Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Doctor of letters - almost

It might sound a bit surprising now, but in the late 19th century, it was pretty much the order of things that a young girl in the Bombay Presidency desiring to study a formal course in medicine should come up to Madras to do so. The Madras Medical College had just started admitting female students and Krupabai Khisty's frail health did not allow her to go abroad to study medicine, as she had been advised to by a family friend. And so to Madras she went, in 1878, a frail girl of sixteen. Though her father, Rev Hari Punt Khisty had died when she was very young, he was remembered enough for a fellow missionary, Rev W.T. Satthianadhan, to take her into his house as a boarder. At the end of the first year, Krupabai was rated as a brilliant student, but her health was shot - she had to give up the study of medicine.

It was an extremely trying period for her. Her elder brother Bhasker was also no more and she was in Madras, far away from her family. Luckily, she found a companion for her intellect in the Rev. Satthianadhan's son Samuel, who had recently returned from Cambridge. They got along very well and were married in 1883. She had been writing short pieces to get past her loneliness and Samuel encouraged her to go further. That was how the magazine South India Observer carried her first published article, "A visit to the Todas", under her pen name 'An Indian Lady'. 

It was An Indian Lady who went on to write what is arguably the first English novel written by an Indian woman: Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life, published in 1890. The Story of a Conversion followed in 1891 and her last work Kamala: A Story of Hindu Life came out in 1894. In some ways, she followed a path taken by Toru Dutt, a "pioneer of Indo-Anglican writing"; there is however no reason to believe that Krupabai knew of her, for Toru died in 1877, all of 21 years old; Krupabai was then 5. Krupabai died young, too, in 1894. Had Toru Dutt completed writing Bianca, she would have been the claimant to the title that now seems quite firmly Krupabai's.  It is as such that she is remembered in the memorial tablet erected by her husband, in the church cared for by her father-in-law!

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