The following historical persona poems are culled from the life and letters of Anandi Gopal Joshee (also spelled as Joshi), known widely as Anandibai, who lived from 1865-1887.
Anandibai was India’s first female physician and the first Indian woman to enter the United States in 1883 to pursue an education in medicine. An interest in Anandibai resurfaced around 2017, when her black and white photograph from Drexel College of Medicine’s Legacy Center archive went viral on the Internet. Her life story is a compelling one of empowerment and American and Indian allyship – in which Anandibai broke tradition and social conventions by crossing tabooed black waters (kala pani) to pursue an education and career held exclusively by men. Until very recently, Anandibai’s story has been told through the lens of her husband being her saviour and inspiration.
And while he encouraged her, it was often by coercion and violence. By telling Anandibai’s story through poems in her own voice, my hope is to not only restore Anandibai’s agency and give her story back to her, but to also highlight her inner strength, determination, sharp intellect, and desire to help other women.
But how and why did I write this book?
In 2017, I was researching South Asian history for a long lyric poem I was writing on the racism I had experienced as a child while growing up in Minnesota in the early ‘80s. In this poem, I wanted to confront a childhood bully with facts and dazzle him, to let him know that my family wasn’t the first to have come from India, so that his words, “go back to where you came from”, would ring hollow. It had always been convenient for me to slip into the notion that I was the “other” and that America wasn’t my actual home, because I hadn’t seen myself or my history reflected in my surroundings. This led me on a wild goose chase of sorts to find out who was the first woman from India to touch American shores. And suddenly there she was, seated in a sepia-tinted photograph, next to two other women, dressed elegantly in a saree, her Mona Lisa-like glance following me everywhere, her lips curled up in a half-smile, her image radiating such fierce determination that I had to know more.
Who was this woman and how did she get to Philadelphia all alone from India in the 19th century and why? How did she break away from that iron grip of tradition where women were largely homebound tending to family and manage to cross kala pain, those black ocean waters that were considered tainted? I was riveted and literally felt a shiver – of acknowledgment and discovery, this validation of knowing that all along there had been others before us.
This was how I stumbled upon the extraordinary life of Anandi Gopal Joshee, known more informally as Anandibai, possibly the first Indian (Hindu) woman to have come to the United States. Until very recently, Anandibai’s story was limited to her geographic community in India and had been told through the lens of her husband being her advocate and guide. I wondered if I were to tell Anandibai’s story through poems in her own voice, what would that mean? How would it change the narrative? Would it give her agency back to her? Would it give South Asian Americans a deeper sense of roots and history? And supposing it did, was I the right person to undertake this task? I was a poet after all, and not a historian.
It is with these hesitations that I began my research and poem-making. And stopped. And started. And stopped. And began again.
– From the Preface.
My earliest memories?
The crook of an arm, warm
Aai’s saree, soft and worn
scents of sandalwood and soot
my siblings’ limbs tangled
as they do kusti with one another
feigning pain amidst laughter
sounds of the jhopala
in the courtyard crick-cracking
drunk on stories of Gods, I swoon
to a gaana, soothing
of burbling green pigeons
– and love seeped in slowly
for this middle child
limbs massaged daily with mustard oil
chin marked with a black spot
to ward off the evil eye
The Promise of What Was/What Will be
They tell me I will have to cast off
dust as my daily apparel
my games and learning adjourned
that I must now join the zenana
and don a saree
that I am pockmarked and plain
that I look older than my age
of eight and who will marry me
their biggest worry
neither fair nor thin
though poor by money
we are rich by reputation
the lands we once owned
sliced off and sold like gaud
till all we have left is
the haveli and grand stories
of ancestors rewarded by peshwas
and who will be lured
by such long gone sweetness
the burden that is
who will want
someone like me
Badge of Blood
The whole house is still. Even the green pigeon in the semal tree outside has stopped burbling and tucks its head under a wing. Night spreads like kohl under weary eyes. He tiptoes into the room and his hot breath is suddenly upon me. Sliding my saree up, he grips my wrists, asserting his rights on the sharir I thought only mine. I start crying. But this is what man and wife do, he tells me, caressing the top of my head, whispering all will be fine. And then the shadow of him covers my own. As green glass bangles break into little shards of grass and my braid comes undone like a river, I become the jhopala in the courtyard rocking back and forth. I think of all the body parts I learnt as a child, how I repeated them over and over to claim them: doke, khanda, ghudga, payachi botey. They teach us so many things, our mothers – to separate the husk from grain, to churn butter from milk, to spell out our new name in a tray of rice the day we are wed, but never do they tell us why the kunku worn after marriage is so red, why we refresh the badge of blood on our foreheads morning after morning.
Excerpted with permission from Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems, Shikha Malaviya, HarperCollins India.