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Resisting Patriarchy

The autobiography, The Memoirs of Haimabati Sen, is valuable for the light it throws on women's lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This memoir of an unusual woman maps the nuances, the twists and turns of the immeasurably long journey of a woman in 19th century rural East Bengal from becoming a child-widow at the age of 10 to finally becoming a doctor. It also reveals the complex and contradictory relations within the family, the diverse forms of gendered oppressions, the negotiations and struggles against patriarchal tendencies in society, as well as the contradictions and even compromises within the forms of negotiation.


Resisting Patriarchy

Complexities and Conflicts in the Memoir of Haimabati Sen

Indrani Sen

The autobiography, The Memoirs of Haimabati Sen, is valuable for the light it throws on women’s lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This memoir of an unusual woman maps the nuances, the twists and turns of the immeasurably long journey of a woman in 19th century rural East Bengal from becoming a child-widow at the age of 10 to finally becoming a doctor. It also reveals the complex and contradictory relations within the family, the diverse forms of gendered oppressions, the negotiations and struggles against patriarchal tendencies in society, as well as the contradictions and even compromises within the forms of negotiation.

I am grateful to the Indian Council for Social Science Research for a Senior Fellowship during which this paper was written.

Indrani Sen ( teaches at the department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University.

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istorically, Indian women started to write their lifestories only from the late 19th century onwards. It is, of course, a complex and contradictory fact that women’s autobiography-writing in colonial India was a by-product of colonialism.1 By all accounts, this genre had its roots in western literary and cultural traditions and was born out of a new wave of individualism and selfhood. A legacy of “colonial modernity”, social reform, and in particular, the movement for female education, women’s life-writing was interlinked with western notion of individualism. More importantly, still, the writing of autobiographies by women denoted the growth of a sense of selfhood.

The memoir of Haimabati Sen2 (c1866-1932), who led an extraordinary, unconventional life, is worth examining. After becoming a child-widow in the 1870s, she remarried, studied and finally became a “lady doctor”. By the 19th century, the position of women in upper caste Hindu society had badly declined and they were subjected to wide-ranging oppressive practices. This female autobiography, which is unusually detailed, is a testimony to the oppressions that women were subjected to, but more importantly, their struggles and resistance against oppression.

Although she wrote her memoir in the 1920s, it remained unpublished during her lifetime. It is, indeed, a sad illustration of the marginalisation of women’s memoirs that many of them remained dusty and forgotten in family cupboards during their authors’ lifetime and were “rescued” and published decades later.3 Haimabati’s notebook too, written in Bengali, lay for two generations with her family and came to be fi nally translated and published only during her grandchildren’s time, almost 80 years after her death. In this paper, I intend to examine this memoir of an unusual woman and her striking life-story as narrated by herself. The idea would be to examine the key features of this memoir, and to situate this memoir within the gendered struggle for education and fi nancial independence that characterised women’s struggles in 19th century colonial India.

Gender Oppression: Childhood, Family and Child Marriage

Haimabati Ghosh was born the eldest and favourite child of her father’s, an affluent zamindar belonging to the Kulin Kayastha caste in Khulna, in East Bengal. As a child, a striking feature was her closeness to her father – something that remained lifelong. Although he was not interested in reform, he was indulgent to his highly intelligent firstborn during her childhood, allowing her to wear boys’ clothes and pick up some odd smattering of education from her boy cousins.

In contrast, the womenfolk in her family were far more traditional. Indeed, it has often been noted how women have been the self-appointed custodians of traditional practices. It was at the initiative of her tradition – upholding mother and grandmother – and very much against her father’s wishes – that Haimabati was married off at the age of nine and a half. Marriage in the Kulin subgroup of the three upper castes in Bengal

– viz, brahmins, Vaidyas and Kayasthas – had to be conducted within the same Kulin subgroup. Her female relatives, therefore, selected what they held was a “suitable” groom for her, viz, an affluent, Kulin Kayastha husband – 45 years of age, twice widowed, with two daughters nearly of her age. It was, of course, most commonplace to find a huge age gap between widower-grooms getting remarried to child-brides.

Although the groom was a deputy magistrate in the colonial bureaucracy, it did not stop the marriage from being conducted in violation of the minimum age of 10 which had been fixed in 1860 as the legal age of consummation of marriage for girls. The middle-aged husband turned out to be a debauchee, who had prostitutes coming to his room at night. But over and above that, the deputy magistrate had no compunctions about trying to consummate his marriage with a child – who was barely older than his own eldest daughter. In fact, she recalls how her step-daughters were her playmates: “My step-daughters and I had nothing to do. The three of us used to play with dolls in the afternoon” (p 84).

Haimabati frankly delineates how her husband made repeated attempts at sexual intercourse: “I would lie silently, stiff like a piece of wood. When I fell asleep, someone removed my clothes. I woke up, felt scared, and again wrapped my clothes around my body” (p 81). One night she witnessed her husband having sex with a prostitute:

One night, when I woke up at a very late hour because I wanted to go to the toilet, I saw the babu and a woman clasping each other and thrashing around... I lay like a corpse on my side of the bed. After a while they poured some drinks and drank together (p 84).

Another night, she accidentally woke up and witnessed an “unnatural” sexual act (details of which she does not divulge) being performed by them, and fainted out of shock at the sight: “After that – good heavens! When I saw what was going on I began to quake with fear and lost consciousness” (p 86). The prostitute, pouring water over the child-wife’s head to revive her, had rebuked the husband:

She has been scared by what you were up to. She is still shivering. Precious, don’t do such things again. She comes from a decent home and is a mere child...She has been scared by the very sight of what was going on...One should not do such things at home (p 86).

But the man, completely unabashed at this, had merely replied: “I think you are right, chum, the hussy (referring to Haimabati) probably saw what we were doing. But how else would she learn?” (p 86). Moreover, even after this, his efforts at sexual intercourse did not cease – although, he eventually failed to carry out his wishes. Looking back almost 50 years on this experience, Haimabati comments: “This gentleman, a Deputy Magistrate was a person of this sort! For shame, this man is my husband! I cannot put in words the sense of revulsion I felt” (p 86).

Negotiating Child Widowhood: Oppression and Resistance

Within a few months of her marriage, however, the debauched husband suddenly fell ill and died of pneumonia and liver abscess – leaving Haimabati a virgin child-widow at the age of

10.4 Initially, her mother-in-law called her “an ogress” (p 96) who had “eaten up” her son and made the dazed child-widow observe austerities: “I was not supposed to oil my hair at that time. For ten or twelve days I had to eat boiled rice I cooked myself...” (p 97). Gradually, the thought of being a widow started filling her with a nameless sense of shame: “I do not know why, but I had a deep feeling of shame and stopped going out of my room altogether. When no one was around, I would go once to the toilet and take my bath...” (p 97). Recollecting her feelings of helplessness, Haimabati recalls:

I just lay in a corner. My parents had fi nished their duty towards me. No one was responsible any longer for this child widow. If I needed a single pice, I would have to beg for it from others. What about my h usband – he had taken a third wife and thereby cut a child’s throat... (pp 97-98).

Gradually, however, her mother-in-law, who was essentially a kind-hearted woman, let her resume a “normal” life – wearing bangles, eating fish and retaining her long hair – and did not subject her to the disfigurements (e g, hair-shaving) and privations (dietary) usually meted out to widows. Haimabati helped out in domestic chores and studied in her free time; so much so, she did not even realise in the initial years what, in fact, it meant to be a widow.

Widowhood in the 19th century for upper caste women – including for child widows – meant social ostracisation and could involve domestic torture, starvation, physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of male relatives.5 De-sexualised in the “widow’s garb” (which in Bengal, was a white coloured dhoti), with heads sheared, widows had to eat spartanly, refrain from consuming fish (a great deprivation for a fi sh-eating community) and observe fasts (bratas) and penances.6 The banning of “heating” foods (e g, onions, garlic, masoor dal or red lentils) as well as non-vegetarian food items (e g, fi sh, meat, eggs) was meant to control the widow’s sexual urges, since these foods supposedly inflamed sexual passions.7 A widow’s sexuality was considered suspect and she was closely scrutinised for signs of bhog or “sensuous pleasure”; conversely, all signs of austerity or sadhvi traits were highly praised.8

In her delineation of her life as a widow, Haimabati underlines how her own relatives too abused her for “devouring” (p 99) her husband: “All their lamentations were for that old drunkard and whoremonger who had been their son-in-law for only a few days... I found in them no sympathy for me” (p 99). Several others – including her mother and grandmother – blamed her literacy for her widowhood. She recalls how one relative commented: “Everybody knew that she would be widowed if she learned to read and write” (p 99).

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Although her grief-stricken father tried to make some fi nancial arrangements for her, including earmarking a portion of his property to go to her, he too died all of a sudden, leaving her financially dependent and emotionally shattered, with “a terrible wound in my heart”:

Even now, I have not got over my regret that I could not see my father before he died. There was no one else who had been such a friend and well-wisher (p 115).

When, a few years later, her mother-in-law too passed away, the situation at her in-laws’ place sharply declined; Haimabati now suffered the typical widow’s fate of financial and physical deprivation and dispossession of property. Once, when her husband’s elder brother spent lavishly on his daughter’s wedding, she later discovered that the spending had been from her share of her husband’s money:

...all this money came from my husband’s savings. They had taken my signature to acquire the power of attorney… Though I had rights to my husband’s property, in effect, I was nothing but a slave dependent on them for my subsistence (p 118).

When the daily slights increased, she moved to her mother’s home and lived there for a few years. But when her mother died, she was left penniless, and her profligate brother started a life of excesses: “drinks, theatrical parties, evil company” (p 122) and cheated her of her jewellery. The result was that she soon found herself reduced to such penury that, on seeing her condition, a grieved well-wisher wept: “You are the daughter of such an eminent person. Whoever thought that they would reduce you to such a state?” (p 129).

Benares: ‘City of Widows’

Subjected to the daily “humiliation for my handful of rice!” (p 123), Haimabati, like innumerable widows before her, decided to move to Benares, the traditional place of refuge for Bengali widows. At Benares she decided to live in semi-starvation rather than accept help – not oiling her hair, subsisting on only “three handfuls of rice with salt” (p 134) and, as things increasingly got worse, going “without food for six or seven days” (p 136). Her austere existence won her the approval of the people around, who praised her as a “virtuous, ascetic widow” who showed signs of austerity and sadhvi traits – and most did not even notice she was starving.

The widows of Benares largely came from Bengal; behind their large presence at Kashi (Benares) and Vrindavan lay the Dayabhaga school of law prevailing in Bengal, which allowed the widow to inherit her husband’s property. Relatives, eager to misappropriate the widows’ property, would subject them to neglect and ill-treatment at home, hoping to drive them away and migrate to Benares. Thus, widows cheated of their inheritance by male relatives and reduced to penury, ended up taking refuge in Benares. Here they would try to get a morsel of food either by begging or singing bhajans at ashrams or temples which provided food and shelter in return; or in some desperate cases, by turning to prostitution for survival. In other cases they fell prey to the lust of priests or wandering pilgrims. I ndeed, many a time, widows who had fled to Benares in an attempt to escape sexual harassment or exploitation at home,

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soon discovered that there was no escape from these in Benares and this sometimes resulted in unwanted pregnancies, prostitution and widow-suicides.

Widowhood: Negotiating Sexual Vulnerability

Behind the sexual targeting of widows was their popular cultural association with sexual availability and, by extension, with prostitution. With regard to the Hindu widows of Benares, scholars have noted that in popular perception,

a widow is unguarded: without the protection of a husband, her adharmik nature is bound to assert itself. She is thus, like the prostitute, an embodiment of lustful and uncontrollable sexuality… many of the common words for widow, such as the Hindi rand or the Punjabi randi,


are obscene terms of abuse that also mean ‘a whore’.

“Benares”, a female acquaintance warns Haimabati at one point, “is not a good place for a young woman to live” (p 140). And indeed, she does find that young widows living in the “city of widows” are extremely vulnerable sexually; the lecherous behaviour she witnesses ranges from lewd comments passed at her by an 80-year-old man, to the sight of a “north Indian” pilgrim pinching a widow’s bottom throughout while circumambulating around a temple. In fact, when she had fi rst arrived at Benares, she had even been refused initial shelter by a cousin’s wife on sexual grounds:

You are a widow and you are also young and beautiful... People will say that you stay here as your cousin’s mistress. Who knows that there will be no liaison between the two of you? That is how people in Benares generally behave (p 132).

Of course, lecherous behaviour is something that she e ncounters everywhere – not only in Benares – ranging from propositions by a police constable in rural East Bengal to s eduction attempts by a raja (i e, rich zamindar), whose wife, she was later employed to teach. The point to be noted here is the manner in which she negotiates these situations without getting intimidated or losing her nerve.

Haimabati discovers that even the “homes for widows”, which were set up to provide protection from abuse, are not safe from sexual predators. During her boat journey to East Bengal she comes across one victim, a pretty, young pregnant widow named Tara, who sheds bitter tears and reveals how she had been promised marriage by the son of the head of the widows’ home where she had been living – but had been thrown out by his parents. When one recalls that such homes were an outcome of 19th century gender reform efforts, questions arise about the ground realities of such reformist steps. Gradually, Haimabati also realises another “great truth” about being a widow in a patriarchal society, i e, the sexual morality of a widow is always suspect – not only in the eyes of men, but even among women. When she travels around alone in East Bengal (after she has left Benares), curious village women speculate: “We have heard she is a great beauty. What can she be but a tart?” (p 172), leading her to bitterly raise questions regarding gender, society and perceptions about “morality/immorality”:

Do I have to suffer all this simply because I am a woman? Would anyone have inflicted so much suffering on a man? Why are they so worried as to as to whose wife I am or whose daughter? (p 184).

Negotiating and resisting patriarchy for Haimabati was through the means of “higher education”, the desire for which, she pointed out, “has persisted throughout my life” (p 139). Certainly, for a woman in the 1880s to pursue education – an activity prohibited for women – was to seriously challenge patriarchy. Of course, she recalls, while seriously challenging tradition, she had to face opposition and criticism from innumerable quarters:

My ambition was to study and do some prestigious work. I did not care

if people called me a Christian or whatever (p 149).

The passion for studying had, of course, been instilled in her early childhood years itself, when she had picked up the letters while playing with her male cousins and attending their lessons in the outer courtyard of their house. Later, her indulgent father had even allowed her to be taught by a teacher – despite angry protests from female family members.

Indeed, a burning, all-consuming passion for learning became the driving force of her life, sometimes even leading her to make rash decisions. For instance, one day, after she had settled down at Benares in modest, but respectable, employment as a teacher in a girls’ school, she suddenly decided to plunge out into the unknown city of Calcutta, merely for the sake of studying there:

I was making a fair living from my job as a teacher and I did not have

to worry about my subsistence. Yet I seemed to be obsessed with an

idea (viz, education) which I could not give up... (p 147).

Accompanied by a distant male relative, she leaves Benares and sets out for Calcutta (where all the major Brahmo educationists were located). Her plan is to seek out some of these famous educationists and reformers, live in one of the several widows’ homes set up at Calcutta by them, and study there.10 This journey bore no fruit, since she found in Calcutta that the famous educationists were busily preparing to leave for England. Although sympathetic, they could not help much. Undeterred by this failure, however, she set out for rural East B engal – but not to her brother’s house. Instead she sought out independent employment – briefly working as a teacher to the wife of a raja (zamindar); at other times receiving hospitality from various quarters.

At the same time, one notes, Haimabati’s leaving Benares is also a quest for an identity. One can read this journey of hers as a mission to carve out an independent “male-type” of identity for herself – based on courage, fi nancial independence and self-reliance. Thus, all her life, she seeks fi nancial independence

– first as a widow, and later on, as a remarried woman.

‘Conversion’, Widow Remarriage and Domesticity

Upper caste widow-remarriage was a vexed matter in the late 19th century; while it had been legalised in 1856, in reality, however, it hardly ever took place among upper caste Hindus.11 Haimabati’s memoir too shows widow marriage to be problematic. In 19th century Bengal, the cause of women, particularly of widows, was associated with the Brahmo Samaj. The samaj encouraged schools for girls, as well as the setting up of widows’ homes, where widows were provided shelter and i mparted education training. As Meredith Borthwick notes:

The Brahmo Samaj, and to a lesser extent, Christianity, held out hope for widows by waiving all the usual restrictions imposed upon them. On their own initiative, many widows escaped from their village homes to join a Brahmo community in one of the district towns or in Calcutta…There are records of a number of widows and kulin brides who were attracted to the Brahmo Samaj. Once they had joined, provisions were made for their education and vocational training, and sometimes also their remarriage.12

Haimabati becomes a Brahmo by her own choice – in an implicit rejection of brahminical Hinduism and its gender tyrannies. Indeed, conversion to Christianity (or to the Brahmo S amaj, in the case of Bengal) was a feature associated with a great deal of what may be termed 19th century “feminism”.13 However, Haimabati’s memoir strikingly shows contradictions even among some advanced Brahmo Samaj families, where unspoken prejudices still persist against marrying adult widows – thereby revealing a yawning gap between practice and precept. For instance, in the case of Tara, the pregnant young widow mentioned earlier, her Brahmo lover’s parents (who are in charge of that widows’ home) fi ercely opposed their marriage – even though they themselves had undergone a widow-remarriage.

Seeing the sexual dangers she was exposed to, wandering alone across the countryside, Haimabati’s friends and wellwishers urged her to get remarried (and implicitly secure male protection). She received four arranged marriage proposals from Brahmo Samajis (and in one instance, even from an “advanced” Hindu) – which was a fairly large number for an adult widow. But none of these proposals worked out for various reasons. Eventually, her marriage was arranged in 1890, with the help of well-wishers and friends, to Kunjabehari Sen, a low level Brahmo Samaj worker, at what was then considered to be the ripe old age of 25.

The marriage, however, turned out to be a difficult one for Haimabati. Due to her husband’s impractical and eccentric nature, they led for years a highly disrupted, nomadic and dysfunctional life. Nor was there any steady income; even after five children (four sons and one daughter) had been born, her husband remained blissfully unmindful about his responsibilities and unaffected by financial worries. As she puts it, “My debts were quite substantial by now…My husband was not worried about anything. All the worries were mine” (p 324).

Careers for Women: Medical Training

After her marriage, the need to financially support herself and her husband, led her to choose a medical education, which, “would make it possible for me to earn an independent income” (p 299). Moreover, “Many girls had joined medical schools at that time and I decided I would do the same” (p 290). Indeed, the medical profession was one of the earliest professions that Indian women entered, especially from the 1880s onwards, as Geraldine Forbes notes:14

Medicine was one of the new careers opened to Indian women in the late nineteenth century. Western medical training had long been available to Indian males but it was not until 1885 that Lady Dufferin… e stablished the National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India or the Dufferin Fund. This association

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provided financial assistance to women willing to be trained as doctors, hospital assistants, nurses, and midwives; aided in establishing medical training programmes for women; and encouraged construction of hospitals and dispensaries.15

Moreover, in Bengal, women could also earn a Vernacular Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery (VLMS) degree. In fact, the opening up of the Campbell Medical School to women students in 1888 marked an important step in that direction. L ocated in Calcutta, the Campbell Medical School conferred the VLMS degree on its graduates who were known as “hospital assistants”. Campbell classes were conducted in the vernacular by Indian teachers and taught from textbooks written in Bengali or translated from English. This institute trained students in the rudiments of medicine and some basic surgeries, with its graduates receiving the “inferior” VLMS degree (rather than the MB or MD degrees which were conferred on graduates of the Calcutta Medical College who were taught in English by British teachers).16 What made the Campbell school more accessible to a larger number of Indian women was that it did not require a knowledge of English or a formal education at the time of admission, while the Calcutta Medical College only admitted students holding a BA degree.

Despite the several, obvious disadvantages that they faced (low status, very poor salary), these Campbell “lady doctors” actually played an important role, especially in the districts and in rural areas. Even though they were hospital assistants rather than full-fledged doctors, they became, as Geraldine Forbes puts it, “the backbone of these small hospitals and dispensaries, staffing almost 90% of those set up by the Dufferin Fund as well as a number of government institutions”.17 The VLMS degree, thus, “prepared women with very little formal education to ‘assist’ doctors...Although these women held ‘inferior’ degrees, they were often put in charge of the hospitals that employed them”.18 Moreover, their greatest advantage was that because they “had grown up in Bengal, they knew the language and usually the local dialect where they practised” and were especially effective in home visits, which constituted the larger part of their consultations.19

Gender and Patriarchy in Medical College

Thus, with an infant in arms, Haimabati joined the Campbell Medical School in 1891 at the age of 26, along with a few other girls. She points out that her sharp intelligence – “My memory was quite good” (p 292) – served her in good stead and she immediately started to do extremely well in her studies.20 There were four females and 12 male students in her class. At the end of the first year, she “stood first in the examination and was awarded two scholarships for this” (p 298). Her innate courage, coupled with her sharp intelligence made her a good student:

I had no sense of fear and that is why I made very few mistakes. The

other girls were very jealous about this (p 299).

Later, when the final examinations took place (covering subjects like midwifery, surgery and surgical anatomy), it was found that she had actually topped the class, scoring more than all the male students. In fact, she had beaten the

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highest-scoring male candidate – who had secured the second highest position – by half a mark. As the “topper”, she qualifi ed for the gold medal. However, what followed was a shocking instance of crude, institutionalised gender discrimination. The boys in her college immediately went on strike in protest against her being awarded the gold medal. They formed pickets, stopped attending classes and even pelted the girl students’ carriage with bricks and stones. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that even the general public supported the boys. Letters in the newspapers joined in the fray; one reader even advised: “Why don’t we kill off that girl? That would be the end of the matter. It is a great mistake to pamper women” (p 302).

Shockingly enough, it was the boys who finally won the battle. They petitioned the inspector general and the lieutenant governor on this matter and the latter persuaded Haimabati, who, with characteristic pragmatism, readily agreed to relinquish her gold medal and settle for silver medals instead. Right now she needed money and her only request was that she be given a monthly scholarship of Rs 30 instead which would enable her to attend lectures at the Calcutta Medical College. One of the planks of the colonial “civilising mission” had, of course, been their programme of gendered social reform, and the “native” female uplift programme, including female education. Hence, the role of the colonial establishment in this instance raises questions about their avowed gendered intent.

Gender Contradictions: Self-subservience of the Female Breadwinner

Things stabilised financially only after Haimabati joined the Hooghly Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital, Chinsurah as a “lady doctor” “on a pay of fifty rupees a month” (p 325). With the job came free living quarters, and she was also allowed to have a private medical practice alongside. Thus, she started to receive an income from the hospital as well as from her private practice, becoming the family’s sole breadwinner. At this juncture, she performed the dual roles of the “male” breadwinner by going out into the public world (traditionally a “male” d omain), and earning money, and of the traditional “female” nurturing of looking after the home and children.

As a wife, Haimabati was sharp-tongued, mincing no words and they both had frequent arguments. However, one notes a profound contradiction in her with regard to the patriarchy she had fought and resisted all her life. The same woman who had displayed such fierce independence all her life, now suddenly showed unusual subservience. Like a docile “good wife”, she handed over all her earnings – starting with the money from her two scholarships during her medical school days:

I received the stipend from my scholarship every three months… I brought it home and handed it over to my husband and he spent it the way he considered best (p 296).

In fact, even after she had became a practising doctor and was earning well, she continued with this practice and gave him full control over the purse strings – clearly revealing how deeply rooted the internalisation of patriarchy can be. By casting herself in the traditional mould of a woman economically dependent on a husband, Haimbati creates an “imagined reality” of economic dependence for herself.

Since I handed over to my husband whatever I earned, I could not promise anything without first talking to him. I had to ask him if I needed even a single pice. I earned a lot at this time; I got three to four hundred rupees from my practice over and above my pay. I could not promise anything without asking him first (p 330).

Medical Career: Negotiating Sexual Harassment and Corruption at the Workplace

At this first job itself Haimabati was subjected to sexual harassment at the workplace by the assistant surgeon, Badrikanath Mukherji, who was her superior there:

The assistant surgeon was given the duty of helping the new lady doctor (viz, herself) learn her work. He would come to the hospital and talk rubbish. He would begin to talk of things which caused disease. When he raised the matter of shameful diseases, I moved away and told him, ‘I shall read up on the disease in books’. But he was not one to listen to that. The dirty beast said whatever came into his mind (p 328).

Her initial complaints (made to an English superior) were acted upon, and her tormentor was sternly warned not to enter the women’s ward in this purdah hospital. However, this relief was temporary. The furious Bengali assistant surgeon wreaked revenge on her by continuing to harass her in different ways (defecating at night near her kitchen, sending over goondas to her house at night, etc), and the police turned a deaf ear to her complaints, since the sub-inspector of Padma district was “a great friend of Doctor Badrika” (p 341).

Haimabati also frankly discloses other compromises that she had to make at her workplace. The most striking of them was the incident of a child of 11 dying in the hospital after marital rape by her husband – in an echo of the infamous Phulmani Dasi case of 1890 which sparked off a raging controversy over the minimum age of a girl-wife for the consummation of marriage.21

A hair-raising incident occurred around this time. A girl of eleven, in an oil presser’s family in British Chandernagore, was raped by her husband. She was haemorrhaging and it did not stop (p 334).

She was called one night to attend upon the profusely bleeding child. But despite all the combined efforts of the civil surgeon, the assistant surgeon and herself, the girl died. At that point, she voices her anger and outrage:

The girl died at three in the morning. They had not informed her parents. She had come to her in-laws’ house only for a few days before. This is what happened to her within those days (p 334).

The point to be noted is that this incident occurred after the passing of the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which had made it a criminal offence for a husband to have sexual intercourse with his child-wife until she was 12 years of age. Hence this incident was actually a criminal offence and should have been rightly a police case. However, Haimabati is forced to participate in a cover-up exercise carried out by the civil surgeon, Dr Kali Pado Gupta and his assistant surgeon, Dr Badrikanath Mukherjee (her sexual harasser). The civil surgeon gives a false certificate, stating that the girl was 14 years old and had died of “septicaemia from normal menstruation” (p 334). For this cover-up job, the civil surgeon was paid Rs 5,000; the assistant surgeon got Rs 1,000 and Haimabati was given Rs 500. Shocked that “they had taken a bribe and given a false death certificate”, she at first refused to accept the money, but her bosses browbeat and bullied her into taking it. Eventually, however, what worried her more in the long run was how to hide the bribe-money from her husband rather than the act of corruption itself! In other words, fear of the husband seemed stronger in her than a sense of moral outrage.

Colonial Interactions

What could the colonial interactions have been for a Bengali woman in the 19th century? Some interesting features emerge from Haimabati’s memoir. By and large, the image of colonialism that emerges from her experiences – however limited and abstruse they may be – is one of benevolence. Indirectly, she was indeed a beneficiary of the move to induct women into medical schools and the entire move to insert Indian women into medical training at various levels. This was, in fact, a result of the move initiated by the Countess of Dufferin Fund from the 1880s onwards.22

Beyond that, Europeans were a remote entity in rural Bengal and they crossed her path only occasionally. Once, during her travels, when she was cheated of her railway pass by a Eurasian Railway employee, the European station master had dispensed justice to her by punishing that Eurasian employee and making him compensate her financially. Similarly, when she had been sexually harassed by a Bengali doctor at her workplace, she had approached the European senior doctor, who had come to her rescue, by forbidding the Bengali doctor from entering the area, since it was supposed to be a “zenana” hospital. At the same time, however the image of the Europeans as “saviours” and dispensers of justice does occasionally stand dismantled – as happens in the episode concerning Haimabati’s gold medal, where the local colonial authorities had bent to popular pressure and taken it away from her.

Identity, Female Subjectivity and Agency

Female subjectivity and female agency predominate the narrative, as Haimabati is shown to take control of her life time and again. She takes decisions for herself which are often hazardous and which sometimes radically challenged received 19th century wisdom. Risks are taken by her in a singleminded pursuit of education and the assertion of her own identity – in the process, often flying in the face of custom in achieving her objective.

There are four key aspects in her life which mark out her life as extraordinary. First, she was a literate woman in an age when female literacy was taboo; second, she was a child-widow who remarried, with no family support, at the age of 23; third, she went to great difficulties and even dangers in her passion for learning; and lastly, she became a “lady doctor” and managed both ghar and bahir in her life. In all this she

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displayed a female subjectivity which was the driving force of her life.

Her female subjectivity and agency are also reflected in her taking three key related decisions all on her very own, viz, the decision to be on her own without family support; the decision to convert from Hinduism to the reformist Brahmo Samaj religion which afforded women higher social status and encouraged female education and widow remarriage; and the decision to educate herself at the medical college and b ecome a doctor.

She emerges as a highly intelligent, opinionated and outspoken woman who minced no words. She carved out for herself the identity of a rebel. Discussing the issue of identity, one can also see, on her part, the appropriation of a “male” identity. Indeed, there was a blurring of gender identities from her childhood itself, when she was affectionately nicknamed Chuni Babu (or “little mister Chuni”) by her indulgent father. In some sense, she even appropriated a male identity for herself – for instance, by dressing as a boy during her childhood and playing with her male cousins in the family courtyard and sitting with them during their lessons.

This kind of “male” identity coloured the rest of her life and governed her persona as well. Equally “masculine” is the scientifi c temper and the tone of scientifi c scrutiny that she adopts. In fact, the narrative tone is that of a detached, rational, scientific narrator, compiling detailed, empirical observations about her life, based on a careful accumulation of details and seeking to recall facts with accuracy and veracity. This feeds into both the scientific temper of a “lady doctor” as well.

Feminist Critique of Patriarchal Society

Haimabati displays a feminist perspective and critiques prevailing gender inequalities in the upper caste Hindu society. The issue of child marriage – and the dangers of marital rape that a minor wife was constantly exposed to – are spelled out without any effort at euphemisms in the narrative. Hence, as a narrator, she talks frankly about sex and sexuality (e g, her witnessing of sexual intercourse as a child-bride). This is indeed quite an unusual feature, especially given the fact that sex and sexual matters were considered unsuitable topics to enunciate in the 1870s.

The first gender issue that Haimabati critiques is that of child marriage. She draws attention to it through her own experience of marriage to a twice-widowed man old enough to be her father. She had vividly captured the psychological traumas of a child torn from her familiar surroundings and subjected to attempted sexual assaults by a middle-aged husband, as well as the narrow escape she had from marital rape. Especially, censured by her was child-rape by aged husbands and the manner in which child-wives were initiated into sexually active lives at a premature age.

Haimabati reserved her strongest condemnation for widower-remarriage, where aged widowers took as brides girl-children who were sometimes younger than their children by his previous wives. When her first husband’s seven-year-old daughter who looked seriously ill, she makes the acerbic

Economic & Political Weekly

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comment that “the father wanted to remarry when his child was virtually on her deathbed” (p 98). Later, when she becomes a widow, her critique of society is sharp:

Shame on you, Hindu society, great is your glory! A girl of ten will have to pay for the marriage of an old man of fifty. I bow a thousand times at the feet of parents who would in this way turn a daughter’s life into a desert. In no other country does one find either such a society or such conduct. Such oppression of women is possible only in I ndia; in no other country are such customs in vogue. I was but a mere child and I had already relieved my parents of all their responsibilities for me and become a slave dependent on my husband’s elder brothers… I would be a slave to other people’s whims for a handful of rice (p 98).

Indeed, in later years too she harshly condemns old widowers who were eager to get remarried. After she has grown into a beautiful young woman, she roundly tells off an old widower doctor who is all eyes for her and wants to marry her. To the person who has brought the old man’s marriage proposal, she gives the advice that he should get his widowed daughter married instead: “He has a 20 year old widowed daughter. I nstead of arranging her marriage, he wants to get married himself” (p 211).

The gendered evils critiqued are patriarchal practices such as enforced female illiteracy, child marriage and the continuing prejudice against widow remarriage. In this respect, gendered reform is clearly associated with the Brahmo Samaj. Thus, when she seeks higher education she aims to go to Calcutta, where she seeks out leading Brahmo educationists (who are based in that city), who favour female education. In fact, in course of her widowhood, she even opts to convert to the Brahmo Samaj because of the greater respect that it has for women – seen especially in its encouragement of female education as well its treatment of widows, and especially its promotion of widow remarriage.

After she becomes a doctor, she complains how even in the medical profession women doctors are fi nancially disadvantaged, the profession being dominated by male physicians. In one instance, while the male doctor, a senior man, is paid Rs 1,000 in a particular delivery case; he pays the midwife Rs 100 and to the lady doctor (Haimabati) he pays only Rs 50, leading her to complain in her narrative,

Lady doctors and midwives were but pawns in the hands of the male doctors…when I thought of these things, I lamented the fact that we were born as women (p 317).

At the same time, Haimabati’s persona also reveals complexities and unexpected contradictions. Hence, intelligent, fearless, independent-minded and critical of patriarchal domination as she is, she nevertheless behaves like the most unquestioning pativrata nari when she meekly hands over her earnings regularly to her ne’er-do-well husband – although she is the sole breadwinner.

Gender Solidarity through Female Suffering

Female sisterhood is a distinct trope in this personal narrative. In course of her life and her wanderings through Benares, Calcutta and through different villages of East Bengal, Haimabati received sympathy and help from diverse women, many of them utter strangers. One is struck also by the com-after they have grown old, or from brothers who cheat and rob mon sympathy and understanding that seems to have bound them of their money and ornaments. them together in an intangible, unspoken bond of common female suffering. Thus, she receives greater sympathy from Conclusions her brother’s wife (rather than from her own brother) after Increasingly, women’s personal testimonies are being recogshe is widowed. Similarly, in Benares one woman gives her nised as an important historical source for studying history, shelter, and another rich woman installs her in the school. especially gender history. Haimabati Sen’s extraordinary She calls many women didi (older sister); she even fi nds a memoir maps the nuances, the twists and turns of the immeas“mother” during her wanderings in rural East Bengal, an old urably long journey of a woman in 19th century rural East Benmarried woman whom she helps, and who in turn, “adopts” gal from becoming a child-widow at the age of 10 to fi nally beher as a daughter, showering sympathetic love and affection coming a lady doctor (hospital assistant) in the Hooghly Lady on her. In turn, she too is especially helpful to women, in-Dufferin Women’s Hospital. Hence, perhaps one of the most cluding utter strangers; helping them in innumerable ways: valuable dimensions of this autobiography is the light it throws in domestic chores, or in writing and reading out letters on women’s lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It for them. In other words, she is not merely a recipient of reveals the complex and contradictory relations within the help from female sympathisers, but in fact, an active giver of family, the diverse forms of gendered oppressions, the negotiahelp as well. tions and struggles against patriarchal tendencies in society,

Hence, one notes that there is almost a network of womanly as well as the contradictions and even compromises within the sympathy and support – which actually, in effect, carries an forms of negotiation. In addition, this autobiography traces the unspoken critique of patriarchy under which they are all fel-growth of selfhood, female subjectivity, the exercise of female low-sufferers. In one way or the other, these women have suf-agency and self-assertion as well as the carving out of an idenfered at the hands of male family members – from husbands tity in the cultural and historical context of gender oppression who drink and ill-treat them, from sons who abandon them in late 19th century colonial India.


1 For the linkages between colonialism and the rise of the novel in 19th century India, see Meenakshi Mukherjee, Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India, 1985; Reprinted (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010.

2 The Memoirs of Haimabati Sen: From Child Widow to Lady Doctor (ed.) by Geraldine Forbes and Tapan Raychaudhuri (New Delhi: Roli Books), 2000.

3 Haimabati’s memoir was “re-discovered” in its notebook form by gender historian Geraldine Forbes in the course of her interactions with the former’s great-grandson. After being translated by Tapan Raychaudury, the highly detailed memoir, totalling 400 pages, was then published (with some amount of diffi culty in finding an interested publisher) as late as 2003.

4 This phase of widowhood in Haimabati’s life stretched for a period of 13 years (from c 1876 till 1890). Initially, she stayed on in her in-laws’ house; but following her kind mother-in-laws’ death, she shifted to her parents’ house; fi nally, having to go away to Benares. Later, she wandered about in Calcutta and East Bengal, in search of study and employment.

5 For details about the sufferings of widows see the anthology of writings on widows, including fi rstperson narratives by widows, see Uma Chakravarti and Preeti Gill (ed.), Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood, 2001 (New Delhi: Zubaan), 2007.

6 For details see Parvatibai Athavale, Hindu Widow: An Autobiography, trans. Rev Justin E Abbott, 1930; Reprinted (New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House), 1986, pp 46-54.

7 For further details on widows in Bengal, see Tanika Sarkar, “Wicked Widows: Law and Faith in Nineteenth Century Public Sphere Debates” in Tanika Sarkar, Rebels, Wives, Saints: Designing Selves and Nations in Colonial Times

(New Delhi: Permanent Black), 2009, pp 121-52.

8 See Sumit Sarkar, “Vidyasagar and Brahminical Society” in Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1997, pp 242-81.

9 See Lynn Tesky Denton and Steve Collins, Female Ascetics in Hinduism (Albany: SUNY Press), 2004, p 45.

10 She did finally succeed in studying several years later and becoming a lady doctor’. In the interim period of several years she went back to East Bengal and wandered all over the countryside – briefly working as a teacher to a raja’s wife, at other times receiving hospitality from various quarters.

11 See Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, “Caste, Widow-Remarriage and the Reform of Popular Culture in Colonial Bengal” in Bharati Ray (ed.), From the Seams of History: Essays on Indian Women (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1995, pp 8-36; see also Carroll, Lucy. “Law, Custom and Statutory Social Reform: The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856” in J Krishnamurthy (ed.), Women in Colonial India: Essays on Survival, Work and the State (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1989.

12 Meredith Borthwick, The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905 (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p 143.

13 For a discussion of the link between conversion to Christianity and “feminism” in the 19th century in the case of Maharashtra, see Padma Anagol, “Indian Christian Women and Indigenous Feminism, c 1850 – c 1920” in Clare Midgely (ed.), Gender and Imperialism (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press), 1998, pp 79-103; and Padma Anagol, The Emergence of Feminism in India, 1850-1920 (London: Ashgate), 2006.

14 Early female doctors included Kadambini Basu in Bengal, who passed out of the Calcutta Medical College in 1886, and Anandibai Joshi in Maharashtra, who passed out from the Women’s Medical College, Philadelphia, also in 1886.

15 Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India, The New Cambridge History of India, Vol IV.2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1998; Reprint, 2007, p 161. Forbes discusses early women doctors, pp 161-67.

16 The Campbell Schools, their pattern of education, the type of employment they generated as well as the kind of patients these hospital assistants catered to are discussed in great detail in the chapters “Education to Earn: Training Women in the Medical Professions”, and “Medicine for Women: ‘Lady Doctors’ in the Districts of Bengal” in Geraldine Forbes, Women in Colonial India: Essays on Politics, Medicine, and Historiography (New Delhi: Chronicle Books), 2005; reprinted, 2008, pp 114-17 and pp 121-33.

17 Geraldine Forbes, Women in Colonial India, p 116.

18 Geraldine Forbes, Women in Colonial India, p 117.

19 Geraldine Forbes, Women in Colonial India, p 136. Regarding home visits, Reports from Dacca and Mymensingh confirmed that “lady doctors treated more than ten times as many women in their homes as in the hospital”. For details see Geraldine Forbes, Women in Colonial India, p 133.

20 The Campbell Medical School started admitting women students from 1888. For details see Geraldine Forbes, “Medicine for Women: Lady Doctors in the Districts of Bengal” in Geraldine Forbes, Women in Colonial India, pp 121-40.

21 In 1890, 11-year-old Phulmani was subjected to violent sexual intercourse by her husband Hari Maiti aged 35, resulting in her death. Following the huge controversy that ensued after this incident, the Age of Consent Act was passed in 1891, raising the age of consent from 10 to 12. For a discussion see the two chapters, “Conjugality and Hindu Nationalism: Resisting Colonial Reason and the Death of a Child-wife”; and “A Pre-History of Rights? The Age of Consent Debates in Colonial Bengal” in Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism, 2001; Reprinted (New Delhi: Permanent Black), 2005, pp 191-225; and pp 226-49.

22 For details about the Dufferin Fund see Maneesha Lal, “The Politics of Gender and Medicine in Colonial India: The Countess of Dufferin’s Fund, 1885-1888” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine 68, No 1, Spring 1994, pp 29-66.

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