Professor's book charts journey of Indian child widow turned trailblazer

The latest publication from SUNY Oswego Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Geraldine Forbes traces the life of a remarkable woman who sheds light on often-unseen scenes of colonial-era India.

“Because I Am a Woman: A Child Widow’s Memoirs from Colonial India” traces the life of Haimabati Sen from troubled childhood to respected doctor and trailblazer. One of Sen’s grandsons gave Forbes the memoirs, written in a series of notebooks, and she worked with Tapan Raychaudhuri, a retired professor from St. Antony’s College of Oxford and renowned scholar of India, for the translation.

Distinguished Teaching Professor Geraldine Forbes.“In all our years, neither of us had ever seen anything quite like it,” Forbes said of the memoirs. “We were both astounded.”

Forbes and Raychaudhuri first translated the memoirs into a full scholarly work, published in 2000. The new, more concise book factors in context Forbes gained from interviews with family members and further research, edited for length and repetition, augmented by photographs and published by Chronicle Books.

“This is attempting to make what I think is one of the most extraordinary manuscripts ever found into something people can read more broadly,” Forbes said.

They were captivated both by Sen’s amazing story and the candor with which she told it, Forbes said.

Outcast to inspiration

Sen was born in the 1860s to a family with fortunes falling from powerful landlords and landed gentry to losing nearly everything over land squabbles and other challenges. “By the time her father and mother die, they really are penniless,” Forbes said.

At the time, girls of Sen’s social status were discouraged from getting an education because “it was considered bad luck,” Forbes said. But Sen “hangs out at the edge of the classroom and learns everything without reading a book herself” as her brothers and cousins took lessons, and she would yell out the answers when the teacher asked. The teacher convinced Sen’s father to let her pursue an education and the child proved brilliant and picked things up quickly, Forbes said.
But when other women in the family learned of Sen’s education, they protested and the child was, like many others of the time, married young—at around 10 years of age—to a man in his 40s. Her husband, who apparently led a troubled life, died within a year of marriage and Sen—as an 11-year-old widow—found herself a virtual outcast. “This was in a society where there were no widow remarrying rights for women,” Forbes said.

With neither her husband’s family nor her own offering sympathy or help, Sen continued learning informally and undertook a series of adventures with jobs ranging from teacher to governess. She tried to find a foothold in Calcutta, where progressive reformers pushed for widow remarriage rights, particularly for self-professed virgin widows like Sen.

Medical turn

In Calcutta at the time, the Army had begun giving medical training to Indian men to help colonial doctors, and when public demand for medical help far exceeded supply, women were allowed to study as well. Sen earned a scholarship, rose to the top of her class and became the doctor at a women’s hospital in a Dutch settlement near Calcutta.

Able to remarry just before enrolling in the medical program, Sen subsequently found herself not only doing outstanding work as a doctor, including house calls, but also supporting her husband and five children. After working at the hospital from 1894 to 1910, Sen went into private practice until she died in 1933.

“It’s really exciting to think of an Indian woman of that era to have a 40-year career,” Forbes said. “That’s substantial.”

Family members said Sen became known as someone who would stop women from being beaten in public and would help those in need. “She became this champion of the oppressed,” Forbes said. “Despite her challenges, what she accomplished through her drive, her ambition and her determination was quite remarkable.”

The memoir is especially notable for its honest portrayal of the problems and perils of women at the time, as most early biographies of oppressed groups tend to be sympathetic to the societal order, Forbes said. “She gets into the inner workings of the family and her own relationships, and you get this critique of the center of women’s lives” in that era, Forbes said. Sen’s memoir “breaks the silence” on a lot of issues such as the various levels of abuse many women suffered at the time, she added.

PHOTO CAPTION: Remarkable tale—The latest book from SUNY Oswego Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Geraldine Forbes, “Because I Am a Woman: A Child Widow’s Memoirs from Colonial India,” traces the life of Haimabati Sen from troubled childhood to respected doctor and trailblazer.

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(Posted: Nov 24, 2010)