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How One Brave, Compassionate “Radical Spirit” Tried to Change the World

Nandini Patwardhan’s book


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Melissa Gouty

2 years ago | 4 min read

Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions

I admit it. This was a different kind of book for me to read, but when a friend of a friend wrote it and it was nominated for a nonfiction award, I knew I wanted to get it.

I am so glad I did. Reading Radical Spirits expanded my understanding of two cultures, both Indian and American. It gave me an appreciation for the people who believe in the “soul” qualities — who see the kindness, the ability, the drive, and the intellect of others instead of skin color. The kind of people who respect the beliefs and the traditions of other countries.

The kind of people who — throughout history — help and encourage others instead of judging them. It reminded me of how one woman’s relentless drive and focus on a goal might change the world.

Nandini Patwardhan’s book, Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions is the biography of Anandi Joshee, a young Indian woman who, through her immense intellect and will — and the force of a much older husband who believed in educating women — became the first Indian woman doctor.

Reading this biography was like shining a light through a magnifying glass and illuminating the tensions of education, religion, women’s rights, and social status in two different cultures in the late 1800s.

Anandi Joshee’s Story

Anandi Joshee was a child-bride of nine, (no judgments here, please, because this was not an unusual occurrence in the prevailing customs of 19th Century India), whose much older husband, Gopal, was one of the few men in the region who believed in educating women. He took on the job of tutoring his wife.

When Gopal’s forceful nature compelled Anandi to study, she blossomed. While committed to educating his wife, Gopal was also harsh and unyielding. He occasionally beat Anandi and frequently threatened to abandon her if she did not succeed. Possessing a powerful intellect, Anandi began reading and learning everything she could, including the mastery of the English language.

When Anandi became pregnant at the age of twelve and lost her infant daughter after ten days, she set her sites on becoming a doctor. She believed that her baby might not have died had she been able to get medical care. However, the restrictive environment of India dictated extreme female modesty. Very few doctors existed, and they were all males.

Male doctors were not allowed to treat women, so throughout India, women and babies were dying because they couldn’t receive care.

Anandi Goes to America

Gopal’s crusade to educate his wife meant going to places where schooling for women was available. That meant that he often asked for transfers with his job at the postal service. The couple moved from city to city, following opportunities provided by missionary schools and European tutors.

Anandi was ready to come to America where she could follow her dream of becoming a doctor but to do that she needed an American sponsor. Lucky for her, Theodocia Carpenter was a strong-minded, empathetic, educated American woman who read about Anandi’s plight in a missionary magazine.

The two women began a correspondence that fostered an intense and loving relationship. Theodocia became Anandi’s “mavshi,” a word which means “aunt,” and offered to help her in America.

It was Theodocia Carpenter and her family, Anandi’s “American Champions,” that enabled Anandi to cross the ocean and pursue her dream to change the world by becoming a doctor and bringing care to the millions of women back in India who needed it.

So Much More than Anandi’s Story

Yes, Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions, is a compelling true story about one woman with both passion and compassion. It’s a look at how one woman’s efforts to provide medical care can start a tidal wave of change.

But the book is so much more than that.

As much as I try to learn, I know very little about Indian culture. Reading Radical Spirits taught me about the traditions, culture, caste system, and prevailing attitudes of 19th Century India. As always, reading opened my mind and broadened my horizons.

Surprisingly, I learned just as much about America as I did about India. Even though I’m a student of literature and history, this book showcased aspects of American culture that I hadn’t focused on before.

It pulled in information about the impact of Spiritualism, the Hicksites, and the Lyceum Movement; the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the power of religious fervor contrasted with the respect and tolerance of other beliefs.

I also appreciated the insertion of tidbits of history …like the advent of iconic Cream of Wheat and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer!

Feminism

Anandi Joshee, struggling to be a doctor, faces issues I take for granted. She had to fight to find schools that would accept her. She had to fight people who thought she was wrong to pursue a career outside the home. She had to fight the prejudices of people in America who saw her as an unworthy outsider.

She had to fight the tension in a marriage where she was separated from her husband by thousands of miles and the differing perspectives of two cultures.

Moreso, she had to navigate the tenuous balance of marriage as she became stronger, smarter, more educated, more exposed to others (and thus more tolerant) than her husband.

As Anandi Joshee gained more recognition in America for her achievements, her husband’s beliefs and behavior got more erratic and worked against her own, yet because of cultural expectations, she was seen as a child to be subjugated to her husband.

Read this if….

If you believe in the power of one woman’s dream…

If you are interested in the struggle for female equality…

If you’re fascinated by the attitudes, the personalities, the traditions of the wide world around us…

If you love Indian or American history….

If you relate to a compelling story with a sympathetic, real-life heroine… READ THIS.

In Appreciation of the Cyber-World in Which We Write

I am a writer, as many of you are. I would be remiss if I didn’t note the personal pleasure that comes from writing in the cyber world.

Through my experiences on Medium, I got to know 

Ranjani Rao. Through her, I became acquainted with Nandini Patwardhan, and from those connections, I learn about other writers’ works and other author’s stories. As someone who has been writing for decades, I am awed by the ability to connect with people through our digital medium in a meaningful way, an ability that didn’t exist thirty years ago when I started publishing my work.

I am grateful.

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Melissa Gouty

Award-winning teacher, entrepreneur, and writer. Marketing manager in the HVAC and Plumbing industries. Author of The Magic of Ordinary, a memoir of a "Daddy," his daughters, and the power of one good man to change the world.


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