Buffer In the latest column for Schools Improvement, The School Doctor reports on a summer reading about a Bengali doctor born years ago… Summer is the time of year when many people — especially teachers — catch up on the reading they meant to do over the course of the rest of the year. Sen was married at the age of nine to a man thirty-six years her senior. He died within a year of that marriage. As a widow, Sen was spurned by society as she was considered to attract adversity. When her parents also died shortly after, she was left alone. She had five biological children, four of whom were more preoccupied with themselves than helping their mother.
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Professor, Deptt. Of English Srikrishna College, Bagula, Nadia West Bengal, India In her autobiography, The Memoirs of Haimabati Sen, the author has traced her journey from being a child-widow to one of the earliest Indian lady doctors in the 19thth centuries when India was under the colonial rule. Though the autobiography was written in the s, it remained unpublished during her lifetime, as was the case with so many of the works by women during that period and even later.
Many of them which might have been written remained forgotten and lay unnoticed in family trunks and cupboards for decades and only discovered much later long after the death of their authors.
It was written in Bengali, her mother-tongue, and later translated into English. The fact that it portrays the exemplary life and journey of a young widow in colonial India in becoming a doctor resisting patriarchy in different forms is the main focus, but another thing of utmost importance is that of autobiography writing by women. We may rightly say that female autobiography-writing is a by-product of colonialism.
It instilled in women a kind of self-worth and self- esteem, and made women realize that they were individuals too other than just being mother, daughter, wife or sister and paved the way for autobiography writing. That was only a handful of them and therein lies the importance of the work of Haimabati Sen.
Her extraordinary life, her undaunting thirst for education and her exemplary courage are worth viewing. Haimabati Sen, nee Ghosh was born to an affluent Zamindar family of undivided India in Khulna district, now in Bangladesh. The author has narrated how she would wear the dress of her male cousins and sit with them to study and with her exceptional intelligence would soon outshine her siblings.
Her love for her father, her closeness to him more than her mother, and the support she derived from him are memories that Haimabati cherishes most throughout the autobiography. In fact, one of her misfortunes was that she never got the kind of support from the women of her family, that which her father gave her. And it was not uncommon during that period when we find not only the males but women assuming the role of moral guardians of the traditional practices, especially older women who themselves have been victims of oppression and discrimination.
He had two daughters almost the age of Haimabati and she says that the two were her playmates. We would play dolls in the afternoon. The husband was a lecherous rogue who regularly brought home prostitutes at night and would have sexual activities with them on the same bed where Haimabati would lay pretending to be asleep.
A striking feature of her autobiography is the tremendous frankness with which she delineates her sexual experiences, something which was very uncommon especially by women during that period. But try as he much the middle-aged husband of hers was eventually not able to succeed in his endeavours. One such night she woke up to see a sexual act so horrible and unusual that she fainted with fear. She comes from a decent home and is a mere child…. Her husband died of pneumonia and liver abscess when she was barely ten years old leaving her a virgin child-widow.
Observance of austerities like not having non-vegetarian food, eating meagerly and sleeping on floors, de-sexualizing them in white garbs and short hair were common fate meted out to widows in those days. Even child-widows were not shown any kind of mercy in most cases. Widowhood was the greatest curse and the strongest means of oppression in 19th century Indian society. Domestic torture, starvation and sexual abuse by male members of the household were almost everywhere. The widows had no voice to protest as they had nowhere to go.
And even if some of them left their homes they were equally vulnerable in the outside world too. In most cases they had no financial means to support themselves and so had to be at the mercy of their abusers. We get a vivid picture of the lives of widows in 19th century in this autobiography as Haimabati herself was one and she had to go through these oppressions of society.
Haimabati was appalled to see that all sympathy was for that drunkard debaucher and not any for her. Moreover, even her mother said that her literacy was responsible for her widowhood. It was the greatest loss of her life.
She had nobody to turn to, nobody to sustain her financially or physically. She did not have any financial support and her condition became similar to the hundreds of widows in then Bengal. They even cheated her of her jewellery leaving her reduced to penury. In those days Benaras and Kashi happened to be the traditional refuge of widows mainly from Bengal. That is one of the important reasons that the widows were ill-treated at home.
Haimabati too, unable to bear the humiliation home decided to go there. Benaras, though, was the least safe haven of the widows. Nearly all sorts of discrimination and exploitation of widows went on there in the name of religion. The widows would subsist themselves by begging or singing religious songs in temples and streets. Many of them, unable to bear the pain of starvation, even resorted to prostitution.
But Haimabati decided to live on herself without help even if she had to live on half-starvation. She points out the poignant irony when she says that many widows, trying to escape sexual exploitation at home would flee to Benaras only to fall a prey to lecherous priests and others.
The usual perception was that a widow is unguarded and easily attainable as she does not have a husband to protect her. It was really such a hopeless condition for the widows of that time.
During the period of her living in Benaras, Haimabati realized what a vulnerable situation the widows there were. She herself had to bear lewd remarks from young and old alike.
She tells of an incident when she saw a person pinching the bottom of a widow all the while he was inside the temple. But where would she or any other widow go? It was the same from Bengal to Benaras. Widows were everywhere exposed to the onslaughts of men. Even widow homes were no better. The guardians became assaulters resulting in unwanted widow pregnancies in many cases. Haimabati herself experienced many such instances of lecherous behavior in various parts of Benaras as well as East Bengal but what is worth noticing is that even in this situation and all by herself Haimabati keeps her nerves and does not succumb to any pressure of any sort.
That definitely tells a lot about her character. Everybody took for granted that that widow would be morally and physically corrupt. Even Haimabati was thought to be so. So we can well imagine the kind of resistance Haimabati had to show in the face of this huge discrimination and exploitation of widows in that patriarchal structure.
Would anyone have inflicted so much suffering on a man? Why are they so worried as to whose wife I am or whose daughter? She was always keen to learn from her childhood and now she decided that the only way she can be financially independent and earn respect of society is through education. And this decision in itself was to question and challenge patriarchy because female education in 19th century and that too by a widow was something unimaginable.
But Haimabati was determined to pursue her childhood passion and love for studies and in order to fulfill her dream of higher studies she leaves the decent job of a teacher in Benaras and comes to Calcutta now Kolkata with a distant relative.
Seeing that converting to a Brahmo would provide her with an opportunity to go to schools founded by them, Haimabati became a Brahmo by choice. In fact, in those days many young widows would convert into BrahmoSamaj to escape the tyrannies of Hindu religion.
Though inside Brahmos also there were many people with traditional views, who were against widow remarriage, still it was a far better option for Haimabati. The Brahmos had homes for widows and Haimabati thought that she could find shelter in those homes and pursue her studies in Brahmo a school. Haimabati recounts how in spite of the widow remarriage law passed in , it was still difficult for Hindu and sometimes even Brahmo widows to get remarried.
Inner society was so very resistant to change. Haimabati, however, was urged by her friends and well-wishers to get remarried because she needed the protection of a husband in the face of the various sexual dangers prevalent in society.
She married Kunjabihari Sen, a low level BrahmoSamaj worker. She was 25 then. Haimabati decided to join the medical profession in order to sustain her family financially.
She had three sons and a daughter but her husband was not the hard-working type. He would not even bother to take the responsibilities of his family and remained blissfully unaware of them.
So Haimabati had to take the financial burden. It was easier for Indian students to learn medical science from there because it taught in the vernacular language and mostly by Indian teachers.
The books were also vernacular translation of English. Haimabati, already mother of a new born child, joined the Campbell Medical School and with her sharp intelligence and passion for studies stood first in the examination out of 4 female and 12 male students winning the gold medal. The fact that a girl had topped the examination did not go down well with the male students and they protested against it by calling strikes, forming pickets and boycotting classes.
They even pelted the carriages of the other girl- students with stones and bricks. That would be the end of the matter. It is a great mistake to pamper women. But the incident raised serious questions on the prevailing patriarchy of even the British rulers. She also got free accommodation and carried on private medical practice.
All this helped her consolidate the financial condition of her family. But character so firm, independent and self- sufficient also showed a strange contradiction of nature. Whatever Haimabati earned she gave all the earnings to her husband. Even in her workplace Haimabati could not escape sexual harassment and she has been exceptionally frank in disclosing the compromises she had to make in her working career.
One of her first sexual assaulters was her superior, Badrinath Mukherjee. When Haimabati complained against him to an English superior Badrinath was given a stern warning but that incident only made matters worse for her. The enraged senior started making life hell for her by defecating in front of her kitchen at night, sending goons to her house and others. The police never bothered to act upon her complaint because the doctor was a friend of the sub- inspector there. Haimabati had to make compromises of other sorts as well as when a young 11 year old child bride was admitted to the hospital bleeding profusely as a result of marital rape.
It was illegal then to consummate marriage before 12 years of age according to the Age of Consent Act of and eventually the girl died. Not only that, she was given Rs for the cover-up job and she found that the civil surgeon got Rs 5, and the assistant surgeon Rs 1, for it.
The School Doctor: Dr Haimabati Sen, Born 150 Years Ago
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The memoirs of Dr. Haimabati Sen : from child widow to lady doctor