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The modernist's gaze

THIS translation of the Marathi 1889 travelogue is more than an Indian feminist's critique of American life, inclusive of the socio-cultural-historic trends, and showcases to the modern reader, not only in India, but in America as well, the perspective of a woman ahead of her times. Ramabai (1858-1922) has been recognised as one of the greatest modern Indian women. Websites dedicated to her memory hail her as a Sanskrit scholar, who won the title Pandita at the tender age of 20, and also credit her as a champion of women's education and social reform.

Meera Kosambi, the editor and translator has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Stockholm and has authored several books and articles on urban sociology and women's studies in India. She had served for nearly a decade as the director of the Research Centre for Women's Studies at the SNDT University for Women, Mumbai. In the foreword, Kosambi states that her aim, to help unearth women's forgotten achievements through Ramabai's voice and experiences, was prompted by her conviction that this "unique historical document, and critical ethnography of American society", confirms "Ramabai's credentials as a courageous and independent thinker".

Ramabai had been invited to attend the convocation in the Women's College of Pennsylvania in the year 1887, where the first Indian woman doctor, Anandibai Joshee, who graduated from this college, was to receive the award. Considering the date, 1887, one can imagine what hurdles women, especially Indian women, had to overcome to attain this level of education and professional qualification. Originally intended to be a sharing of the author's individual perspective of her experienced reality of travelling and staying in America, (from March 1886 to November 1889) with her contemporaries in India, who had not had the fortune to visit America, Ramabai brings to the account, a depth of scholarship, and keen insight that is the result of the blend of the Hindu and Sanskrit culture with the values offered by a Christian faith that she had adopted out of her free will.

Ramabai's life in India, and later in England and the United States, had fostered an eclectic and broad vision that served as a backdrop to her judgement and analysis of people, places, customs, and ethnic and other issues. Travel widens one's horizons, and is as sure an educator as experience.

On her return to India, she had delivered altogether eight or nine lectures in Marathi, in Bombay and Poona, on the topic, "The Peoples of the United States." She is quick to defend the overt tone of praise in the glowing account of her experiences. "Some of those who heard them might have thought that I was exaggerating. But I assure them that there was no exaggeration in what I said. Anybody who doubts the veracity of the vast figures cited in connection with trade and commerce, education etc., should consult the US census returns for the year 1880. There are numerous American men and women in this city of Bombay who are learned and proficient in Marathi. I request them to correct my mistakes, should there be any inaccuracy in what I have written".

The chapters, nine in all, that span a wide range of subjects from polity to economy, and from religion to domestic life, advocate a pro-American viewpoint. She anticipates criticism from many, who might fault her for being too indulgent to the extent of ignoring, or even turning a blind eye to the less favourable features prevailing in America. But she strongly felt that the U.S. was a better model for India to follow, than imperialist Britain, and claims that the aim of writing this memoir/ travelogue was to make Indians serve India better.

Ramabai's account traces the transition that women's organisations had undergone, from a state of prejudicial contempt to one of respectability, an uphill journey fraught with hurdles. The first medical college for women was established in Pennsylvania as early as 1850, a time when women had to face hardships such as poverty, public censure and the like from all quarters. The Philadelphia County Medical Society, an association of male doctors, had made an explicit rule that their members should not consult women doctors nor encourage women in any way to study medicine. By way of resistance to this hostile climate, hospitals for women and children attached to the women's medical colleges were established to enable graduating women doctors to practise as interns. With women in the profession, teaching of medicine became respectable, even as the presence of women in the legal field, lent it respectability. Similarly women's missionary societies, women's clubs, women's congress and the like, slowly emerged despite problems, and eventually fostered knowledge and friendship, by undertaking charitable work, helping the destitute and so on, while also promoting education, arts, sciences, poetry, and history. Her prophetic vision saw that there could be no hindrance to the progress of women or the passage of time. "Time changed as it was bound to, and women progressed as they were bound to".

Translation in this case has been a labour of love, and Kosambi has taken the trouble to unravel much of the blended archaisms of the Marathi-English combine. Elegantly written, Kosambi's very helpful introduction and editorial notes help to place the book in perspective both in terms of historic importance and anachronistic relevance.

Returning the American gaze: Pandita Ramabai's The People of the United States (1889), translated and edited by Meera Kosambi.


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