Sorabji’s book gives in-depth account of aunt’s struggle


February 24, 2011

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In the early 1880s, Cornelia Sorabji became the first woman to be ever granted admission into the University of Bombay. Defying expectations, she scored a first class in her exams, and when the University’s Convocation Hall was inaugurated in 1887, she was the first to be awarded a degree.

By Aarefa Johari, Hindustan Times

On Wednesday, more than a hundred years later, Cornelia’s nephew Richard Sorabji held up her original degree at that very spot in the university, at the launch of his biography of the “reformer, lawyer and champion of women’s rights in ”.

The book, Opening Doors: The Untold Story of Cornelia Sorabji, is an in-depth account of Cornelia’s struggles to study and practice the law as a woman, her reform work for oppressed Hindu widows, her hidden love affair with an elderly English judge in Allahabad and her clash with Gandhi.

“My aunt had struggled hard and she achieved a lot. It would be a pity if it was not recorded,” said Sorabji, a London-based philosophy professor who began working on the book after retirement seven years ago.

The author was 19 when Cornelia, his father’s sister, died in London in 1954, and he remembers her as a woman who wore “bright saris” on London streets even during the gloom of World War II. 

Born to a Parsi father who had converted to Christianity and an Indian mother raised by an English couple, Cornelia grew up as “the darling of the Victorians”.

“Though she was not anti-national, she believed in gradually changing British legislation, and Gandhi’s idea of civil disobedience was revolting to her,” said Sorabji.

Cornelia spent most of her life representing cases of women and orphans as a legal advisor, and establishing her career as a woman barrister.

“Though she lived in and , sometimes she felt she belonged to neither because she was isolated by both,” said Sorabji, who studied over 1,500 of his aunt’s personal letters to write this book.