Born into a wealthy Brahmin family in Kalyan (near Bombay) on March 31st 1865, this little girl was married off at the age of nine, to a widower who was twenty years her senior. Gopal Rao Joshi was a postal clerk. But he was a progressive thinker who supported widow marriage and the education of women. Her name was promptly changed from Yamuna to Anandibai, and he made it his life’s vocation to educate her. He was transferred from Kalyan to Alibagh to Calcutta. He sent her to mission schools whenever possible, but took it on himself to teach her English. Gopal would take his young wife for long walks during which his teaching sessions continued. He was convinced that learning English was more important than learning Sanskrit. But Anandibai confessed that learning from her husband was not easy. He would hit her with pieces of wood or chairs or books. Later, in her correspondence with him from USA, she had the courage to complain against his tyranny.
“I had no recourse but to allow you to hit me with chairs, and bear it with equanimity.”
Anandibai delivered a child at fourteen. The boy lived for only ten days as both of them did not receive proper medical care, because the only doctor available was a Christian. This was the beginning of her ill-health. It made her determined to become a doctor so that she could help other Hindu women. In this, she was fully supported by her husband. Gopal wanted to send her abroad for medical studies, even though they had no money. But here was a woman who believed that whatever the circumstances, nothing or nobody could stand in the way of her achieving her dreams. Her determination coupled with her husband’s encouragement was the first step towards achievement.
Gopal wrote to a missionary friend Royal Wilder in the US, asking for help to admit Anandibai to a medical school, and also find a job for himself. The missionary was willing to help on one condition, that they convert to Christianity. This was unacceptable to the couple. However, Wilder was good enough to publish Gopal’s letter in the Princeton Missionary Review. A woman named Theodosia Carpenter was touched by the earnestness of the letter. She offered to accommodate Anandibai when she came to the US. She struck up a correspondence with the girl, and they became good friends through their epistolary exchanges. They discussed Hindu culture and religion. They exchanged views on early marriages and the effect this had on women’s health, of the status of women in society and various other women’s issues. Anandibai’s clarity of thought on such issues was very mature. She was a feminist and believed that she had a right to live and grow and follow her heart. Theodosia brought out the best in her.
But Anandibai’s health began to deteriorate. While in Calcutta she suffered from fever, breathlessness and general debility. The medicines that Theodosia sent did not do much good. Gopal however, was determined to send her to USA for her medical studies.
There was much opposition from the conservative Hindu community. They were insulted, ostracized and sometimes physically attacked. In a letter to Theodosia she wrote,
“My designs meet with approbation of a few, say one or two thousands. They are probably youth, reformists and patriots. I am not discouraged. I must not fear but show all, what Indian ladies are.”
Anandibai addressed the opponents in her community about the urgent need for female Hindu doctors. She talked convincingly about her son’s death and her own ill-health because there was no Hindu doctor to care for her. She also promised that she would never convert to Christianity. Her speech made an impact on the community. Donations began to pour in. Even the Viceroy made a donation of two hundred rupees.
So in June 1883 at the age of nineteen, a weak but determined Anandibai sailed to USA, chaperoned by two friends of Theodosia. She got admission to the first Women’s Medical Programme offered by the University of Pennsylvania. She even won a scholarship of $ 600/- for three years. Her dissertation was on “Obstetrics among the Hindu Aryans.”
Anandibai in her 9-yard Maharastrian sari must have been something of an oddity. With her arms and calves exposed, the cold was unbearable. In this weak state, she contracted Tuberculosis. But in spite of ill health, she persevered with her studies. She graduated on 11th March 1886. Her husband and a social reformer Pandita Ramabai were present at this function. Even Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message. The Philadelphia Post wrote, “Little Mrs. Joshee who graduated with high honours in her class, received quite an ovation.”
Anandibai sailed back to India on October 9, 1886, and received a rousing welcome on arrival. She was made physician in charge of the female ward in Albert Edward Hospital, Kohlapur. But her professional life was short lived. Illness claimed her on February 26th, 1887, at the early age of 22. Gopal sent her ashes back to USA to be laid to rest in Theodosia Carpenter’s family plot at the Poughkeepsie Cemetery.
Here was a brave child woman whose determination empowered her, but her frail body gave out prematurely. Her last words were “I did all that I could.”