Indian Literature

Lady Yashodabai Joshi

Lady Yashodabai Joshi

I’m trying to get in the habit of writing about each book I read. I have just finished A Marathi Saga: The Story of Sir Moropant and Lady Yashodabai Joshi as narrated to her daughter Manik and translated from Marathi by her grandson Vijay Kumar Bhide, and published by Roli Books, India.

I found  the book in the Book Market in Ottawa for about $6.00. I always love when I find books published in another country at Used Books Stores here in Ottawa. It is like stumbling upon buried treasure.

I love history but prefer to read about history from memoirs where the bias is so much more obvious. A Marathi Saga gave me insights into Indian social reform movements from the late 19th to early 20th centuries from the perspective of an elite Marathi Chitpavan Brahmin woman whose husband was a prominent lawyer, civil servant, and social reformer.

Lady Joshi marries her husband when she is still only six and he is 13 in 1874. Abolishing Child Marriage would be the major social reform Sir Moropant Joshi would become known for with the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. Other social reforms discussed in the memoir are widow remarriage and women’s education.

Lady Joshi is able to become literate because of her husband who also believes in women’s education, eventually sending off one of their daughters get trained as a medical doctor in England. In 1892, with her husband’s encouragement, Lady Joshi helped to found the Vanita Samaj in Amravati, an organization aimed at empowering women through literacy and postnatal classes as well a support for marginalized women like widows. Her daughters would go on to be involved in the All India Women’s Conference.

The Joshis clearly become friends and confidants but what I found most amusing was how in her memoir Lady Joshi disagrees with her husband. At one point she worries that he’s becoming an atheist and she asserts her own deep and sincere belief in God. Her husband is very critical of the caste system and although Lady Joshi doesn’t think people of different castes should be discriminated against that doesn’t mean she wants her children to marry out of their castes, which she compares to maintaining a “pedigree” like horses and dogs. So, although Lady Joshi is definitely shaped by her husband she is very much her own person which comes out in the memoir. Lady Joshi is active in the “uplift of women” but her main focus is her children and grandchildren, their physical health, education, careers, and marriages. We learn a lot from this in terms of how elite families replicate their privileges in the new positions emerging within the law, the civil service, the military, and business. She is also quite concerned about the mental health of her family. It is quite touching as we know that this history is being recited to her daughter Manik whose mental health is a constant concern of Lady Joshi throughout the memoir.

In reading the memoir, I realized that a lot of my previous reading about India was really focused on Northern India. She also provides insights into how the Indian Princely States were administered quite differently under colonialism as one of her daughters ends up marrying the Raja of Sangli. These states would eventually be abolished after independence.

The memoir also includes interesting anecdotes about famous people such as Jinnah and Nehru. Lady Joshi isn’t a great fan of the Congress Party and on her death-bed she predicts that its politicians will be corrupt. These concerns are echoed by her grandson in the memoir’s epilogue.

It also granted me some insights into the traditions of the Brahmin caste and how difficult it was to try to defy this. Sir Moropant Joshi is quite critical of many of these traditions and could be said to be a secularist. When after coming back to Indian after traveling to England he refuses to perform the required Prayaschitta ceremony required after someone crosses the sea, the Joshis find themselves facing ostracism as they are considered ritually unclean even by fellow Brahmin social reformers. I also got to learn about basic Hindu rites of passage such as the Sacred Thread Ceremony.

Lady Joshi still a deep believer in Hinduism. In her later life he begins to follow a Sikh Guru along with her husband, who seems to finally take up a spiritual life despite having seemed to be something of an atheist in his early days. She even has the Guru Granth Sahib read for her over a period of 72 hours in order to help with the illness would eventually lead to her death. She dies believing that she has worked out her karma in this life and will not have to go through rebirth again.

Her daughter Manik writes about how she dies, letting us know that her mangalsutra, the necklace given to a wife by her husband in the Hindu marriage ceremony isn’t consumed in her funeral pyre, the sign of a true wife. Lady Joshi’s grandson writes an interesting epilogue catching us up on the family’s history to 1999 and bemoaning the lack of an intellectual political culture in modern-day India in comparison to that described in Lady Joshi’s memoir.

The memoir spans from about 1868 and ends shortly after independence in 1948. It was published in Marathi in 1965 and in English in 2003.

Further Reading:

Book Review in The Hindu

On the Sacred Thread Ceremony: A Hindu Bar Mitvah by  Visi Tilak