Rukhmabai—the child bride who dared to rebel

How far has society progressed since the days of Rukhmabai? (Getty Images)
How far has society progressed since the days of Rukhmabai? (Getty Images)


This powerful biography of one of the country’s first woman doctors provides a sharp reality check on women’s rights in 21st century India

In extremely grim situations where the strong control the weak, it is often impossible to show the extent of mental and/or physical cruelty suffered by the latter, especially when it is an adult versus child form of control, which can quickly turn to abuse of the worst kind. If societal norms make it convenient to hide such inconvenient truths, it is almost impossible for a child to protect herself. Rukhmabai was one such rare child who fought her way through injustice.

The Hindu middle-class milieu of Bombay (now Mumbai) in which Rukhmabai (1864-1955) lived seems impossibly rigid to our modern eyes. The death of her father Janardhan Pandurang, when she was not yet three, marked the end of her real childhood. Prior to his death, aware of the difficulties that often beset widows, Janardhan Pandurang had willed his wealth to his wife Jayanthebai. The two moved to the house of Harishchandra, the father of Jayanthebai. He had taken a second wife after the death of his first. After a few difficult years, Jayanthebai agreed to marry again and thus became the wife of Sakharam, a social reformer, public speaker and a reputed doctor of Indian medicine.

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Sakharam was a kind stepfather, but did not send young Rukhmabai to school. The smattering of education she received was largely from books read at the Free Mission Library and from her interactions with a few English women who were part of the social circle to which Sakharam belonged. It is impossible not to be astonished by the strangeness of Rukhmabai’s early years when she had to look after her step-siblings, much like a governess, though she herself was eight years old. Following the norm of the day, upper middleclass children were dressed in finery, paraded around at social gatherings, schooled at the whimsical will of their parents and never encouraged to play. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, but no work and no play would make him duller still, says the English woman Nora Scott, writing about Rukhmabai in The Indian Journal and quoted by Sudhir Chandra in this book, Rukhmabai: The Life and Times of a Child Bride Turned Rebel Doctor. Scott talks of a scene where Rukhmabai, still a child, explains matter-of-factly to an English woman: “Our children never play, you know."

Rukhmabai thirsted for learning. Instead, she was married off at the age of 11 to a 19-year-old. The writer probes this extraordinary decision in great detail—scrutinising it from many angles, particularly those of Sakharam, Rukhmabai, and the young man, Dadaji Bhikaji. Dadaji was uneducated and degenerate in every sense. His mother had got him married with the hope that he would “become a good man". The irony of foisting the responsibility for this transformation on 11-year-old Rukhmabai did not seem to matter.

A few months after marriage when she attained puberty, as per the time-honoured custom, Rukhmabai was expected to cohabit with her husband. Knowing that a life with Dadaji would not allow her to pursue learning, she refused. Dadaji made persistent efforts to make her live with him. In 1884, frustrated by her refusal, he went to court to demand his conjugal rights.

Rukhmabai, who, by then, had a good command of Marathi and English, wrote a series of letters to the editors of two leading newspapers under the guise of “a Hindu lady" and described the enormous cruelty of subjecting young girls to the tyranny of early marriage. She wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, requesting that laws be enforced to raise the age of marriage for girls from 10 to 15. The sad fact is that many social reformers and intellectuals of the time, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak, exhorted the child to follow Hindu tradition and fulfil her wifely obligations.

What is remarkable is that Rukhmabai never once blamed her family who had let her down. Nor did she make herself an object of pity by talking only about herself. She stood up for the plight of all young girls who were undergoing the severe trauma of child marriage.

The cover of 'Rukhmabai: The Life and Times of a Child Bride Turned Rebel-Doctor', By Sudhir Chandra, Published by Pan Macmillan, 230 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
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The cover of 'Rukhmabai: The Life and Times of a Child Bride Turned Rebel-Doctor', By Sudhir Chandra, Published by Pan Macmillan, 230 pages, 499

Rukhmabai’s case drew wide public attention. The judiciary dithered. For four years, this brave and intelligent young woman fought the injustice foisted on her by family, by Hindu orthodoxy and the Indian English legal system, which was ill-equipped to deal with unfair practices encouraged by Hindu tradition and custom.

In 1886, the court ordered her to affirm to Hindu law and join her husband or face six months imprisonment. She said she would rather be in prison than give in. Again, the court dithered. Finally, in 1888 came the landmark judgement in her favour. In spite of the legal victory and notwithstanding the celebrity status that followed, social rancour against her did not die. Realising that there was little to be gained by living in a hostile environment, she decided to study medicine in England. She graduated from the London School of Medicine and in 1894 returned to India, where she eschewed personal glory (which could have been hers because of the attention her case received in India and the UK) and chose to work towards improving women’s healthcare.

She was given charge of the Zenana Hospital in Surat and later at Rajkot. One of the first few Indian lady doctors at the time, she brought about many reforms in women’s health care, dealt with a wide range of women’s diseases and performed surgeries. By the time she retired in 1929, she was widely respected and subsequently, a hospital in Surat was named in her honour. She died in 1955, aged 90.

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This remarkable book is only 230 pages, but it isn’t a quick read. The writer does not follow a linear narrative pattern but instead dwells on the key characters, and the motives that drive their actions. We begin to have a glimmer of understanding of the complexities of Hindu family life in an era when average lifespan was a third of what it is now. Widows and widowers abounded; a second marriage was common; Hindu orthodoxy ensured that young widows and widowers were girdled by custom, tradition and laws pronounced by the powerful religious heads, and which affected women in crushing ways.

We also get fascinating snippets of information about Rukhmabai’s years in England: she said yes to beef but no to religious conversion. She played tennis. She befriended a young Indian gentleman during her days in England but never entertained the idea of marriage.

Society has progressed since the days of Rukhmabai, but how far? I was recently speaking to a young woman (a single mother and daily wage-earner working to educate her two daughters) in rural Karnataka and happened to tell her about the struggles of Rukhmabai. She said, “Madam, come to our village and you will see that the plight of many girls is the same, even now."

Kavery Nambisan is a surgeon and writer. She is the author of several novels and a medical memoir titled, A Luxury Called Health.


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