Ashutosh Javadekar

On an extensive tour of the U.S. in the late 19th century, Ramabai made interesting observations of American society

Let’s admit, Pandita Ramabai is no more a household name as she once was in Bengal, Maharashtra, England, or even in the U.S. during the last quarter of the 19th century.

Researchers and scholars acknowledge her constant struggle for women’s education, empowerment and emancipation in their writings. They also talk about her conversion from Hinduism to Christianity in academic circles. And sometimes, there is a mention of the arduous journey she undertook in her life, beginning with the Vedantic teachings by her progressive father (who believed in women’s education) and ending with her translation of the Bible to Marathi.

But as we celebrate Ramabai’s birth anniversary today, I recall an actual journey she undertook in the U.S., from March 1886 to November 1888. The pivotal travelogue that Ramabai penned after that journey can be suitably and strongly pitted against many Eurocentric women’s travelogues from that era.

Although the title in Marathi is United States chi Loksthiti ani Prawaswrutt, the soul of the book is not as arid. It is not mere factual reporting on the American people or the country. When, almost a hundred years after its publication in Marathi, Meera Kosambi’s very fluent English translation was published in 2003, researchers began to dig deep and found many nuances in Ramabai’s work.

Ramabai was a well-known personality by the time she decided to travel in the U.S., primarily to generate funds for her projects in India focusing on empowerment of widows. The New York Times and Philadelphia Bulletin published news of the arrival of this intelligent woman. American citizens must have been curious about her – she was Christian, fluent in English, fair-skinned, yet her title ‘Pandita’ alluded to her Hindu scholarship and her identity as an Indian before anything else.

Remembering Pandita Ramabai, women's rights activist and valiant traveller  - The Hindu
Pandita Ramabai and her daughter, Manorama Bai, in a 1911 publication.

Pandita Ramabai and her daughter, Manorama Bai, in a 1911 publication.   | Photo Credit: Public Domain

The travelogue itself is not just about geopolitical undercurrents or about questions of faith. How very youthful her language is. And she indeed was young back then — only 28 when she stepped on American shores. She evokes beautiful imagery of American skies, waters and mountains with her poetic words. She never failed to acknowledge the humour that rose out of cultural differences. Instead of self-deprecation or critiquing American norms, she vividly brought out the inherent humour in such situations.

And then there are some emotional scenes as well. Once during her travel, she found an opportunity to stay with an American family in the town of Gilbertville, with a student of Cornell University named George. His mother informs Ramabai gladly that her daughter too would soon be ready to go to university along with George. Ramabai writes, “How proud that mother must be while telling me this. And oh! How very glad I was when I heard her saying that she desires to send her daughter to University. I wonder when the parents from my country shall speak of such desires. When shall they come out of the wrong and false notions of supposed superiority of boys over girls, men over women?”

These remarks about a happy American family come from a young woman of 28, whose mother, father, brother, husband, all were lost to cruel destiny. She was alone and her daughter was living in England with nuns. But Ramabai continued to live and inspire with her quiet dignity and her transformative writings and work.

Anecdotes apart, Ramabai’s writing also reflected an interest in economics. Not only did she study American society, she also tried to analyse if their economic model would work in India. She seemed to be pitting America against the imperial British rule as far as the emerging new India was concerned. She rightly judged the growing economy of the U.S. and her predictions about the country becoming a superpower turned out to be true in later years.

Pandita Ramabai.

She also expressed her anger with the Raj era. “And what did we do? We sold our gold against copper. We closed our handlooms and bought imported clothes. We purchased the delicate glass bottles in which alcohol is kept and sold our country rich of minerals. And now that glass is broken, hitting our feet and that alcohol is taking lives of people and hence our country is, alas, so poor, impoverished.”

While full of admiration for American society, Ramabai was not blind to its faults. Alcoholism and tobacco use, impoverishment of Native Americans and Blacks, gender inequality and superstitious practices in American society found mention in her writings. Although she received funding from generous American citizens and institutes, Ramabai was not afraid to call them out on unfair practices.

Ramabai did not have a home to return to. But she had a country and absolute fondness towards it. The relationship between her and India was not an easy one — she expressed righteous anger against the unjust ways she observed in her country but her longing and lingering affection for India are evident in her travelogue.

Today, young women from all over the country travel to the U.S. for studies and work, but it is doubtful if any of them have ever heard of Ramabai and her contributions. Nevertheless, these young educated women are fulfilling the very dreams that she had envisioned years ago, when very few even dared to dream.

The writer is author of four award-winning books, a singer-composer and a dentist. [email protected]