To Teach Women in Colonial India: New Novel By Harini Nagendra

By: Harini Nagendra

“I have brothers and sisters and I find that my sisters are as intelligent as my brothers.”

Digitally leafing through stacks of archival documents on 20th century colonial Bangalore as part of my academic research on the city’s ecological history, this sentence struck me with force. Mr. B.V. Ramaswami, a member of the Mysore Representative Assembly, was speaking passionately at a debate on the right of women to vote, and to education and teach women, during a meeting of the Mysore Representative Assembly in 1922. Ramaswami’s statement may seem obvious to us. But a century back, the possibility that women might become as educated and empowered as men was a matter of concern—even fear—for many men.

Indeed, Ramaswami’s fellow member Mr. M. Subbaiya rejected the suggestion to enroll women into the Representative Assembly with force, saying that “it will be one century before you can get one woman to vote in the villages and other places.” (He would clearly not have made a good fortune teller). Subbaiya’s justification? The fact that women in India were less educated than men. In his words, ‘In England and other places women possess equal qualifications and equal properties with men. How many women can we find here that possess such qualifications? If we search the whole of the Bangalore Taluk we won’t find ten women.’

While Subbaiya exaggerated the situation in the UK, he was right when he spoke of the poor levels of education of women in Bangalore. This was somewhat strange. There was no dearth of women who wanted to study—nor of political support. Bangalore was Mysore State’s largest city, ruled by the progressive Maharaja of Mysore. His queen ran the Maharani’s Girls School for women in Mysore, and the royal family was keen to promote women’s education. They subsidized schools, banned infant marriage, and promoted the education of child widows, later employing them as teachers. Even so, opportunities for women who wanted to study beyond primary school were limited, with only 1-2 women in every thousand making it to high school. Their families would not permit it, and society was closed to the possibility.

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Set in Bangalore in 1921, my debut historical mystery ‘The Bangalore Detectives Club’ features a budding mathematician as its heroine. Mrs. Kaveri Murthy, newly married to an up and coming doctor in Bangalore, dreams of completing her matriculation and eventually taking on a college degree in mathematics, becoming a teacher. While her husband is very supportive, her mother-in-law Bhargavi is decidedly against it. At the start of the book, we see Kaveri studying mathematics in secret, hiding her textbooks in a loft. She climbs a ladder to retrieve them when her mother-in-law is out of the house, practicing her sums in secret for fear her mother-in-law might scold her. By the end of the book, Kaveri has grown in confidence, aided by her husband’s support. She begins to teach other women in the neighborhood how to read and write, fulfilling a life-long aspiration of theirs.

In depicting the challenges that Kaveri faced, I was driven by the experiences of women in my own family. My father’s mother was born in 1907 in the neighbouring state of Madras, in the times of the British Raj. My grandmother Satyavathi loved reading—I have vivid memories of her spending hours with her prayer books, and getting her fix of the daily news from the newspaper. She almost didn’t learn how to read, though. Her father was a lawyer, an educated man, who educated his sons to be lawyers too. But girls like her, from ‘respectable’ families, were not allowed to study in public schools, sitting alongside young boys. Her elder sister took matters into her own hands one day, when she was about six, and my grandmother about four years old, deciding that they were going to school, and towing my grandmother along. The school teacher, impressed by the two young girls who so badly wanted to study, came to their house and requested their father— my great grandfather—for permission to teach them.

He refused. The girls had to go on hunger strike before their father would permit them to attend primary school.

Although my grandmother did learn how to read and write—in English and Tamil—she was not allowed to study for too long. She was married at a young age—as were most other young women in those times. Her husband, my grandfather, was a school teacher who taught English, Hindi and Mathematics. But her place was in the home, living a life of domesticity as ordained by men. As Subbaiya put it, prejudice oozing from every patronizing pore ‘We consider our ladies to be the guardian angels of our houses…Do you want to dethrone them from their godliness and bring them down to sit here?’ (i.e. the representative assembly).

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A princely state in colonial India, Mysore State was far more progressive than many other parts of British India in encouraging women to study, because of the interest taken by the royal family. A number of vernacular Kannada and Urdu girls’ schools were opened in villages across the State, taking in young girls from different communities. Protestant and Catholic missionary schools flourished alongside, especially in larger towns and cities. By 1918, in Bangalore, one out of every two girls between the age of seven and ten years was in school—quite an impressive achievement for those times.

Those women who were fortunate to be allowed to complete their matriculation, as Kaveri longed to, had a fairly restricted choice of colleges they could attend. A number of obstacles were thrown at them. English, science and mathematics were essential subjects for older girls who wanted to enter high school, but local administrators stood in the way of education in these subjects. They insisted that girls be taught only in vernacular languages, and stated that older girls could not be taught by men. Because of the Maharaja’s support, these proposals were defeated. More families began to delay the marriage of their daughters, and to educate them.

College however still remained an elusive goal. Science and mathematics, considered the hallmark of modernity and progress, remained the preserve of men. Women’s colleges, such as the Maharani’s college in Mysore, were denied permission to begin Bachelors courses in Science on various flimsy grounds. Young women were discouraged from attending ‘boys colleges’ such as the Central College in Bangalore, where they would be taught by male teachers, sitting in the company of other young men. With such conditions in place, it was hardly surprising that there was a starting problem – where would the first women graduates study, and who would teach them? Despite the support of the royal family, and the equally progressive Dewans (Prime Ministers) of Mysore, women’s education in Mysore proceeded in fits and starts, opposed by men of power at every stage.

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The 1920s was a true Golden Era, not just for the US but also the rest of the world. With the conclusion of the first World War, new possibilities were beginning to open up for young women. Kaveri is a young woman who contests societal expectations, as she swims in a sari, drives a car, works out complex algebra problems, and solves murders. Through Kaveri’s explorations, I seek to highlight the mood of the times—an era of strife and struggle, but also of great potential and possibility for women.

While conducting research for the book, I came across a number of inspiring stories of women of the times—coffee entrepreneurs, journalists who launched women’s magazines, women poets, suffragettes, and many others. These women broke boundaries, and in doing so, blazed a path for others to follow. I look forward to introducing these women and their stories to readers through the further adventures of Kaveri.



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