Monday, September 25, 2006

Pandita Ramabai's Book on America (1889)

In my travel writers class, we're looking at Pandita Ramabai's book on America, which has been recently translated by Meera Kosambi as Pandita Ramabai's American Encounter (2003). The original book was written in Marathi in 1889, and published as United Stateschi Lokasthiti ani Pravasavritta, which translates to The Peoples of the United States. It's an intriguing book -- part of the small group of "Easterner goes West" books published in the 19th century, which coexist uneasily alongside dozens of conventional Orientalist travel narratives describing the mystic, masalafied "East." What Ramabai has to say about America is interesting partly for the oblique criticisms of colonialism and racism one finds at various points, and partly because of her staunch, unapologetic feminism.

Meera Kosambi has a thorough introduction to the book and to Pandita Ramabai, which is the source of most of the information in the post below. First off, the basic biography: Pandita Ramabai was born to a Brahmin family in Maharashtra in 1859. In a personal memoir she writes that her father (known as Dongre) went out on a limb and taught her Sanskrit, and also taught her to read and recite from the Puranas -- considered completely off-limits to women at the time. But both of her parents died in in 1876 because of famine, and Ramabai and her brother wandered around India until they ended up in Calcutta in 1878. They impressed the local Sanskrit experts (Calcutta, being more progressive, didn't shun a female Sanskrit scholar), who granted Ramabai the name "Pandita," in honor of her learning. Unfortunately, her brother died soon afterwards, and Ramabai married one of his friends, a lawyer from the Shudra caste named Bipin Behari (also known as Das Medhavi). The couple was ostracized for the cross-caste marriage, and tragically, Medhavi died of cholera just a couple of years later (in 1880), leaving Ramabai to raise their daughter Manorama on her own.

It isn't surprising that she fell in with Christian missionaries, who helped Ramabai go to England in 1883 to study medicine. Unfortunately, she was refused admission after reaching England on account of defective hearing. It was at this point that she converted to Christianity (Anglicanism), which was highly controversial in the Indian press at that tim. It still may be controversial for some readers, though I think it's important to remember that Ramabai, as a Brahmin woman, had been battling religious orthodoxy her whole life: first, as a woman who knew Sanskrit and could read and critique the classical texts, then as a person who married across caste only to be completely ostracized -- and finally as a young widow who was also orphaned and without siblings!

According to Kosambi, it isn't clear that Ramabai was comfortable within the Anglican fold (Ramabai would dabble with other denominations), nor is it clear that she enjoyed being in England, where she lived between 1883 and 1886. In fact, she didn't write very much about her specific experiences there, so it's hard to say. Still, Ramabai did write a book during that trip (her second!), The High-Caste Hindu Woman, a scathing attack on gender norms in upper-caste families. The book was published in Marathi in India, and didn't make much of an impression, though it was widely read in a version translated by Ramabai herself by feminists in England and the U.S.

In 1886, Pandita Ramabai went to the U.S., to give a lecture at a Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. Here she had a personal connection to another Marathi woman, Anandibai Joshee, who holds the distinction being the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree in the west -- only a few years after medical schools began to open their doors to women. (This was also well before women got the right to vote.) She planned to go for a month, but ended up staying for three years.

In the U.S., it appears, Pandita Ramabai thrived. She did numerous lectures at various cities around the northeast and midwest, as well as further out west (she made it as far as Denver, and was impressed by the Rocky Mountains). Her larger mission at this time was to raise money for a school she wanted to start back in India -- and here she was remarkably successful. It's no surprise to find, then, that Ramabai writes effusively about the country in her book, though she does criticize the country's problems with race, its persecution of the Native Americans, and of course, the resistance to women's emancipation.

* * *

On to the book itself. Ramabai starts with a reference to the history of early exploration, and a dig at religious superstition:

Centuries ago, when people lacked adequate knowledge of the earth, they indulged in all sorts of speculations in this regard. The ancestors of the Hindu and other communities believed the earth to be flat; as a result, they imagined the universe to be multi-storied, like the large multi-storied city houses, with the earth occupying the middle story. According to the Hindu Puranas, the universe is a fourteen-storied mansion, of which six stories or "worlds" are situated above the earth, and seven below; the lowest of these stories has been named the Nethermost Woeld. Now that all these ideas have been disproved by new discoveries, everyone has understood that the universe is not like a fourteen-storied mansion, and that the earth is not flat. (62)

So much for the scientific value of the Puranas!

Ramabai also doesn't fail to remind her readers that Columbus, in his exploration, was in fact looking for India, and she is unrelenting of her criticism of the exploitative nature of the Spanish and Portuguese doings in the new world in the early years. She accuses Columbus of practicing "deceit," and denigrates his eagerness to enslave the natives, take them back to Europe, and forcibly convert them to Christianity (Catholicism): "How sad that a great man's conduct should be tarnished by such an extraordinarily demonic deed!"

Some of her remarks about this chapter of American history strike me as coded or indirect criticisms of British colonialism:

If these same Europeans had discarded their firearms and weapons, such as bows and arrows, quartz knives, and bone-tipped lances, they would have proven themselves to be truly brave. But sad to say, those who called themselves pious and went forth to enlighten the ignorant, to rescue people from hell and lead them to heaven, ended up by utterly annihilating the poor innocent Indians through deceit, trickery, cruelty, and false speech. (71)

Clearly the British colonization of India and the American conquest of the Native Americans are two quite separate things, but there might well be some parallels in the references to "deceit, trickery, cruelty, and false speech" -- though that is only an inference. (Pandita Ramabai is rarely directly critical of the British in her writings.)

* * *

Occasionally, Pandita Ramabai also makes some circumspect comments on the problem of writing a travel narrative, and seems to be alluding to the extremely problematic narratives Europeans themselves had produced when traveling to India. She knows better than to simply reverse the dynamic, claim to be the monarch of all she surveys:

It is impossible for a person to see all the sides of an object while sketching it; the same applies to the description of the social conditions in a country. A single person is not able to see all aspects of a society; therefore one person's opinion of it cannot be assumed to be infallible.

Some English and American people have traveled in India and written descriptions of our customs and manners and social conditions. A perusal of these clearly shows that a foreigner sees the people of the country he visits in a very different light from how the inhabitants see themselves. Therefore, I have refrained from presenting any firm and final conclusion that such-and-such is the nature of American society and that it has only these many types. Instead, I intend to describe how they appeared to me. This is the objective of this chapter and of the book as a whole.

Fascinating and precocious; it took the discipline of Anthropology another 80 years to reach this level of epistemological humility.

* * *

And finally, I should mention that most of the second half of Pandita Ramabai's book on America is dedicated to the specific question of the status of women in the country. On the one hand, she is impressed by the remarkable progress that was being made with regards to women's education; this was the era during which the great women's colleges were opening, and it was also the era of the first women graduates from law and medical schools. On the other hand, Ramabai is surprised by the amount of resistance these progressive measures encounter, and feels pressed to actively rebut the charge that having women in positions of responsibility, or actively participating in the work-place, would somehow be detrimental to morals. In that the book is aimed at Indian readers, it's hard not to think that she's thinking of the Indian objections to these reforms as well.

Her most striking comment along these lines still in some sense rings true today:

How true is the claim of many Western scholars that a civilization should be judged by the conditions of its women! Women are inherently physically weaker than men, and possess innate powers of endurance; men therefore find it very easy to wrest their natural rights and reduce them to a state that suits the men. But, from a moral point of view, physical might is not real strength, nor is it a sign of nobility of character to deprive the weak of their rights. . . . [A]s men gain wisdom and progress further, they begin to disregard women's lack of strength to honor their good qualities, and elevate them to a high state. Their low opinion of women and of other such matters undergoes a change and gives way to respect. Thus, one can accurately assess a country's progress from the condition of its women. (169)

This statement is perhaps not without a couple of problematic elements, but as a progressive take on the relationship between feminism and history it is still very much something to contend with.


Vikrum said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. Will try to check it out.

2:44 PM  
ana beynaam said...

This is so fascinating, Amardeep, thank you for sharing it with us. I wish I was in your class. . I'd even be happy to be a fly on the wall. :)

4:21 PM  
Raja said...

Very interesting. One thing to be said though, no where in any interpretations of Vedas, Puranas or any hindu text has it been found that the earth is flat. This definitely puts a questionmark on her knowledge or interpretation of what she read.

3:00 AM  
desiknitter said...

The literal translation of her book title reads as "The Social Condition (Loka-Sthiti) of the United States and a Travel Account (Pravasa-Vrutta).

Kosambi also has another volume of Ramabai's works, some of them translated from Marathi "Ramabai in her Own Words" that has a wonderful Victorian tract about good feminine ideals she wrote before she broke with the nationalists and discovered her own feminist voice and wrote "High Caste Woman". She's a wonderful writer (Ramabai), I hope you're enjoying teaching the travel narrative!

1:03 PM  
desiknitter said...

Actually, Loka-Sthithi could also translate as "People's Condition".

1:04 PM  

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