In a new nation


In a new nation

I FIRST read Ramabai's biographies by Nicol Macnicol and Padmini Sengupta in the early 1980s when I was writing on the history of women's education in Western India. I was so fascinated by her life that I followed this up by reading Ramabai's autobiography, My Testimony, and The High Caste Hindu Woman written by her as well as her letters and correspondence. I was struck by this remarkable woman and by the fact that her contribution to the women's cause and her fearless championship of women's emancipation was eclipsed in the social history of modern India. Much of Ramabai's Marathi writings have since then been translated, most notably by Meera Kosambi, the foremost authority on Ramabai today. However, the full text of Ramabai's Conditions of Life in the United States had not been translated and published so far.

Ramabai's original work was written in Marathi as a diary or journal in which she recorded her observations, impressions, insights and reflections on American life and society. This was published on her return from U.S. in 1889 but was largely forgotten and lying in Mukti Mission in Kadegaon, near Pune. Thanks to Professor Frykenberg and his colleagues, the book is now available to us in English. The importance of Ramabai's views on America cannot be appreciated unless one knows something about her life and background. For those unfamiliar with this, Professor Frykenberg provides a lengthy biographical introduction.

Throughout her life, Ramabai vigorously protested against the injustices perpetrated on Indian women by a patriarchal society. She broke many orthodox taboos and conventions in her own life. She studied Sanskrit and the Vedas in an age when this was not permitted to women, married a man outside her caste and community, converted to Christianity, crossed the seas to go to England and from there to America in 1886. Ramabai went to the U.S. to attend the graduation ceremony of Anandibai Joshi, a fellow Maharashtrian, who was the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. While in the U.S., Ramabai decided to record her impressions of America and various aspects of its life for her compatriots back home. She obviously wanted that everything she saw and reflected upon as she travelled across the North America in 1886-87 should be shared and made available to the Marathi reading public. Ramabai's observations provide a mirror in which we, more than a century later, can catch a glimpse of Americans as they were and compare this with what they are today and assess how American society has changed for better or worse.

Today, thousands of Indians go to America but in the 1880s this was rare. Anandibai and Ramabai were perhaps the first Indian women to visit the U.S. Ramabai's is an exhaustive account of various aspects of America, beginning with the discovery of the continent by Christopher Columbus. She describes the system of government, the living conditions, the system of education and the condition of women. She is most impressed by the civic amenities provided by the local government and compares it to the municipalities in India. She writes of the absence of child marriage in America and the respect given to women in the family. She paints perhaps too rosy a picture of American domestic life, the home as "a refuge of happiness" but she was obviously struck by the differences between the woman's status within an Indian upper caste, middle class family and her position in the American family.

Ramabai regards education as the mainspring of progress and praises the American education system and the opportunities available to women for higher education. She visited several women's colleges and writes about these and the pioneers who opened the doors of education to women. She briefly traces the history of women's education in the U.S. from 1832 (the opening of Oberlin College to women) to 1888. There is a long chapter on the condition of women, which was a subject that interested Ramabai deeply. Apart from women's education, she writes of the employment opportunities available and the lack of legal rights such as the right to property or the right over their own underage children.

Ramabai, who founded one of the earliest women's associations in India, was naturally interested in women's associations in the U.S. and writes about various women's societies, clubs and groups specially the Temperance Movement and Women's Crusade against liquor shops, as drinking alcohol was a feature of American life she greatly disapproved of. She speaks of the evils of slavery but rather naively observes that the Civil War had freed slaves and allowed them to become equal citizens.

Ramabai found Americans friendly, generous and self confident, lacking somewhat in humility. "This is a new nation, and in keeping with the rule that anything will grow vigorously in fresh soil, their native pride, since it first germinated in this fertile ground, has grown enormously."

This is an excellent work of social enquiry and adds to scholarship on the understanding and images of the West in late 19th Century India.

Pandita Ramabai's America, edited with a biographical introduction by Robert Eric Frykenberg, William B. Erdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

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