The first “Brahmin” woman

I think of Anandi as the first Indian woman who left India to obtain an education.   However, both Anandi and her husband Gopal never identified themselves as Indian, choosing instead to introduce themselves as Brahmins.

By present-day standards, this form of identification is a bit jarring. Like asserting one’s elite status based on nothing more than the accident of birth. Below is an attempt to understand the social classes and citizenship status of Indians during the 1880s.

  1. The Joshees lived in a society that was organized along caste lines. Stringent rules governed every aspect of  their lives breaking any of which could lead to excommunication. Everything, ranging from everyday meal preparation to arranging marriages to conducting business, was done within the confines of one’s community. In a sense, their Brahmin-ness — more than the region (Maharashtra), religion (Hindu), or language (Marathi) — defined their identity.
  2. The concept of an “Indian” nation or nationality was no more than a gleam in the eyes of a few radicals. The Indian nation – or more aptly, the British Raj – extended from as far west as Afghanistan to as far east as Burma, incorporating within it an enormous diversity of races, languages and religions.   In other words, an “Indian” identity was too diffuse as well as too theoretical to be of practical use.
  3. Due to job transfers, the Joshees moved to far flung parts of India (Kalyan, Alibaug, Bombay, Bhuj and Calcutta over a span of just four years). In these towns and cities, the quickest and easiest way to get oriented was to connect with other Brahmins, who they knew would accept them without reservations.
  4. When interacting with the British or Americans (or other whites), the Joshees mentioned their Brahmin-ness as a “brand” indicating a tradition of education and membership in the class of native elites.

However, being an iconoclast, Gopal was quite clear-eyed about the weaknesses of Brahmin society. In a letter seeking help to educate Anandi, he introduced himself as a Brahmin, but then went on to say:

As every reform must begin at home, I considered it my duty to give my wife a thorough education, that she might be able to impart it to her sisters, but customs and manners and caste prejudices have been a strong barrier to my views being prosecuted. …. On the other hand, female education is much looked down upon among all Brahmins, the highest class of people in India.

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