An Excerpt from the life of Dosebai Cowasjee Jessawalla


August 28, 2014

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Old school English stands proud


Article by Bhavani Krishna Iyer | The Sun Daily Malaysia


THERE have been generous outpourings of all things women in the past weeks, among others, and I am not sure if I missed what the occasion was. I am especially intrigued by men who write in support of women as such occasions are rare.

I am not a feminist and do not support radicalism in championing any cause. In the same breath I will not deny that I do support women’s groups who stand up to be heard.

With my interest on women’s issues revived, I scoured my book shelf and found this book, Women’s Voices: Selections from Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Indian Writing in English. What started as an interlude, took me away for hours.

This is an anthology of texts by women writers of that time but in this forum I will just do a shallow sweep.

I have read this book before but this time around, the reading gave me a different sort of enjoyment. I paid particular attention to the language that flowed and weaved in and out of the writer’s mind.

A chapter is dedicated to Dosebai Cowasjee Jessawalla, a Parsee and born in 1832. Dosebai was known as the “first Indian girl to receive the benefits of English education”. Excerpts from her autobiographical account The Story of My Life (1911) captures copious accounts of her life, dealing with the absurdities of being a female.

In the chapter, “The First Empress of India”, Dosebai describes what she perceives as an odd occasion, her travel to Delhi to attend the Durbar, which is a public reception held by the ruler or someone of similar standing.

It appears to me from her jottings, that the non-reception to her outdoor presence at that time (about mid-19th century) is perceived such through her foggy lens, to be impolite and graceless for a woman.

There could have been some reverberations but the gross exaggeration is evident through the use of forceful words and complex sentences in her text, probably from her wronged computations in her mind, despite the English education.

As I read one exploring how language played a part in Dosebai’s severity of expression more than anything else, I feel small for not being as good.

The paragraph, “I set all necessary preparations in train and kept our intentions scrupulously secret to ward off the story of ridicule and scandal which a rumour of this new departure from old custom would have called down on my devoted head”.

“Scrupulously”, in this context magnifies the seriousness of her intent to keep her visit under wraps lest she would upset the “gate-keepers”.

Where it is needed, her blunt attacks are painful enough, “Is it a Parsee female’s business to mix in such demonstrations”. I particularly enjoyed this line, not with any particular malice, “Parsee men were notoriously selfish and had monopolised to themselves every pleasure and indulgence, fancying that women were only created for household drudgery”.

Picking out some pretty phrases which translate into simple meanings, it is the way her language dances to her mood that adds colour and vigour to the text. For example, “I determined to avail myself of this favourable opportunity”, is simply, ” I decided to make use of this opportunity”.

“Bear me company” to mean “come with me”. In the same vein as she attacks the men, she does not spare the fairer sex , “… I have tried to stimulate the dormant energies of my sisters and to open to them paths hitherto debarred …”

Mocking women for their lack of zest, she says, “It is quite unaccountable to me why the native ladies in affluent circumstances should be backward in taking their legitimate place in the grand state ceremonials”. Dosebai is venting her frustration against women who do not mind being kept indoors, after all.

On women who choose not to break away from the shackle of domination, “I proposed in jest that ten or twenty of our club should go to Delhi assemblage to which the answer was, it is not for us to encounter such difficulties, even if we go to Delhi, we females would not be able to openly enjoy any of the sights”.

Dosebai later spouts more criticism on women who on one hand cry suppression and subjugation and on the other hand refuse to stand up to be seen and heard.

Dosebai does not mince words when it comes to making a point. It appears that the drudgery women were subjected were due to their own idiosyncratic thoughts and inactions.

At the time of writing, the nation is mourning the loss of lives in MH17 and I offer my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of those who pointlessly perished.