In 1883, an eighteen-year-old Indian woman named Anandi Joshee sailed alone from Calcutta to New York with the goal of becoming a doctor. Having witnessed the suffering of women, Anandi hoped to help create a culture that saw women as deserving and capable of equality with men.
Anandi’s husband Gopal tutored her and fostered her ambition. Her American champion was Theodocia Carpenter, a New Jersey housewife who initiated a three-year correspondence with Anandi, offering “all possible help.” With her determination and grace, Anandi won the support of all—critics and skeptics and Indians, Americans, as well as British—who crossed her path.
The purpose of my blog has always been to bring lesser-known books to the fore. Worthy reads that have missed the hype. Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions by Nandini Patwardhan is one such book.
A biography unlike any other, it depicts the life of Dr. Anandi Joshee. A woman struggling with gender bias. A child bride growing up in a vindictive family. With an abusive husband, who supported her education but with his own agenda. One who suffered a miscarriage since male doctors were not allowed to treat female patients. One who decided to become a doctor so that women could receive good and timely medical care.
I had previously read the author’s collaborative book, Train Friends with Ranjani Rao, and was eager to pick this one too. The writing is simple and easy to read. The charm of the book is the letters written by Dr. Anandi to “her aunt” Theodocia Carpenter. The author has painstakingly built up the narrative based on original letters, university archives, and newspaper account. They give a very personal insight into the mental makeup of the person. The author also includes her opinions to connect the missing pieces.
History celebrates success. Very few people have heard of Dr. Anandi Joshee. Perhaps because she survived only a few months after receiving her medical degree. Dr. Anandi had to struggle with her dietary restrictions as a devout Hindu and her attire (a saree) in the cold climate. The book raises a pertinent question. If she had the freedom to eschew the restrictions, she would surely have had an easier path and it would have preserved her health.
America adopted her as a niece before India could fully accept her. What could have otherwise been a dry collection of letters is indeed an inspiring story. The book is also an honest depiction of British India and post-Civil War America. The book focuses on the plight of women in the 1890s. Racism. Misogyny. The different versions of faith. The complete lack of medical treatment for women in India.
The narrative could have been tighter but the context of the book more than makes up for it. It is one of those hidden gems and I highly recommend it.A biography unlike any other. Radical Spirits: India's First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions by @nandiniwriter #BookReview #BohoPonderings #MyFriendAlexa Click To Tweet
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About the author
Nandini Patwardhan grew up in Mumbai and has lived in the United States for over thirty-five years. She possesses a graduate degree in Mathematics from the acclaimed Indian Institute of Technology and is a former software developer. When writing this book, Patwardhan called upon her insider-outsider perspective in both countries she calls home.
I would like to thank Netgalley and Story Artisan Press for providing a copy of the book for review. All opinions are my own.
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