or gracious.

I have known this Mother India. Look around. I would wager that a woman you meet today will be a Mother India. The sheet anchor of her family and community. Acting with integrity and dignity in every situation. Holding up her bit of the sky with a smile, in the face of every hurdle life throws her way.

I salute the makers of ‘Mother India’. They say art is about capturing universal truths and presenting them in the idiom of the times. And now, when I have seen something of the world, I believe this is so, and that there is nothing over-blown about Mother India.

I salute the Mother India in every woman around me.

–Meena

PS: I lost my mother last week. And I salute her cheerfulness, her courage, her love, her compassion, and the joy she spread around her through her long life.

 

Women in War

Every year in the run up to India’s Independence Day we are reminded of the events and people who played a significant role in taking India to freedom from the rule of the British Raj. We remember our history lessons about how women played an active role in the movement to boycott British goods and pave the way for Swadeshi.

In the past month, quite by chance I read four books which described what England and women in England were going through during almost the same period—the first half of the 1940s. It was something that perhaps most of us are not so familiar with, and made me want to know more.

In the 1930s, social roles were clearly defined in English society. A woman’s place was in the home, a man’s place was out at work. It was acceptable for women to work outside the home if they had no family to look after, but they were paid less than men were — even when doing the same jobs, and most would have expected to leave as soon as they married, or when they had their first child.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and in the following years, men in England joined up for military service and there was a big vacuum in the labour force in essential services. This was filled by women. Unmarried women between 20 and 30 were called up to join a variety of services from working in factories manufacturing armaments, to those on the fringes of the war front. Among these was the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) that recruited female volunteers for driving, clerical and general duties including anti-aircraft searchlights. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) that maintained ships of the Royal Navy and were involved in some of the most secret planning for D-Day. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) that was used for maintaining and flying barrage balloons, and the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service which was on duty through the German bombing “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) of 1940-1941.

Many of these were dangerous jobs, which carried the very real risk of death or serious injury and many at first thought that the jobs were not only unsuitable for women but that they did not possess the physical strength needed to carry out the tasks which were being asked of them. This was to be proven wrong time and again. And there are many tales that tell of heroic feats of these women.

The books tell stories from the point of view of ordinary women who had never stepped out of their home, and how their new roles were the leveller of the very-English class distinctions. Working class girls who worked as domestic help in mansions, now worked shoulder-to-shoulder with genteel middle class girls as ambulance drivers and munition factory workers. Ladies with large estates took in evacuees from all backgrounds, and turned their manicured gardens into food-growing plots, while lawns were dug up to make Anderson shelters in which to stay during air raids. Timid girls from villages who were skilled in living frugally were appointed by the Food Ministry as Home Front Economists and Kitchen Economists to give talks and demonstrations to women’s groups on how to conserve food rations and fuel.

Cargo ships carrying vital supplies imported from the colonies were being bombed on high seas. It was a time of shortages, rationing, hoarding, and black-marketing, it was also a time for austerity—managing with less. There were coupons for food, for petrol, and clothes. Fashion was dictated not by French designers but by the Board of Trade; hemlines were decreed to be shorter to save cloth, and there were a limited number of basic, no-extra-frills styles, with Utility Labels which could be bought using coupons. Various schemes gave advice on recycling or making clothes last longer, two of these were the Make Do and Mend, and Sew and Save, schemes for which women were called upon to share ideas and experiences.

The stories tell of lasting friendships in a fragile time… Knitting together while waiting for an emergency call out; driving through darkness of curfew and blackout, through rubble of collapsed buildings, pulling out people from the debris, bonding by the uncertainty that they never knew if they would come back after a call; sharing picket duty during the hours of darkness to stop anyone from pilfering petrol.

The stories also reveal how the new roles raised the self-esteem of the women by allowing them to become an integral part of the overall war effort in every way. Gone were the housewives of the 1920’s and 30’s and in their place were an army of skilled and resilient workers, farmers, builders, and defenders—women with gumption and spirit. Women whose tales need to be shared.

Coincidentally, one of the last living female pilots of World War 2, Mary Ellis died on 24 July this year at the age of 101. She was a pilot of the Air Transport Auxiliary service, and delivered Spitfires and bombers to the front line during the war. Having flown about 1000 planes during her service, she once again flew a Spitfire for 15 minutes at the age of 100! Way to go!

–Mamata