Journey to the Galaxy

Journey to the Galaxy

I was playing with the yellow tassels of my sari pallu, when I heard the sound of voices and laughter from the street. Curious to find out what was happening, I peeped out of the window.  I remember this incident so well only because I was wearing the same blue sari with bright yellow flowers that I had worn for my birthday a week ago.  I had a clear view of the street. My mouth fell open when I spied a few boys around my own age, with slates in their hands. I knew where they were going; to school. They were kicking at the stones, laughing and talking in merriment.

I wanted to join them. Excited, I went running towards the kitchen where I knew my mother would be. She was usually in there, always bustling around doing something or the other.

“Aayi, I saw some boys going to school, I want to go with them.”

“Yamuna, what nonsense are you talking? They are boys, they go to school so they can get a job. Remember you are a girl and girls are meant to stay at home. A girl’s duty is to take care of the house and family. If girls go to school, who will take care of the house and children. Have you seen any girls going to school?” My mother’s words came out in an angry rush.

My mother’s expression was terrifying. Her hands on her hips, she glared at me. It made me feel anxious and my stomach felt funny. Tears started to flow from my eyes. My lips trembling a little, I asked once again.

“Aayi, I want to go to school.”

“Yamuna, you are being foolish, now go away. I have no time to argue with you.”

Afraid if I stayed any longer, I would get slapped, I ran away. Later I heard my mother talking to my father. 

“Yamuna is impossible, she wants to go to school. If girls start going to school, who’ll take care of the house and have children then, I want to know.”

“Start teaching her housework, that’ll keep her busy.” My father replied.

The next day my mother asked woke me up early and after that I had no time to think. She kept me busy the whole day long. I had no time to play, no time to stand at the window and no time to step outside other than to fetch some herbs. I learnt to clean sweep and mop, I learnt to cook a little. I still have a scar from the time I burnt my arm while removing the pot from the wood fire stove.

Soon after my 9th birthday, my mother called me to her room and gave me a new sari to wear. 

“You are going to be married Yamuna. We have got a very good proposal for you. They don’t want dowry which is a big blessing. You know your baba has no money to pay for a big wedding and these people have agreed for a quiet one.”

I pushed away the sari that she was holding out to me.

“Aayi, I don’t want to be married, I want to stay here with you and Baba.”

“Yamuna, you don’t have a choice, you have to go, the man you are going to marry has a government job and he’ll take good care of you. You are lucky.”

My pleas fell on deaf years and a few days later my wedding was solemnised in a quiet ceremony. I was married to a postal clerk, Gopal Rao Joshi, a man 20 years my senior.

As per the customs in Brahmin households, as soon as I entered his house, my husband renamed me and I was now Anandi Bai Gopal Joshi. My identity had changed.

One evening my husband surprised me by giving me a book. I held it with trembling hands, opened it.  I looked up to find him smiling and nodding, encouraging me to read. I felt ashamed. I slowly pulled the pallu lower over my head and stood with my head bowed and shook my head.

“What’s the matter? Are you feeling shy to read aloud?”

My lips trembled with fear and anxiety. My reply was so faint, he had to move closer.

“I don’t know how to read, I never learnt.”

There was a long silence.

“I’ll teach you.” 

He was true to his words. Slowly and surely over the days and weeks, he taught me to read and write Marathi, my mother tongue. It was an exhilarating experience. Gratified with my progress he sent me to the local missionary school. His family and entire community went up in arms and we were thrown out of the house.

When I turned 14, I delivered a baby boy. I held him close to him, I felt so much love for him that it hurt.  He was sickly and 10 days later, I was left holding his lifeless body. It took me many months to recover from the terrible loss but when I did, my resolve was made. I would become a doctor.

My husband Gopal was only too happy to support my decision.

“I promise you’ll become a doctor, Anandi.” He said confidently. 

There were no medical colleges that admitted women and so the only choice was to go to America. With scant funds, this idea seemed doomed for failure. Gopal took a chance and wrote to Ralph Wilder a famous American missionary enquiring about a job for himself in America and admission for myself in a medical college there. Ralph published this correspondence in the Princeton’s Missionary Review. Mrs.Carpenter, who read this article, reached out to me and agreed to sponsor my studies and stay in America. 

There was a lot of opposition from the local community about my travel to a western country. I knew I had to convince the local people and I addressed a huge gathering at the Serampore Community Hall. I spoke passionately about my desire to become a doctor so that I could serve the women and children of my country. My speech convinced the people, news spread and I received donations from people all over the country 

In 1883, I set sail for America from Calcutta. I felt sad to leave my country and cried when Gopal held me close. The journey to America was long and arduous. The strange food  and constant rolling of the ship made me sick and kept me locked in my cabin for months on end.

I was received in New York by Mrs.Carpenter. She received me warmly and made me feel welcome. She was a generous woman and made me feel very comfortable in her house. Those few days I rested well. With the help of a doctor couple called Thoborn, I applied and secured admission at the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania. 

With Mrs.Carpenter’s assistance, I joined the medical college. It was 1883, I was 19, exactly 10 years after I had been married. I had never envisaged such a journey, yet here I was finally going to accomplish something I had set my heart on.

I fell sick many times, but I did not give up. I paid attention in all the classes, I took down notes and studied late into the night. The food was really bad and I fell sick again and again. By the time I was finished with studies, I had been diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Lack of proper nutrition had led to this severe condition. 

In my determination to attain my degree, I had neglected my health. I had no access to vegetarian food and I had not been eating or sleeping well.  I had a dream, a goal to build a hospital and college for women. After two years of sheer hard work and endless sleepless nights I graduated. In March 1886 at the age of 21, I became Dr.Anandi Bai Gopal Rao Joshi, MD. My body was ravaged with Tuberculosis but my mind glowed with joyful pride.

I spent the last few days after graduation with Mrs.Carpenter, whom I considered a family member, I took great comfort in addressing her as Aunt. She accompanied me to see me off on the day I sailed. I hugged her close, both of us weeping copiously, so attached had we become to each other. 

The journey was long and tedious but I promised myself I would survive as I was going home to Gopal, with the degree in my hand. I had borne the tumultuous sea voyage but it had taken its toll on me.  I was received with great fanfare when I set foot on Indian soil. Gopal was worried to see me so poorly but my enthusiasm to continue my work cheered him up and encouraged both of us to believe that I would soon get better.

My dreams came true when I was appointed as the physician in charge of the women’s ward in the local Albert Edward Hospital. However, I fell really sick and couldn’t move out of bed from the time I returned. I knew my days were numbered and I resigned myself to my fate. My only consolation was that people had started sending their daughters to school and I hoped that one day there would be many women doctors working in my country.
Glossary – This story is a fictionalised account of the first woman doctor of India, Dr,Anandi bai Gopalrao Joshi. The story of a child bride who didn’t know to read and write but who went on to be the first woman to gain a medical degree outside of India is highly inspiring. She did not live to achieve her greatest dream of starting a medical college and hospital for women but she was the torch bearer for women’s education in the male dominated arena of medical sciences. 

Dr Joshi lived a mere 21 years but achieved so much in that brief span that a crater on Venus been named in her honour. The 34.3 km-diameter crater on Venus named ‘Joshee’ lies at latitude 5.5° N and longitude 288.8° E. (Taken from the net]
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