A light that shone all too briefly

A RECENT book review I came across offered an entirely new insight into a pioneering woman in Madras whom I'd known of only as the first Indian woman (as different from Anglo-Indians and Domiciled British) to enter Madras Medical College. That was as a 16-year old in 1878, just three years after the college opened its doors to women. She topped the first year, before being forced to drop out, a state of ill-health dogging Krupabai Satthianadhan throughout her remarkable life. The first Indian women to receive the LMS, therefore, were Abala Das, Rose Govindurajulu and Gurdial Singh, all qualifying in 1887.

Deprived of an opportunity in Medicine, Satthianadhan, it would appear, turned to writing in 1881. And this I learnt only through — in a sad commentary of our local times — a Sri Lankan teaching in Australia, Chandani Lokug�. Teaming as Satthianadhan's editor with Oxford India Paperbacks, Lokug� has helped bring into focus the little known and hardly remembered fact that Satthianadhan went on to become a novelist of merit. Saguna, serialised in the Madras Christian College Magazine, was published in 1895 by Srinivasa, Varadachari and Co., another forgotten institution, and is considered "the first autobiographical novel in English by an Indian woman". Published by SVC a year earlier, no sooner its serialisation by the MCC Magazine ended, was Kamala, Satthianadhan's story of a Hindu child-wife (based on her mother's life), written as its author's life ebbed away. The third book of hers to be published by SVC was in 1896, a collection entitled Miscellaneous Writings of Krupabai Satthianadhan. All three were published posthumously, for her lifelong illness finally laid her low in 1894; she was only 32. In that brief life, she had pioneered in English the New Woman Writing of the late 19th Century when, "defying institutionalised patriarchal ideologies (in tradition-bound India) that enforced her domesticity and subjectivity, the New Woman sought greater equality between men and women".

Krupabai Satthianadhan was of Madras but not of it too. She was born in Ahmedabad to Haripunt and Radhabhai Khisty, the first Brahmin converts to Christianity in the Bombay Presidency. Brought up by a father who saw Christianity as his mission and a mother who never lost her "Hindu notion of things", Krupabai's early life had shadows cast on it by the early death of her father and, not long afterwards, when she was 13, of her elder brother Bhasker who had helped her fall in love with English literature.

In 1881, while convalescing after the illness that made her give up her medical studies, Krupabai Khisty met Cambridge-returned Samuel Satthianadhan and married him. He was an educationist and they started life together in Ooty where he went as Headmaster, Breeks Memorial School. Then they moved to Rajahmundry, Kumbakonam and, eventually, in 1886 to Madras where he was to hold the Chair of Logic and Philosophy in Presidency College. And that's when she began to move from writing articles to writing novels. But not before further, tragedy befell her. Their only child died months after its birth in 1887 and was buried in the Purasawalkam cemetery, beside whom was to be laid to rest Krupabai Satthianadhan seven years later.

Krupabai Satthianadhan was honoured with a memorial meeting held in 1895 at the Government House, Madras. And in her memory were endowed the Krupabai Satthianadhan Medical Scholarship and a Memorial Medal, at the Madras Medical College and the University of Madras respectively. The former was for an Indian woman ("native of India but not of European or Eurasian descent") who wished to qualify as an Apothecary or higher grades in the medical profession, the latter for the Indian woman who passed the Matriculation Examination with the highest marks in English. I wonder whether both awards are still given and I wonder, if they are, whether the recipients ever wondered who Krupabai Satthianadhan was.


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