Anandibai Gopal Joshee (also spelled as Joshi), was India’s first female physician and the first Indian woman to enter the United States in 1883 to pursue an education in medicine. At a time when education for women held no significance, Anandi secured a degree in medicine at the age of 21 from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now known as Drexel University College of Medicine.
Her life has been the subject of many books, plays and even films and has been dissected from several perspectives. But Shikha Malaviya's new collection of persona poems Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems tells Anandibai’s story through her own imagined voice, setting it apart from previous works on her life, which has often viewed her through the limiting narrative of Anadibai's husband as her saviour and guide.
"There are many ways to look at history and some of those ways can be dry. But I have been a poet all my life and a poet can often distil an experience to make it really powerful and I thought what better way to tell a story in her own voice through poetry? I thought it will be a very powerful way to convey her story and all the things she’s done," tells Malaviya in an interview with SheThePeople.
Why She Chose Anandibai As The Subject Of Her Book
Anandi was married at the age of 9 to a widower almost 20 years older than her, in keeping with the traditions of the time. Her husband, Gopalrao Joshi, would become one of the influences on her eventual goal to study medicine. Joshi educated his young bride through reward and brutal punishment even when there were objections from his community to his relentless ambition.
In the book's preface, Shikha mentions witnessing racism while growing up in Minnesota in the early ’80s and her need to find her history reflected in her surroundings.
"When I was growing up in the US, people would always ask us about our history, sometimes bully us with 'Go back where you came from.' As South Asian, we always attribute our history to one generation before us, that 'my parents came, and then I stayed back or so on. I decided to find out who was the first Indian woman to come to the US. I wanted to know where I came from and who were the people who came before me. This search led me to a photo of Anandibai. It was such a riveting photo. She was in a saree, her hands were folded, and she had this intense gaze and you could tell that she had power in the gaze. She radiated this confident energy and I really wanted to find out who she was."
"The more I researched, the more I could resonate with her. She educated herself despite so many objections. She went to medical school in the US amidst a culture that was so different from hers and yet she held her own. And you know that meant so much to me. Her experiences, believe it or not, when though they were 100 years ago from ours, are still similar to today's women," she recalls.
Through poem letters on sifaarish by white men that this brown girl’s learning is not mere whim, Shikha pens a struggle women go through even today for their basic rights.
The author nods in affirmation and recounts a shared experience with patriarchy despite all the progress. "A basic example of a house repairman who would not take me seriously, but when the same instruction was repeated by my husband, he would go 'yes yes this will be done'. Despite all the hard work which has been put in for women's rights, and for our voices to be taken seriously patriarchy has such a strong pull that there is still lots and lots of work still to be done. That’s the way the society has been structured over the years and I really like to applaud the people like Anandibai who fought these patriarchal voices. She was spat on, people threw stones at her while she walked to school. And she tolerated through all that, somebody else might have given up."
Shikha believes it is important to stay informed of the past to correct our present, "People ask me why did I write about somebody from the past because the past still haunts us."
Anandi breathed her last at the tender age of 22 due to tuberculosis on February 26, 1887. A section of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in upstate New York marks a gravestone with the following inscription: First Brahmin Woman to Leave India to Obtain an Education.
There's a crater on Venus named in her honour. Google commemorated her with a doodle in 2018.
But why are we hearing about her only this decade? Has history been unkind to women, especially women achievers? Amused by my thought, Shikha tells history has not been unkind but blind to women.
"I don’t think history has been unkind. I think history has been blind when it comes to women. When we talk about feminist icons from Indian history, we all hear about Jhansi ki Rani or mythological figures like Sita or Draupadi. But we actually need people who have left some sort of record like Anandibai had letters, photographs, archives and writing of her signature. Despite all this stuff, it's hard to believe that it's only now in the past 10 years that people are coming to understand who she is.
"I think we can't wait for the people to decide what is and what is not history. If you see something that is missing you should do something, be proactive and do the research. Collaborate with others and bring these things out. There are photographs, there are oral histories that are passed on from family to family, all of these make for alternate history. It is important to bring these out. It is as simple as asking your grandmother what was it like in her time these are all in history," she explains further.
"We can all archive women's voices and experiences in different ways. History may have turned a blind eye to women's voices but in this day and age of the internet and resources, we all can come and do our part to bring out these voices," she concludes.