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‘Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine’ review: Freedom from patriarchy

A crater on Venus is named after India’s first woman doctor, Anandibai Joshi, but not a single road or school in India, rues Kavitha Rao in the introduction to Lady Doctors in which she documents the lives and work of the first women doctors of the country, forgotten by history. Starting from the late 19th century when the prevailing view was that education of women brought nothing but shame on the family, the stories weave a rich pattern depicting the struggles these women had to overcome to carve out their careers, and in the process, build a path for other women to follow.

Rule breakers

Individual stories of some of the women doctors have been traced in earlier works; however, reading about them together and in this sequence offers an immense degree of integration.

The six women doctors whose life stories have been described are as different from each other as can be, yet the achievement of each is unique and inspiring: Anandibai Joshi, whose refusal to part with traditions even while asserting herself with dignity; Kadambini Ganguly who had a bit of support from her husband and society and was the first to have a career as a doctor; Rukhmabai Raut, a rebel and “rule breaker” as Rao aptly addresses her; Haimabati Sen who fought every inch of her way from being a child widow, through remarriage to practise medicine; Muthulakshmi Reddy, who, not content with being a doctor, ventured into politics, became a social reformer and institution builder and Mary Poonen Lukose, who worked to build up Kerala’s public healthcare system which draws so much praise from all quarters today.

Responsibilities too

A good life is rarely spent in isolation and that is true of these six women too. To quote Lukose, “My father used to say, ‘My child, you have come to have certain advantages and privileges which other girls have not. Remember that you have responsibilities too’.” In their efforts to overcome shackles of commerce, community and caste, these women dragged along the surrounding world that stuck to them like a viscous fluid.

In 1883, Anandibai Joshi, a Brahmin, became the first Indian woman to cross the seas and travel to Philadelphia to study medicine. Though her life, cut short by illness, malnutrition, lack of adequate medical care, ended before she could practise medicine, she remains a great inspiration.

Rukhmabai, born in a Suthar caste in Bombay in 1864, was the first to try and legally break her marriage. In her lifetime she was “to smash every rule of the Hindu society.” She faced the ire of activists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Going a step further, Muthulakshmi Reddy, from the isai velalar caste, was one of the main forces behind the battle for universal franchise for Indian women; she built one of India’s premier cancer treatment institutes in Madras; fought for a bill to dismantle the devadasi system even while facing opposition from women of her own community.

While some stories are woven from the briefest of available material, some others are backed by personal accounts, such as heartrending incidents from Haimabati’s brutally frank memoir — “During the day, she and her husband’s daughters played with dolls. At night, she would make excuses to avoid her husband’s advances. Haimabati would lie on the bed, silent and stiff as a piece of wood. When she fell asleep, someone would remove her clothes. She would wake up and wrap herself in a blanket.” The rage that she felt at the injustice finds words in an excerpted passage: “Shame on you, Hindu society. A girl of ten will have to pay for the marriage of an old man of fifty. In no other country does one find such conduct; such oppression of women is possible only in India.”

Intertwined with the stories of the lady doctors is the politics of their times, and Rao highlights this aspect. In her introduction, Rao arrests our attention: “In 1891, the conservative Bangabasi paper departed from its usual subjects to call Kadambini Ganguly — a matronly lady doctor — a whore.”

 

Inspiration for the future

The stories of the doctors will help future generations remember the marathon efforts of our predecessors and value the freedoms we take for granted. Rao has done an excellent job of not merely documenting the stories of these women but also placing them in context so that the reader fully appreciates the force of their will to succeed in their goals. Despite their differences, all the women profiled in the book are united in their desire to snip enchaining patriarchal bonds. Albeit with different methods, their goals remained the same — to stand out in a society that kept them down.

To quote from Muthulakshmi Reddy’s statement — “I had even then set my heart upon something high and I wanted to be a different woman from the common lot.”

Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine; Kavitha Rao, Westland Books, ₹499.

shubashree.desikan@thehindu.co.in


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