My Future Visit in America
& Public Inquiries Regarding It
February 24, 1883 — Serampore College, Serampore, West Bengal, India
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, — I stand here to fail, as I am not likely to succeed. I am however exceedingly thankful to you for the trouble you have taken to attend this meeting. You have have gathered here anxiously to hear of some interesting subject, but I am afraid you will be disappointed to hear me talking of an uninteresting one. But what should I do? There is no remedy. Had it been in my power to give you a pleasing address, I would have done so. The only attempt I have ever made to speak in public is this. I have studied but a little while and the language which I intend to speak in, is not only foreign but thoroughly out of command, and entirely unused. I am therefore liable to make thousands of blunders even in grammar. Many of those who are present here, are mere school-boys who will rejoice to find that I am not equal to themselves: the young will laugh and the old will pity my ignorance.
I wish I had better knowledge of the language to attract the attention of you all. Pardon me for the disappointment you will have to suffer. I do not wish to tire you by a long preface, and as I want your unfatigued attention to a long narration, I beg to discontinue it.
I wish to thank the College authorities for allowing me to stand here, more especially the Rev. Mr. Summers for presiding.
Our subject to-day is, “My future visit to America, and public inquiries regarding it.”
I am asked hundreds of questions about my going to America. I take this opportunity to answer some of them.
1. Why do I go to America?
2. Are there no means to study in India?
3. Why do I go alone?
4. Shall I not be excommunicated on my return?
5. What shall I do if misfortune befall me?
6. Why should I do what is not done by any of my sex?
1. I go to America because I wish to study medicine. I now address the ladies present here, who will be the better judges of the importance of female medical assistance in India. I never consider this subject without being surprised that none of those societies so laudably established in India for the promotion of sciences and female education have ever thought of sending one of their female members into the most civilized parts of the world to procure thorough medical knowledge, in order to open here a College for the instruction of women in medicine. There is probably no country so barbarous as India that would not disclose all her wants and try to stand on her own feet. The want of female physicians in India is keenly felt in every quarter. Ladies both European and Native are naturally averse to expose themselves in cases of emergency to treatment by doctors of the other sex. There are some female doctors in India from Europe and America, who being foreigners and different in manners, customs and language, have not been of such use to our women as they might. As it is very natural that Hindu ladies who love their own country and people should not feel at home with the natives of other countries, we Indian women absolutely derive no benefit from these foreign ladies.
They indeed have the appearance of supplying our need, but the appearance is delusive. In my humble opinion there is a growing need for Hindu lady doctors in India, and I volunteer to qualify myself for one.
2. Are there no means to study in India?
No. I do not mean to say there are no means, but the difficulties are many and great. There is on College at Madras, and midwifery classes are opened in all the Presidencies; but the education imparted is defective and not sufficient, as the instructors who teach the classes are conservative, and to some extent jealous. I do not find fault with them. That is the characteristic of the male sex. We must put up with this inconvenience until we have a class of educated ladies to relieve these men.
I am neither a Christian nor a Brahmo. To continue to live as a Hindu and go to school in any part of India is very difficult. A convert who wears an English dress is not so much stared at. Native Christian ladies are free from the opposition or public scandal which Hindu ladies like myself have to meet within and without the zenana. If go alone by train or in the street some people come near to stare and ask impertinent questions to annoy me. Example is better than precept. Some few years ago, when I was in Bombay, I used to go to school. When people saw me going with my books in my hands, they had the goodness to put their heads out of the window just to have a look at me. Some stopped their carriages for the purpose. Others walking in the streets stood laughing, and crying out so that I could hear: —
“What is this? Who is this lady who is going to school with boots and stockings on?”
“Does not this show that the Kali Uga has stamped its character on the minds of the people?”
Ladies and gentlemen, you can easily imagine what effect questions like these would have on your minds if you had been in my place!
Once it happened that I was obliged to stay in school for some time, and go twice a day for my meals to the house of a relation.
Passers-by, whenever they saw me going, gathered round me. Some of them made fun, and were convulsed with laughter. Others, sitting respectably in their verandahs, made ridiculous remarks, and did not feel ashamed to throw pebbles at me. The shopkeepers and venders spit at the sight of me, and made gestures too indecent to describe. I leave it to you to imagine what was my condition at such a time, and how I could gladly have burst through the crowd to make my home nearer!
Yet the boldness of my Bengali brethren cannot be exceeded, and is still more serious to contemplate than the instances I have given from Bombay. Surely it deserves pity! If I go to take a walk on the strand, Englishmen are not so bold as to look at me. Even the soldiers are never troublesome; but the Babus lay bare their levity by making fun of everything. “Why are you?” “What caste do you belong to?” “Whence do you come? “Where do you go?” are, in my opinion, questions that should not be asked by strangers. There are some educated native Christians here in Serampore who are suspicious; they are still wondering whether I am married or a widow; a woman of bad character or excommunicated! Dear audience, does it become my native and Christian brethren to be so uncharitable? Certainly not. I place these unpleasant things before you, that those whom they concern most may rectify them, and those who have never thought of the difficulties may see that I am not going to America through any whim or caprice.
3. Why do I go alone? It was at first the intention of my husband and myself to go together, but we were forced to abandon this thought. We have not sufficient funds; but that is not the only reason. There are others still more important and convincing. My husband has his aged parent and younger brothers and sisters to support. You will see that his departure would throw those dependent upon him into the arena of life, penniless and alone. How cruel and inhuman it would be for him to take care of one soul and reduce so many to starvation! Therefore I go alone.
4. Shall I not be excommunicated when I return to India? Do you think I should be filled with consternation at this threat? I do not fear it in the least. Why should I be cast out, when I have determined to live there exactly as I do here? I propose to myself to make no change in my customs and manners, food or dress. I will go as a Hindu, and come back here to live as a Hindu. I will not increase my wants, but be as plain and simple as my forefathers, and as I am now. If my countrymen wish to excommunicate me, why do they not do it now? They are at liberty to do so. I have come to Bengal and to a place where there is not a single Maharastra. Nobody here knows whether I behave according to my customs and manners, or not. Let us therefore cease to consider what may never happen, and what, when it may happen, will defy human speculation.
5. What will I do if misfortune befall me? Some persons fall into the error of exaggerated declamation, by producing in their talk examples of national calamities and scenes of extensive misery which are found in books rather than in the world, and which, as they are horrid, are ordained to be rare. A man or a woman who wishes to act does not look at that dark side which others easily foresee. On necessary and inevitable evils which crush him or her to dust, all dispute is vain. When they happen they must be endured, but it is evident they are oftener dreaded than experienced. Whether perpetual happiness can be obtained in any way, this world will never give us an opportunity to decide. But this we may say, we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible means. It is not a thing which may be divided among a certain number of men. It depends upon feeling. If Death be only miserable, why should some rejoice at it, while others lament? On the other hand, Death and Misery come alike to good and bad, virtuous and vicious, rich and poor, travellers and housekeepers; all are confounded in the misery of famine, and not greatly distinguished in the fury of faction. No man is able to prevent any catastrophe. Misery and Death are always near, and should be expected. When the result of any hazardous work is good, we praise the enterprise which undertook it; when it is evil, we blame the imprudence. The world is always ready to call enterprise imprudence when fortune changes.
Some say that those who stay at home are happy, but where does their happiness lie? Happiness is not a ready-made thing to be enjoyed because one desires it. Some minds are so fond of variety that pleasure if permanent would be insupportable, and they solicit happiness by courting distress. To go to foreign countries is not bad, but in some respects better than to stay in one place. The study of people and places is not to be neglected. Ignorance when voluntary is criminal. In going to foreign countries, we may enlarge our comprehension, perfect our knowledge, or recover lost arts. Every one must do what he thinks right. Every man has owed much to others. His effort ought to be to repay what he has received. Let us follow the advice of Goldsmith who says: “Learn to pursue virtue of a man who is blind, who never takes a step without first examining the ground with his staff.” I take my Almighty Father for my staff, who will examine the path before He leads me further. I can find no better staff than He.
And last you ask me, why I should do what is not done by any of my sex? To this I can only say, that society has a right to our work as individuals.
It is very difficult to decide the duties of individuals. It is enough that the good of one must be the good of all. If anything seems best for all mankind, each one of us must try to bring it about. According to Manu, one desertion of duty is an unpardonable sin. So I am surprised to hear that I should not do this, because it has not been done by others. Our ancestors whose names have become immortal had no such notions in their heads. I ask my Christian friends, “Do you think you would have been saved from your sins, if Jesus Christ, according to your notions, had not sacrificed his life for you all?” Did he shrink at the extreme penalty that he bore while doing good? No, I am sure you will never admit that he shrank! Neither did our ancient kings “Shibi” and “Mayuradhwaj.” To desist from duty because we fear failure or suffering is not just. We must try. Never mind whether we are victorious or victims. Manu has divided people into three classes. The meanest are those who never attempt anything for fear of failure. Those who begin, and are disheartened by the first obstacles, come next; but those who begin, and persevere through failure and obstacle, are those who win.
The greater the difficulty, the greater our courage. Never let us desist from what we once begin.
I have done. I am afraid I have exhausted your patience for which I beg to be excused.
Source: The Life of Dr. Anandabai Joshee: A Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai, by Caroline Wells Healey Dall (Boston: Roberts Brothers) 1888, pp. 82-91.