I recently returned from a six-week sojourn in Mumbai. It is the city where I grew up and where my family still lives. In fact, my “family home” is where my mother grew up. The small four-hundred square foot chawl home has witnessed more than five generations of my family.
As can be imagined, every nook and cranny holds cherished memories. The low kitchen counter specially designed to suit my well-under-five feet grandmother, the fifty-year-old refrigerator that, somehow, still works. My mother’s old sewing machine still stored under the dining table. And the Akai tape player that was my father’s cherished purchase during the 1960s and that holds the recorded voices of the eight-year-old me and my seventy-year-old grandfathers. If only the walls could talk.
It seems to be a particularly American, or emigrant obsession, to seek to bring the past into the present. As far back as 1758, Benjamin Franklin stomped through a cemetery in England trying to understand the Francklyne who were his forebears. And it has been thus since then. It is the privilege of each new wave of newcomers to return to the old country to dig, to learn, to ask, to understand. Who were the people who formed me? What were their lives like? What were the forces that shaped me? Why am I who I am today? What is my life’s work? How can I make meaning out of the memories of those who are no more?
It is almost forty years since I came to America as a newlywed and early-career professional. The early years were a whirlwind of activity, as all available (and then some) physical, mental, and emotional energy was spent on deciphering the new country, learning to be American, making a home, a career, and a family. Finally, now, I have the luxury of paying attention to all that I left behind and to understand the forces that made me who I am.
Unaware of this subconscious quest, about ten years ago I stumbled upon the story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, the first Indian woman who became a doctor. I became hooked on her story because I recognized that her sacrifice and courage were the beginning of the fundamental changes in Mumbai Maharashtrian society from which I benefited. While she was married at nine to a widower who was almost twenty years older than her, one hundred years after her, I got married in my twenties to a man of my own choosing. While she lived in a society that did not believe in providing education and healthcare to women, I grew up in a family and a society which did not even question my claim to an education and a career, and of course, healthcare.
Wanting to know more about Anandi-bai’s American life turned from an idle curiosity into a passion project after I read her letters. It was almost as if she was talking directly to me, telling me about her challenges, her ambition, her hopes, and her dreams — not so much for herself as for Indian womanhood. The result of my endeavors is “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions.” It will be published in March 2020.
It became important to me to visit the major places where Anandi-bai lived during her short eventful life. I went on pilgrimages to Philadelphia and Poughkeepsie. And, in Mumbai I visited the places where she lived during her short stay there during 1880-1881. Unlike in the US, where there is a much deeper tradition of preserving history, I was doubtful about how much history I would be able to excavate in India. But, I was pleasantly surprised.
In the area of Girgaon (which was called Black Town during the 1880s), I found the post office where Anandi-bai’s husband Gopal worked. Even today, there is a post office at the exact same location! I visited Angrey-Wadi, the neighborhood chawl from where Gopal had arranged for her to pick home-cooked food so she would be freed of cooking chores in order to focus on her studies.
I visited the beautiful old black stone church founded by Dr. John Wilson, the Chrsitian missionary He also founded one of the first girls’ schools in Mumbai, St. Columba School, that is also my alma mater. Although I was not able to find definitive evidence, I have narrowed down the school that Anandi-bai attended to either the school I attended or Queen Mary School which still operates in the same neighborhood!
Walking the streets that Anandi-bai walked and where she had been subjected to catcalls and abuse was an extremely moving experience. Witnessing how much the status of women has changed in the intervening century was uplifting and inspiring. I felt I had a better understanding of the forces that led to my empowered life. I felt that by visiting the place, I had paid private homage to Anandi-bai, whom I now consider an adi-mata, or foremother.
I also visited the place in the Mumbai suburb Kalyan where Anandi-bai grew up. The old sprawling wada, with its big open aangan and vrindavan is no more. In its place is an apartment building that is aptly named Anandi-Gopal. A friend and I were having a hard time spotting the plaque that mentions the history of the building lot. We peeked inside a small office where two men sat chatting. Upon hearing our question, one of the men offered, “I will tell you everything you want to know. I am a descendant of the Joshee clan that used to own this land.” He then took us upstairs to his apartment and showed us old documents that are in his possession. Among them is a family tree. No women appear in the family tree — with he exception of Anandi-bai herself. It is as if through her courage and sacrifice she claimed a place for herself in men’s world.
Mr. Joshee also showed us a copy of a contract by the Peshwas granting land to the founder of the Joshee clan. It was interesting to find out that the wedding of the first Peshwa (Bajirao of “Bajirao-Mastani” fame) had taken place in the same house because Bajirao’s first wife hailed from this same Joshee family. There were other tales about the family’s rising and falling fortunes.
As Faulker put it, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” And, by telling us where we have been and who we were, history gives us the roots we need to feel grounded and to confidently choose where we want to go and whom we want to become.
Over the course of the last several years, as I have researched the story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, my life has become incredibly richer. I highly encourage seekers to go forth and excavate their own personal histories. The people who went before are waiting to reveal their truths!