“‘Men cannot, in the least, understand the wretchedness which we Hindu women have to endure. Because you cannot enter our feelings, do not think that we are satisfied with the life of drudgery that we live, and that we have no taste for an aspiration after a higher life.”  

It is March 1887. A young woman stands in a Mumbai court room, facing the husband she despises. Shortly, a judge is going to pronounce on whether a Hindu wife can break the sacrament of a child marriage. She is twenty-two, but she has never lived with her husband, and never wants to.

The judge rules that the woman must live with her husband or go to jail for six months. But this is not the end. Instead, it is the start of a long, bitter battle by a woman who wanted to study to be a proud doctor, not an unwilling wife. She would become the first Hindu woman to do the unthinkable: leave her husband and seek a divorce.

The woman was Rukhmabai Raut (sometimes spelt Rakhmabai), a woman from a historically oppressed caste who was to smash every rule of Hindu society. If Anandibai was one facet of Indian women – the comforting face of tradition – the radical Rukhmabai Raut was the polar opposite. At the very time that Anandibai and Kadambini were supported by husbands, Rukhmabai was trying to get rid of hers.

Rukhmabai would cause a yawning chasm in Hindu society, between liberals who supported women’s education and the conservatives who bitterly opposed it.

She would be instrumental in the passage of a law that raised the age of consent for child marriages. She would be savagely attacked and shamed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and other upper-caste Hindu conservatives, who wanted Swaraj, but not for women, and especially not for lower-caste women.

Rukhmabai did not write an autobiography. She also burnt most of the letters she received at the end of every month from well-wishers and supporters, possibly to erase painful memories. We thus have only a fragmented image of her. What impressions we have, though, are more vivid and revelatory than the narratives surrounding any other lady doctor.

Rukhmabai was born in Bombay in 1864, to Jayantibai and Janardan Pandurang. When she was two, her father died. At the time, her mother was only seventeen. Jayantibai belonged to the Suthar or carpenter caste. Unlike upper castes, the Suthars allowed the remarriage of widows.

Six years later, her mother married Dr Sakharam Arjun, a prominent doctor, botanist and reformer, who was also a widower. Jayantibai had property of her own through her first husband, a fact that would later become significant.

Dr Sakharam was an intriguing figure. He taught at Grant Medical College and was one of the two original founders of the Bombay Natural History Society. He conducted a number of studies on the uses of plants and would later write a catalogue of Indian medicinal plants. Rukhmabai would be deeply influenced by her stepfather’s liberal ways.

Nevertheless, even Dr Sakharam was not powerful enough to defy Hindu custom and stop Rukhmabai being married off as a child. At eleven, she was married to Dadaji Bhikaji, a poor relative of Dr Sakharam’s, who was nineteen. It was agreed that Rukhmabai would join her husband after she attained puberty.

Dr Sakharam was uncomfortable with the marriage. Later, he would participate in efforts to reform Hindu customs, and would speak passionately in favour of separating Hindu law from Hindu custom. Dr Sakharam would also go on to recommend that young children betrothed in marriage should have the chance to “ratify” the marriage once older. This was a radical thought for the time, and one can see how Rukhmabai might have idolised this unusual, charismatic man.

At eleven, Rukhmabai had already attained puberty, after which girls were traditionally expected to go to their husband’s house to consummate the marriage. But Dr Sakharam refused to send her. To begin with, he thought she was too young. Later he developed further misgivings.

Dadaji had grown into a drunken and dissipated man, with a string of unpaid debts. He was greatly influenced by his uncle, Narayan Dhurmaji, with whom he lived. Dhurmaji was a dissolute man with several mistresses. Rukhmabai began to feel a deep aversion for them both, and over the next few years, avoided all contact with her husband, aided by her sympathetic stepfather.

Rukhmabai writes, “I was married on conditions that he should be thoroughly provided by us, but that he should study and become a good man. However, in a few months after the marriage he began to neglect his duties, leaving the school and disobeying my father and grandfather, fell into bad companies (sic).”

Dr Sakharam became a key figure in young Rukhmabai’s life. He mingled with reformers and liberals, both Indian and European, and Rukhmabai learnt much from them, including English. One of the visitors was Vishnu Shastri Pandit, a fervent supporter of women’s education. In such company, it is hardly surprising that Rukhmabai began to do the most dangerous of things for a woman of that time: think for herself.

“I had a great liking for study while a great disgust for married life, and though not fortunate enough to attain school after the age of 11 years I began to learn English at home, after leaving the school. I used to ask a number of pronunciations and meanings of English words at a time whenever my European lady friends happened to call. I began seriously to consider the former and present condition of our Hindu women, and wished to do something if in our power to ameliorate our present sufferings,” wrote Rukhmabai.

Rukhmabai was no good Hindu wife. She was a flouter of convention, a breaker of rules, a rebel with a cause. Right from childhood, she was certain that her early marriage had stopped her from achieving everything she wanted.

Lady Doctors

Excerpted with permission from Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine, Kavitha Rao, Westland.