No matter how privileged, a girl was willy-nilly a captive of orthodoxy. All girls – in Rukhmabai’s distressing description – were born to be “enslaved daughters.” How did that happen? Grappling with the question made her understanding of women’s predicament acute and nuanced.

She could see from personal experience that the fate of these enslaved daughters depended in a big way on the behaviour of reformers, which was notoriously contradictory. In 1873, she learnt of Ranade betraying the cause of widow remarriage. The following year Vishnu Shastri Pandit (1827-76), founder of the Punarvivahottejak Mandal – Association for Promoting Widw Remarriage – justified his reputation as the Vidyasagar of western India by marrying Kusabai, a widow.

Rukhmabai’s disappointment of the previous year gave way to elation. She even felt a personal pride, for Vishnu Shastri Pandit was among Sakharam’s regular visitors. The unending oscillation between elation and depression became part of Rukhmabai’s coming of age. It set her thinking. What lay behind such frustrating uncertainties and behavioural divergences? What could be done to ensure that there was convergence, not divergence, in the profession and practice of reformers? How could victims of social evils be persuaded to respond to progressive influences instead of succumbing to prevailing conventions and expectations?

Her native intelligence and sensitivity sharpened by the unkindness of life, Rukhmabai started writing on the question of women’s awakening from her self-study days. In fact, she began doing this even before Behramji Merwanji Malabari, the great crusader for women’s emancipation, came out with his celebrated twin “Notes” on “Infant Marriage in India” and “Enforced Widowhood”. Referring to her two pseudonymous letters to the Times of India, she claimed:

As regards the sentiments of [those] letters, I had been writing to vernacular papers on this very subject, long before Mr Malabari brought them into prominence.

We may not know exactly how “long before” Malabari did Rukhmbai begin writing for the Marathi press. But considering that Malabari’s “Notes” were written in August 1884, when Rukhmabai was around twenty, she must have started very young. The silently nursed urge to be like the fine minds she had admired from a distance was clearly at work.

Beginning before Malabari would mean that she began writing around the same time that some other remarkable young women pioneers did. The year 1882 was particularly prolix in this regard. Early in that year appeared Tarabai Shinde’s Stree-Purush Tulana – “Comparison of Women and Men” – a text that marks the beginning of a radical feminist critique in India. Later that year, in June, came Pandita Ramabai’s Stree Dharma Neeti. Just three months later, Ramabai gave her famous testimony before the Hunter Commission, explaining what held Indian women in bondage and suggesting ways for their emancipation. The same year Ramabai Ranade made her debut as a speaker.

Unrecognisable from the illiterate ten-year-old nondescript who had entered the Ranade household as the famous man’s spouse, this new Ramabai broke free of convention and delivered her maiden public lecture on social reform. And did that in English. 1882 also saw the publication, in faraway Lahore, of Seemantini Upadesh by “Agyaat Hindu Aurat”, an uncanny intimation of “A Hindu Lady”, the pseudonym Rukhmabai would assume three years later.

Young, aware women were beginning to realise that they could not leave their cause to the male reformers. Women had to speak up for women. 1882 was also the year Pandita Ramabi founded the Arya Mahila Samaj in Poona. In November of the same year, a branch of the Samaj was opened in Bombay and young Rukhmabai was chosen as its secretary. Around the same time, she also got associated with the Prarthana Samaj. Inspired by the Brahmo Samaj of Bengal, the Prarthana Samaj was a male preserve until it was given a new orientation following the visit to Bombay of Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, a missionary of the Brahmo Samaj. Mazumdar encouraged the leaders of the Prarthana Samaj to formally admit women. Sakharam was prominent among those who backed this reformist innovation. That brought Rukhmabai into close association with the Samaj. Ever eager to learn, she rarely missed the special lectures the Samaj organized for women every Sunday. We have a first-hand description of these meetings by Kashibai Kanitkar. Recalling that Rukhmabai attended the meetings most regularly, Kashibai writes:

It was more like a class at which one of the Prarthana Samaj members would give a talk on a topic of general interest and provide useful information … The talks covered various social, religious, scientific, and other topics.

Another important exposure that expanded Rukhmabai’s horizon and sharpened her thinking came through her acquaintance with some of Bombay’s prominent European ladies. Liberal in their outlook, these ladies wanted to contribute their mite to the welfare of Indians, particularly Indian women. One of these, Nora Scott, we have already met in the last chapter. Then there was Dr Edith Pechey at whose place and initiative Nora and Rukhmabai had met.

That was in June 1884. The following year Bombay got an exceptionally liberal governor, Lord Reay. He and his wife were particularly interested in the cause of women. For her part, Lady Reay started organizing zenana parties by way of promoting enlightenment and better interracial relations. To these parties were invited European ladies and ladies belonging to different Indian communities. Sakharam’s social position secured young Rukhmabai an entry to those parties and her personality made sure that she was invited regularly.

Apart from expanding her mental horizon and allaying her natural diffidence, Lady Reay’s parties gave Rukhmabai a chance to converse in English.

Excerpted with permission from Rukhmabai: The Life and Times of a Child Bride Turned Rebel-Doctor, Sudhir Chandra, PanMacmillan India.