Tag Archives: nandini patwardhan

Desi Feminist Men – It Does Not Have To Be An Oxymoron

(Featured Image: Cover of the book, Men and Feminism: Seal Studies by Shira Tarrant)

In its simplest form, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” In other words, because women have traditionally had fewer rights, feminism is about asserting and working to achieve equal rights for women. However, nowhere does this imply that achieving equality should be solely women’s fight or women’s goal.

There are but scarce instances when men made it their business to fight for women’s causes. A shining example is the active participation of Indian men in the many marches that took place all over India in 2012 after the horrific “Delhi rape.” Rather than retreating behind rationalizations such as “men will be men,” or “it has always been thus,” or blaming women for their choice of attire and pursuit of activities outside the safe confines of home, thousands of men agitated for respect and safety for the women in their lives — their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, coworkers, and neighbors. The men showed that women’s lives matter and that they matter to them.

In taking this proactive stand, the men were following the example set by a few men who came before. In this essay, I want to highlight a few of them.

Dr. Anand-bai Joshee

I am sure many know about Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, and her heroic struggle to bring medical care to the women of India. I just published “Radical Spirits,” her deeply-researched biography. In the course of my research, I came across a letter that her husband, Gopal, wrote in 1878 to an American missionary requesting help to educate his wife. The letter makes an eloquent and heartfelt case for the importance of empowering women and men’s essential role in making that happen:

Ever since I began to think independently for myself, female education has been my favorite subject. I keenly felt the growing want of it to raise the nation to eminence among civilized countries. It is the source of happiness in a family. As every reform must begin at home, I considered it my duty to give my wife a thorough education, that she might be able to impart it to her country-sisters…. On the other hand, female education is much looked down upon among my people… My attempts have been frustrated, my object universally condemned by my own people. … and yet I cannot give up the point. I will try to the last, there being nothing so important as female education for our elevation morally and spiritually.

Gopal Joshee believed that it was important to educate and empower women, but not just for their own good. He saw that this was an indispensable component of the good of families, communities, and country. Indeed, he went so far as to state that the state of women was a hallmark of a civilized society. And, in pursuit of this goal, he stood alone against his community and defied its regressive views.

Another great example of a feminist man is Ziauddin Yousufzai, father of Malala. In his TED talk, he said:

Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently, if women and men think differently, if men and women in the tribal and patriarchal societies in the developing countries, if they can break a few norms of family and society, if they can abolish the discriminatory laws of the systems in their states, which go against the basic human rights of the women.

In other words, he made it his personal mission to empower his own daughter and to champion the empowerment of girls and women all over the world. The title of his memoir, “Let Her Fly,” says it all.

These two men, Gopal Joshee and Ziauddin Yousufzai, are separated by almost 150 years. Ironically, both were thrust into the limelight because of the tragedies of their protégés. However, these tragedies now live on as triumphs. Despite Anandi Joshee’s early death, or maybe because of the shock and tremendous loss that it represented, segments of 19th century Indian society took a decisive turn towards acknowledging women’s full humanity and their potential. Similarly, because of the violent attack on young Malala, there is greater awareness all over the world of girls’ right to education and empowerment.

Fortunately, tragedy is no longer a prerequisite to creating fundamental change for women. There can be no better example of this than what Indian states are doing to ensure and encourage access to education for girls.

  1. Tamil Nadu: The government offered a 50% subsidy to girls/women to buy scooters and laptops
  2. Uttarakhand: Girls enrolled in school get free bicycles
  3. Kerala: Sanitary napkin vending machines have been made mandatory in all higher secondary schools
  4. Karnataka: Girls studying in government and aided private degree colleges receive free education
  5. Gujarat: Free medical education to female students

Undoubtedly, there are countless nameless men fighting the good fight within their circles of influence, be it in their families or workplaces, or communities. For example, I know of a farmer who sold part of his land to finance the education of his daughters.

However, the battle is far from over. Many issues continue to challenge women. Starting from the management of menstruation and early marriage to access to education and medical care, they extend all the way to sexual harassment and rape, family and maternity leave, and equal pay.

So, here is a challenge for men to be more active feminists. Encourage your daughter as much as you do your son. Create a safe and welcoming family and work environments. Agitate for equal pay for women. Be compassionate and generous to your women coworkers and your subordinates (including household help where applicable).

Make every day Women’s Day and make every month Women’s History Month. The goal should be to make women’s disempowerment a historical artifact rather than a present-day scourge. Rather than diminish your power, it will only empower YOU more.

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Saachi & Karuna: Linked By Language

Saachi Pandit is a high school senior who lives in San Jose. At the age of thirteen, she started tutoring Karuna Kadam, a student in Pune, who is a year older than her. The purpose was for Karuna to master spoken and written English. This is the story of how the two girls met, what they learnt from each other, and how they were both transformed by the experience.

Karuna Kadam

When she was in middle school, Saachi participated in a Readathon which raised funds for books for students in India. This is a program operated for Pratham USA and managed locally by Shirish Sathe of Saratoga.

Established in 1995 to provide education to children living in the Mumbai slums, Pratham (which means “first” in Sanskrit) is now one of the largest and most successful non-governmental education organizations in India. In collaboration with governments, communities, parents, teachers, and volunteers, it focused on innovative interventions to address gaps in the education system. Pratham USA is a volunteer-driven organization with fourteen chapters across the United States. Each chapter raises awareness and raises funds in its local community.


As Saachi says, her parents had always stressed the importance of helping, as she put it, “underprovided” people. So, when she was asked if she would be willing to mentor an Indian student, she readily agreed. It was a natural progression for her to go from raising funds in support of education to becoming involved more directly and in a more personal way. She said, “I thought that my knowledge of English could be a factor in furthering one student’s education.”

There is a great hunger among students in India to master spoken and written English.  They recognize that English is the language of professional work in all parts of India as well as on the internet and outside India. So, they are keenly aware that knowing English can open many doors for them and are willing to put in the extra time and effort needed to attain proficiency in English.

The transcontinental Skype-based mentoring collaboration between Saachi and Karuna was a daring and innovative endeavor. For starters, while Saachi knew some Marathi and was fluent in English, Karuna was fluent in Marathi but had only a basic familiarity with English. So, overcoming the language divide was a challenge. Another was their different styles of communication. For example, during their early sessions, Karuna tended to be somewhat reticent and offered short one or two word responses to Saachi’s questions. On the other hand, Saachi had to moderate her American accent and speak at a slower pace to make it easy for Karuna to understand her.

They would begin each lesson by talking about their school, friends, and families. Since each girl is the oldest in her family and has a younger sister and brother, they found it easy to relate to each other. There were profound differences as well and these quickly became apparent. While Saachi did not lack for resources, Karuna says, “…my father is a tempo driver, and so I could not pay for special classes for learning spoken English.” While Karuna knew that she wanted to become an engineer, Saachi was still trying to decide her life plan.

As for the actual English language instruction, although the girls were following Karuna’s school curriculum, they had to come up with new strategies to overcome their stylistic differences. For example, they decided early on that since the purpose was for Karuna to learn English, she should speak only in English. Occasionally, when the need to translate could not be avoided, Saachi would translate a sentence or word using her limited Marathi.

When Karuna’s textbook did not explain some concepts very well, Saachi came up with new approaches. For example, she took pictures of pages from her own elementary and middle school textbooks to show Karuna how something worked. Karuna then wrote her responses on a board and held it up to show Saachi. Gradually, Karuna started to understand every word and became able to complete the assignments. Writing sentences, making paragraphs on different topics, and answering questions on grammar no longer felt like insurmountable challenges.

How well did this project work out? Over the year that the two girls collaborated, Saachi’s command of Marathi improved tremendously. Karuna was in a hybrid learning environment in which she was learning Math and Science in English. As she became more fluent and more confident in her knowledge of English, her mastery of those subjects improved as well. In her board exams, she scored high in English as well as in Math and Science!

Noticing Saachi’s self-assurance and ease with English, Karuna became more confident on a personal level as well as about her mastery of English. Saachi learnt new ways of being as well. “I tended to take many things for granted. Now I am much more aware and grateful for the opportunities available to me. I have also gained a sense of motivation because I have seen how motivated Karuna is.”

Saachi continues to work as a mentor for Pratham. Her new student is Monali, Karuna’s younger sister. In addition, she mentors other US-based kids who are interested in tutoring Indian students. In this project, she is using the teaching and learning strategies that she and Karuna devised!

Karuna sees great potential for collaborations like this one. As she sees it, it is about more than developing language or technical skills; it is about developing life skills. “What we did should be replicated as much as possible.”

With mutual commitment and perseverance, the two girls have forged a friendship while strengthening their language skills – Marathi for Saachi and English for Karuna. What one lacked, the other provided. And they are on track to make this possible for many more student pairs.

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

Image credits: Credit: http://prathamusa.org


The Queue: A Story About Loud Music & (Un)civility

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

My article on cancel culture was published a couple of months back. It highlighted situations in which private disagreements sometimes lead to permanent breaks in relationships. Using sources as diverse as the Ramayan and the Mahabharat on one hand, and the Marshall Plan and President Lincoln’s famous Civil War speech on the other, I came up with strategies for being gracious and generous on one hand and principled on the other, even under trying circumstances.

But, what about situations that are public rather than private? When ignoring the issue would be unfair?  What is a person of goodwill to do? The below is an exercise in learning to answer such questions. 

Late in the afternoon of the first working day of the New Year, I visited the post office to mail some letters. I was surprised by the long line that stretched way out on the sidewalk. The social distancing mandate was only part of the reason for the long queue. The other was that there were many people who needed to return packages (gifts?) received over the holidays.


Seeing that it would be a while before she would reach the front of the line, the woman standing in front of me (I will call her Wanda) requested that I hold her spot while she went to her car to get her jacket. I readily agreed.

By the time Wanda returned, more people had joined the line behind me. As previously agreed, she got in line ahead of me. Seeing this, the elderly woman who had joined the line after Wanda left asked her if she was joining the line. It was her civil way of making sure Wanda was not jumping in unfairly into the line.

“I would never do something like that,” Wanda proclaimed with a smile.

“She was here before I got here,” I clarified.

All three of us nodded in goodwill, reassured that the queue remained inviolate.

Ill will

Soon after this conversation, Wanda started playing music on her phone. She did not have headphones and so the sound wafted into the air around her. She swayed gently to the song.

Twenty minutes later, the line had moved. Wanda and I were now just inside the front door of the post office. I heard loud music and didn’t think much of it… maybe it was playing on the PA system.

But, the music seemed to get more shrill and impossible to ignore. Looking closely, I soon realized that the loud music was actually coming from Wanda’s phone. Either she had turned up the volume, or being indoors, the sound was reverberating a lot more than when we were standing outside.

After a few minutes, it became quite unpleasant. The sound was tinny and scratchy, impossible to ignore. The line was still advancing very slowly.

“Is the music playing on your phone?” I asked Wanda. When she confirmed this, I continued, “Could you please turn it down?”

“It is gospel music and it inspires me,” she said.

“That’s great,” I said with a smile. “Could you please just not play it so loud?”

“What, you don’t like gospel music?” Wanda was becoming aggressive.

“I am not familiar with it,” I admitted.

“Well, I am going to keep on playing it. You can go to the back of the line.”

“I am not going anywhere.” I responded.

“You have some nerve!” she insisted angrily and said it a couple more times for good measure.

I admit to being quite taken aback by Wanda’s response. A person who had, just a few minutes earlier, professed her commitment to civic rules and order, was now being quite rude. Moreover, she was being unkind to the very person (me) who had spoken up for her.  

I looked away. Having made my point, I was not interested in continuing the disagreeable dialogue.

Civility restored

Amazingly, after a few more minutes, Wanda turned down the decibel level of her music.

My turn came soon after. My business at the post office completed, as I walked out, I happened to make eye contact with the woman behind me… the one who had asked Wanda about her place in the queue. Despite her mask, I saw a smile in the crinkled edges of her eyes and an almost imperceptible nod of her head. I felt validated. 

This was one of the rare times when I took a public stand in an attempt to check an inconsiderate person. I might have expected a racing heart and clammy hands, especially after Wanda’s outburst. Instead, I felt calm both during and after the brief exchange. 

I am glad that, rather than chafe in silence, I raised my voice against sound pollution. It was a small act undertaken in the interest of preserving civility in the public space.

Civic Responsibility

As an immigrant of almost forty years standing, I have a particular appreciation of the orderly society in which I live. It would be fair to say that through the decades I have been a student and observer of what it takes to build and preserve such a society. And, I daresay I have tried to do my small part in that by being a civic-minded participant in the communities in which I have lived. This has taken the form of volunteering in the local school, returning library books on time and picking up litter (when I come across it, which is fortunately quite infrequent), and writing the occasional letter to the editor of the local newspaper. 

The storming of Capitol Hill on January 6 has added a whole new urgency to the topic of the responsibilities that accrue to citizens of a democratic country, and what each one of us can and must do to preserve and extend democratic norms. 

By itself, my experience in the queue was a very trivial one. But it is not difficult to imagine the chaos, disorderliness, and just plain meanness that would result if incidents like that were to multiply millions of times over. I think it brings out the importance of upholding bedrock principles and not letting them be eroded by loud-mouthed bullies. Maybe we would not be where we are today if Trump had been checked early on. 

As Dr. King put it,

Those who do nothing while witnessing injustice and wrong-doing do worse than those who commit acts of injustice.

Have you been in a situation where you took a stand? How did it feel? Did it make a difference?

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

imagecredit: noisy neighbor by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project


I Will Not Cancel Us!

 Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Cancel culture is a form of boycott in which a person is expelled from one or more of their social or professional circles. This happens in real and virtual arenas.

A friend called. “I texted you a couple of hours back and you haven’t responded. I just wanted to make sure we are good….” Her voice trailed off. She did not need to complete her sentence. I understood her predicament. Having become used to my quick responses, the delay had seemed abnormal to my friend. The message to which I had failed to respond was one in which she had declined to participate in a group project. Afraid that I had taken offense, she was worried that I was “canceling” her.

The ubiquity of instant communication has primed us to expect quick, albeit short, responses. When such responses fail to appear, our minds fly to catastrophe. At the same time, the geographically dispersed manner in which many of us live, and the non-overlapping nature of the communities in which we participate, have made it easy to sever ties with seemingly little collateral damage. It is therefore tempting to think that “cancel culture” is a bane of present-day society and that it did not occur in the “good old days.” However, this is far from reality.

The event that gives the Ramayan its momentum is the banishment of Ram to a fourteen years-long exile. His stepmother Kaikeyi demanded this because she wanted her son Bharat to inherit the throne. She knew that the mere presence of this beloved prince (and rightful heir to the throne according to the laws of the time) would be an unceasing reminder of the underhanded way in which she secured the throne for her son. And so, Ram, together with his wife Sita and younger brother Laxman, removed himself from the kingdom. In effect, Ram was canceled.

The Ramayan has another more heartbreaking episode in the same vein. At the end of the war with Ravan, Ram and Sita returned to Ayodhya and Ram ascended to the throne. Some subjects of the kingdom rejected Sita’s “normalization” because they believed her to be impure as a result of having been in the custody of a man other than her husband. When Sita heard about this, she took it upon herself to leave the kingdom. She did not want her presence to compromise her husband’s honor among his subjects. Ram did not try to stop her. In effect, he prioritized his own reputation over standing up for Sita. In effect, Sita was canceled because of a remark uttered by one judgmental person.

The contrast is stark. The wife shared her husband’s burden and stood by his side when he was exiled. But, the husband did not hesitate to let his wife cancel herself at the mere suggestion of scandal. Too often, those who have less power and less protection are held to a more exacting standard and a bigger price is extracted from them.

The Mahabharat has its own instances of ex-communication. After the Pandavas lost their kingdom to their cousins, the Kauravas, in the game of chess, they were banished from the kingdom. Wanting to completely erase them, Duryodhan, the oldest of the Kauravas, had a palace built for his cousins. Lac (wax) was the building material used, the better to burn without leaving any traces of arson. Fortunately, the Pandavas managed to escape unhurt. But, the facts of the two attempted cancellations remain.

As the philosopher, Kant, proclaimed, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” In other words, humans are imperfect and, like Duryodhan and even Ram, are capable of dishonorable actions out of malice or cowardice. In such situations, it is human nature to seek restitution and justice. Unfortunately, too often this urge manifests itself as an unwillingness to compromise, to forgive, or to make a fresh start. So, the challenge is to devise strategies to respond to infractions in a measured and rational way.

From time immemorial, societies have had only a few ways to encourage preferred (“good”) behavior and discourage “bad” behavior. Religions promise reward and punishment in the afterlife. In the present, the threat of religious ex-communication is used to keep individuals on the straight and narrow. Social customs and traditions use the mechanisms of public honor or shaming. In modern developed societies, civic fines and taxes do the work. When all else fails, a person who offends the norms of a society is jailed.


Amazingly, a way to temper the impulse to cancel an offender and deploy a more thoughtful and measured response is also found in the Mahabharat.

The conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas ended up with both sides locked in a fight-to-the-death battle. Arjun, the Pandava brother who was also the most skilled warrior, felt deeply conflicted. Was it moral to seek to kill his cousins, who were, after all, his own flesh and blood? What was the righteous option given the fact that his cousins had cheated and had even tried to kill him and his brothers? Even though Arjun sought restitution, protection against continued threats, and yes, maybe even revenge, he struggled to convince himself that war and annihilation were an honorable way to achieve those ends.

Arjun’s charioteer was Krishna. Cousin to both sides, he was unaffected by their rivalry. With no skin in the game, (and maybe thanks to his divine wisdom) he was able to be principled, deliberative, and detached. He told Arjun that his duty was to fight injustice. But the right way to execute this righteous duty was to act without hatred or the expectation of a reward or a desire for personal glory.

Ironically, the words in President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address echo the same sentiments. “With malice toward none and charity for all…” A further irony is that these words too were uttered at the end of the bloody and devastating Civil War in which brothers fought against brothers and families split over their positions on slavery.

Indeed, it was by putting this principle of generous grace into action that the victorious United States helped rebuild the societies and economies of its erstwhile enemies, Germany and Japan. I am referring, of course, to the Marshall Plan.

My personal Marshall Plan works like this: If I feel hurt or offended by a friend, I don’t react at the moment. If the infraction is not too severe, I file it away and carry on as graciously as possible. If it is, I convey my thoughts using forthright and compassionate words.

Sometimes, the differences are irreconcilable. In that case, I also state what needs to happen for the relationship to be repaired. In this way, at the very least, the person knows exactly why there is conflict and they know how they can fix the issue through compromise, communication, or some other form of healing. Agree to disagree, but do so agreeably.

Finally, it is helpful to remind myself that I may have unknowingly hurt a friend. So, consistent practice of open dialogue has the potential to empower my friend to express her views and seek wholeness.

As for my friend who had worried that I was miffed at her, I reassured her that my response had been delayed for no other reason than that I had become caught up in other tasks. In addition, I told her I appreciated her reaching out because I would not want her to feel anxious. Lastly, I told her that, in the event of a conflict, I would not resort to canceling without having at least one conversation to clear the clog in our friendship. The antidote to the impulse to cancel or “ghost” a person, at least on the personal level, is to always keep the door of honest and compassionate communication open.

My new mantra is “I will not cancel Us.”

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

Fierce and Determined: A Pioneering Spirit

Biographies such as Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions, Nandini Patwardhan’s engrossing biography of Dr. Anandibai Joshee, celebrate women while underscoring their plight.

Born in March 1865, married at the age of nine, and pregnant as a young teen, Joshee lost a son only 10 days following his birth. Because she had eagerly embraced education under her husband’s tutelage, she reasoned her loss was due to an absolute lack of healthcare for women. This led her to become a doctor.

A chance reading of an 1879 article in Missionary Review about Joshee and her goals, Theodocia Carpenter of Roselle, NJ, was compelled to write Joshee a letter, and upon receipt, Joshee replied. Over the next years, a deep, binding relationship—that of aunt and niece—developed between the women. Joshee arrived in the U.S. in 1883, where she was welcomed as an innovator, stayed with the Carpenters, and was awarded a scholarship to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Three years later, she was the first Indian woman to become a doctor.

Bold and brilliant, Joshee defied all expectations of her Brahmin caste and became well-known before she stepped onto the ship The City of Calcutta, her first leg of her voyage to America. Yet, she suffered all manner of difficulties as she moved toward her dream: Christian attempts to convert her in exchange for assistance; criticism from family and Indian society; the inability to obtain vegetarian food during her travel and while overseas; the onset of tuberculosis; and even abuse from her husband.

Image of Anandi Joshee as published in Frank Leslie’s Magazine. Feature written by Hans Mattson.

Through extensive research—Joshee’s letters to her husband, Carpenter, and others; primary sources written by those who knew and interacted with Joshee; contemporary articles—Patwardhan superbly chronicles the life of an inspiring young woman. She brings Joshee’s fierce spirit and determination to life a century and a half after Joshee was born. Patwardhan, who has lived in the U.S. for four decades, seamlessly employs the ability to present the story via what she calls her “insider-outsider perspective.” With strong, elegant writing combined with care to shed light on Indian culture under the British Raj, Patwardhan offers a captivating read.

I began to read this book on March 17, the day after Americans were advised to limit socializing, work remotely, and stay home from school for 15 days. Covid-19, the global pandemic, changed the way we live. Immediately, the story presented a sobering connection between Dr. Joshee and us. As Americans, we expect to enjoy a good life. What we don’t know, however, is what life will look like on the other side of this crisis. In the same way, Anandibai had expected a certain, prescribed life. Once she decided to do what no other Indian woman had thought to do, she had no idea what life would be like once she left home as a young girl in 1883.

Joshee’s life was short—just under 22 years—but her impact was great. She achieved what no Indian woman before her had dared and motivated others to follow suit. For all of the personal, cultural, social, and religious obstacles Joshee overcame during her journey toward her goal, she emerged as a true pioneer through will, determination, and focus. It is to Patwardhan’s credit that she has kept Dr. Joshee’s empowering story and spirit alive, especially during a time when some days may seem hopeless.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 

Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions by Nandini Patwardhan. Story Artisan Press. 357 Pages.

Excavating History

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!

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions,” a biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, will be published in March 2020.