On the Virtual Road

The below was published in the May 2017 issue of The Biographers Craft, the newsletter of Biographers International Organization (BIO).

I recently completed the first draft of the biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, the first Indian woman who became a doctor. I have been at it for seven years, almost the same length of time that BIO has been in existence. In fact, attending the first BIO conference in Boston was one of the first steps I took as I embarked on my biography project.

At the outset I had only two pieces of information—an 1888 biography that was available on Google Books as a free download and a family plot in a cemetery in New York, where Anandi’s ashes are buried. The first so enthralled me that I felt compelled to find out more. The second offered a key to opening the door to that quest.

I was pessimistic about how much primary information I would be able to find relating to my subject. One reason was that the story had taken place during the 1880s—too long ago, I thought, for information about private individuals to be available. Another was my perception that in India there isn’t a great deal of interest, and therefore resources devoted, to preserving historical documents and artifacts. Even so, I was undaunted because I felt a deep personal connection to the story.

I started by googling the names of the individuals who appear at the beginning of the story. Since these are Americans, I hoped to find basic information about those individuals, such as where they were from, where they were educated, and their careers. It was slow going at first. However, I was unconsciously learning about conducting fuzzy searches, even as my brain was adapting to Google’s particularities.

My first payoff was when I found on Google Books the specific issue of the newsletter which launches my story. I had a photocopy of the original letters, and it was thrilling to find a word-for-word match between the photocopies and the printed letters. It was even more useful to read the rest of the newsletter, for it provided the context within which those letters were published. Suddenly it became about much more than the specific letters; it became a story, also, of American missionaries in India and their zeal both for converting Indians to Christianity and for bringing progress to a “heathen” land. I also became newly aware of Indians’ gradual awakening and yearning for progress.

As I became better at online searching, I found that my persistence was rewarded by amazing finds and creative satisfaction. I found a newsletter, published in India, in the online archives of a religious organization here in the U.S. I found the autobiography of the U.S. consul to India, in which he devoted an entire chapter to meeting Anandi. Once again, I found more than I sought—a new angle about progressive nineteenth century Americans and the compelling impression that Anandi made on this one American.

Contemporary books were another important resource. Not knowing how useful a book would ultimately prove, it did not make sense to buy each and every book that seemed promising. Here, the inter-library loan systems were a godsend. I benefited immensely from these library networks as I am not affiliated with a university. They provided me the most obscure of books—free of cost!

I used online archives of newspapers. Besides American ones, I was able to access the archives of newspapers in Singapore and Hong Kong. It was challenging to find the archives of Indian newspapers. Even a visit to the newspaper’s offices in Mumbai did not provide any useful leads. Then, unexpectedly, I came across a recently published book in which there was a reference to archives of Indian newspapers. The author of the book was kind enough to tell me how to access the online archive from a university library—just a short drive from my house!

Using only online tools, I was able to find and purchase copies of articles from the archives of the New York Public Library and the British Library in London.

Last, but not least, I would like to describe my experience with the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. I had found it slow going on a one-day visit to their library. How then would I handle the time and expense of traveling to Boston for several days for a full review of available materials? During a phone call to discuss options, my contact at the Society suggested a solution. They would mail the microfiche film to a branch of my public library in North Carolina. I could use the facilities at that library to review and save copies of pertinent documents. When done, the public library would mail the microfiche reels back to Boston. Amazingly, everything worked out exactly as planned.

My journey along the virtual road was, and continues to be, a rich and satisfying one. It opened new vistas of knowledge that I could not have dared imagine when I first set out. As someone whose day job is in technology, I find it especially gratifying that the most cutting edge tools are being deployed to preserve the past and to make it easily accessible to all.

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Biography as the currency for “paying it forward”

Over the last few years, I read two biographies published in India: “Gandhi Before India” by Dr. Ramachandra Guha and “Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet” by Akshay Manwani. Both were compelling because, as all good books (fiction or nonfiction) do, they reveal the inner life — doubts and motivations — of the subject and they show how all of those resulted in the person’s public stance.

In the Gandhi book, I loved the chapter on Gandhi’s gradual involvement with the Vegetarian Society in London. As for the  Ludhianvi book, it confirmed my belief that the songs in old Hindi movies, the songs that were the soundtrack of my young adulthood, were pure poetry. Moreover, those songs were the only poetry that most of us had the luxury of having in our lives. Most amazingly, it was a poetry that resonated with people across classes, religions, castes, and even languages.

Your mind is a mirror. It observes and reveals the good and the bad actions….”

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Unfortunately,  not many biographies are written and published in India. At a speech that he gave recently, Dr. Guha identified some of the reasons for this. Among those reasons, he mentioned Indians’ indifference to record keeping.

The archives in the country, central and state, are in complete disarray.

I would also add university libraries and newspaper archives to this list.

My sense is that a couple of other reasons also contribute to the lack of interest in biography. One is the focus on the present — the hectic pace of everyday life — which leaves little room for contemplative immersion in a “serious” book. The other is a focus on the future — engagement with what’s around the corner for one’s children, one’s career, the Internet, etc. In comparison, a focus on the past can seem like a self-indulgent waste of time. “What does it matter what happened a long time ago?”

Of course, the same reasons probably come into play here in the U.S. and in other countries around the world as well.

In the same speech, Dr. Guha offered a way to break through this logjam.

Historical Biography is that part of history more allied to literature than any other parts of history.

In other words, the key to engaging readers is a writing style that is more like literature — providing insight and emotional satisfaction by making the reader curious about the past and making him/her care about the subject. The payoff is an answer to the “So what” question – a question that addresses the “present” and “future” preoccupations of readers.

For the present, a well-written biography can provide a sense of wholeness (like an adoptee getting to know her birth family), a new appreciation/understanding of one’s society’s journey to this point, that what seems like  pre-ordained success occurred as a result of many small meandering steps and much striving. For those with an orientation towards the future, it can provide inspiration towards progress and courage to tackle the challenges of the present.

The present is the future’s past.

By seeing that past events and visionaries give us the present, reading a biography can inspire us to act in the present to “pay it forward” for a better future.

Review of “Hidden Figures”

I read “Hidden Figures”, and am looking forward to seeing the movie.

I was drawn to the book because it is a biography of women who accomplish unexpected and extraordinary things despite the many hurdles in their paths. As a woman who loved Mathematics and excelled at it and who still enjoys working with complex data, I felt a special connection to the three heroines of the book.

The real Hidden Figures
The real Hidden Figures

However, the biggest payoff for me was reading about the author’s personal connection to the story and her description of why the story matters.

The practical side of me tends to be enthralled by stories of heroism or sacrifice that provide some sort of an answer to the “so what” question. How does the story illuminate the  present moment? What can we learn from the story? I found very satisfying answers to these questions in “Hidden Figures.”

Here is a sampling:

To a first-time author with no background as a historian, the stakes involved in writing about a topic that was virtually absent from the history books felt high…. I knew I would have to apply the same kind of analytical reasoning to my research as these women applied to theirs.

I relate to this and I like knowing that there is an analytical component to the research that I have undertaken.  Historical research is not only about finding something that happened long ago. It is about placing it in context (then as well as now) and making a sincere attempt to glean its significance.

However, the fact that the topic is virtually absent from the history books also brings great opportunity. It offers readers and viewers who are hungry for the information gathered and it offers a clean slate on which to portray the drama.

Additionally, when the biographer has a personal connection to the story in the form of a shared history, it provides a unique energy and insight to the biographer’s  work.

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The body of work they left behind was a revelation.

This has been my experience as well. The letters that Anandi and Theodocia exchanged first got me hooked. Then, it was the words that people who knew Anandi used to describe her. Here was an exceptional human being and her story deserved to be honored as well as known.

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My investigation became more like an obsession. I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end.

I can relate.

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I was determined to prove their existence and their talent in a way that meant that they would never again be lost to history…. What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved… not at the margins… and not just because they are black, but because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.

My book has two main heroines – Anandi and Theodocia. It has other unexpected American heroines like the Dean of the college (Rachel Bodley) and the biographer Caroline Dall. And, it has unexpected British ones like the unknown teacher Miss Dobson, Queen Elizabeth (indirectly) Ladies Dufferin and Reay (in bit parts).  This makes the story I am telling an Indian epic, and an American / British one as well.

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There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all ethnicities, races, genders, ages and backgrounds.

This has definitely been my experience. The most memorable example was a physical therapist who was treating me. When she asked me what I was doing that weekend and I told her I was planning to attend the Biographers International conference, she was intrigued. As I responded to her many questions about my project, she said, “I have goosebumps just from hearing the story!”

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It is a story of hope that even among some of our country’s harshest realities… there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.

What I would also add is that there is evidence that even in the middle of those harsh realities, their emerge “angels” — people who silently subvert those realities in the interest of progress and fairness and simply because they cannot bear to be passive upholders of the status quo. Also, that our world needs the talents and hard work of each one of us and when segments of the population are left down and out, society as a whole is that much poorer.

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More disheartening is how often we look into the national mirror to see no reflection at all. no discernible fingerprint on what is considered history with a capital H.

I have felt this… in the contexts of both countries I call home, which are also the countries in which the story I am telling takes place.

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But perhaps most important, Katherine Johnson’s story can be a doorway to the stories of all the other women, black and white, whose contributions have been overlooked.

It is my hope that Anandi’s story will open the doorway to the stories of the struggles and contributions of women in traditional societies (not just in India) who have triumphed as well as those who are still waiting for progress to reach them (present day child brides). As well, I hope it will a doorway to the stories of the men and women who nurture their daughters just as much as they do their sons (Malala Yousufzai’s father). Finally, I hope that it will shed light on men and women who were and are fortunate to belong to the empowered class and who used/use that privilege to actively work to help those who were/are less so.