This memoir of Haimabati Sen (1866-1933), a pioneering woman doctor in Bengal, is a translation from Bengali by Tapan Raychaudhuri, introduced by Geraldine Forbes, two dedicated historians. As joint editors of the book, they provide documentary evidence, wherever available, of the events described by the author.
Haimabati, or Hem as she was known for short, wrote it during the 1920s. She was born into a middle-class, backward-looking Bengali family but of a doting father who let her study with the boys of the family. She was married off, however, before the age of ten by a determined mother, to a twice-widowed and repulsively lecherous 45-year-old man. He died within months of the marriage and she was sent from pillar to post for shelter and education. She persisted in a mission to acquire education, and eventually qualified as an obstetric surgeon. After remarrying at the age of 23, she raised a family of five children and accepted a subordinate position in her new household. Though she continued to practise medicine, she now took up writing and produced poetry, short stories and this memoir.
This is an important historical document. One can reconstruct multiple historiographies from it: societal history, colonial history, women's history and histories of gender, sexuality and violence against women, the history of medical education and of India in the late 19th and early 20th century.
But one marvels at the memoir not as history, but as the hair-raising story of an individual's battle with life. Her battle was not for women's autonomy, but first for survival and then to become educated. Her memoir is thus not a manifesto but an intricate story of her experiences. I share the hope of Theodore Zeldin expressed on the dust-jacket: "Anybody interested in the relationships of men and women, in the tensions of family life, or in the perverse effects of well-intentioned institutions, will find it not just instructive but deeply moving."
Uma Das Gupta is at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, India.
The Memoirs of Dr Haimabati Sen: From Child Widow to Lady Doctor
Editor - Geraldine Forbes and Tapan Raychaudhuri
ISBN - 81 7436 090 5
Publisher - Roli Books, Delhi
Price - £8.95
Pages - 407