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Book excerpt: When my grandmother dared my grandfather to propose

In the book My Ajji and I, Dr Nilima Kadambi, writes about her grandmother’s incredible journey from being orphaned at two, becoming a bride at nine and a widow at 10 to her becoming a doctor in the 1920s.

books Updated: Jun 05, 2017 16:01 IST

Maharshi Karve took a very personal interest in Atukai’s life and welfare. The Karve family opened their hearts and their doors for her. My grandma fondly called him Annasaheb. Akutai had no money, thus even though her schooling and lodging were free at the Sanstha, she had to work to pay for books, clothes and board. She did part-time jobs in the Sanstha’s kitchen and the Hingne office throughout her stay there. This culture of encouraging students to work part-time while studying to help pay for their education has been embraced by the West and is very strong in the US. The concept of dignity of labour and the joy of self-sufficiency after 16 to 18 years of age, still needs to be embraced by Indian students and educational institutions.

Maharshi Karve’s granddaughter Kundatai Nene, who is now in her eighties, is one of the trustees of the Karve Stree Shikshan Sanstha, as it is now called. She continues to actively support the governance of this wonderful institution even at this ripe old age. I had the rare opportunity to meet her along with my father in Pune, in February 2012 and she shared her memories of her grandfather with me, and encouraged me to write this book.

She also shared the interesting story that she had learnt to swim at Hingne in the Krishnaji Talav. This was the swimming pool that was constructed with donations to the Institute by my Ajji Sarladevi, in the name of her father-in-law Dr. Krishnaji Khot. She believed swimming to be an essential skill that girls should be taught early in life. There is mention of this Talav with photographs in the coffee table book in Marathi, Maharshi Annasaheb Karve - 105 Varshaache Jeevan Darshan. Kundatai has verbally assured me that this book will get translated into Marathi so that many more students at Hingne can enjoy reading it. She was very happy when I told her that I planned to donate all the proceeds from this book to the Karve Stree Shikshan Sanstha Trust, as my token of gratitude for what they have done for my grandma, in her time of need. In fact, one might say I owe my very existence to Ajji and the Hingne Institute!

Shri Karve gave Akutai the necessary encouragement to think big and aim high. Instead of settling for a diploma or degree that would allow her to become a school teacher, a common choice for women in those times. Annasaheb made her consider more challenging options, like a career in medicine. He arranged for Akutai’s stay with his family friends in Bombay from 1921 to 1923, so that she could do her pre-medical studies in an English medium school. This would enable her to apply to the B.J. Medical School in Pune.

Medicine was not a career of choice for young women in those days as it was a long and arduous course that required them to work alongside young men in the hospital wards. They would be required to do night duties in the emergency department and the delivery room. Such close proximity with men was frowned upon by society, and therefore very few families allowed their daughters to join medical schools. However, it was accepted that girls from poor families would train to be nurses and work in the same hospitals to support the doctors.

Akutai was blessed with a sharp intellect and a love of life sciences, thus she was a natural fit for medical school. Her inborn sense of the value of every human life as a gift from God, combined with the urge to reach out and help people in need made it ideal for her to pursue medicine as a vocation. Additionally, as a doctor, she would automatically get the respect she deserved in society, as this has always been seen as a noble and respectable profession. The decision to become a doctor changed Akutai’s life. Society would finally permit her to overcome the negative impact of her status as a social outcast and a child widow and allow her to live the rest of her life with dignity and grace.

Becoming a doctor also gave her the chance to meet a wonderful young man, Gopalrao Khot, who was to become her life partner. Young Gopalrao was a fellow student at B.J. Medical School, and a strong supporter of women’s empowerment. He came to be my dear and daring grandfather!

After Akutai, many more young women from the Chitnis, Deshpande and Khot families and other young women from her village were sent to Hingne, Pune and Bombay to pursue higher education. Leela Deshpande, Akutai’s sister Rangutai’s younger daughter, became a nurse and Gulab Lad, Gopalrao’s cousin, became a librarian after studying there. Gulab Atya, as we called her, came with us to Tokyo in 1969 to help take care of my newborn younger sister Rashmi. She took a two-year leave of absence from Hingne, where she worked as an office clerk, to be with our family. Many years later in 1989, Leela Deshpande, whom I call Choti Atya (‘Choti’ means small, and she is a tiny person too) came to Hyderabad to help take care of my six-month-old daughter Pooja, when I had to join my duties at KEM Hospital after my maternity leave ended. I was keen to continue with my specialisation in paediatric surgery. Both ladies were very loving, large-hearted persons who put their own lives on hold to help us in our times of need. No words are adequate to express the love and gratitude we feel. I feel this ability of reaching out to help those in need was inculcated in them while studying at Hingne and by observing my Ajji reach out time and again, to those in need.

Soon after graduating from B.J. Medical School with an L.C.P.S. degree in 1928, Dr. Gopalrao Khot, who was known to have feminist views, was invited to address a public gathering in support of women’s education and widow remarriage. He spoke vociferously in support of women’s empowerment. Dr. Akutai Chitnis was in the audience. She stood up and challenged him: ‘It is very easy to say you believe in widow remarriage but do you have the guts to act in keeping with these lofty ideals that you are preaching? I too am a doctor and I also happen to be a child widow. Will you marry me?’ Young Gopalrao did not hesitate even for a moment. He accepted the public proposal made by this brave young woman, before an appreciative audience.

Both my grandparents graduated from B.J. Medical School with an L.C.P.S. (Licentiate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons) degree in 1928. Coincidentally, my husband Vivek and I, too, were classmates at the same B.J. Medical College and graduated with MBBS degrees in 1985!

My Ajji and I
Publisher: AuthorsUpFront

Pages: 176

Price: Rs 350

Excerpted with permission from My Ajji and I, Nilima Kadambi, AuthorsUpFront.