It was K S Narendran who spoke about the book first and i thank him for not just pointing to this gem but also lending it to me to read across a short trip to Ahmedabad. There are times, when one is offered beautiful gifts and Naren, this was a real gem
It is so rare to come across a real-life narrative that so poignantly captures a series of heroic quests and the story of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy is truly an inspiring gift.
VR Devika writes a magnificent tale of a woman born in the devadasi community, who is indeed a trailblazer (as the title promises) across several journeys — including the first woman to become a surgeon to an activist for women rights, to battle a conservative patriarchy that supports a cruel inhumane tradition of the devadasis in the name of tradition, and to join and walk along with thinkers and leaders such as Gandhi, Annie Besant and others.
For those of us, who are starved and yearn for stories on brilliant and courageous women, I would recommend this book. Written as a biography, Devika writes brilliantly of a woman who transforms and evolves and yet embeds this narrative in an understated tone, accessible language, and with lines that sear your memory cells forever. Devika also uses the historical canvass as a backdrop from the late 1800s to the 1960s — enabling you as the reader, to understand, nay comprehend the sheer significance of Muthulakshmi’s achievements. For example her quest to raise the minimum marriageable age from 12 to 18 for women and across decades has Dr. Reddy waging a long battle — with ups and downs.
Three aspects of the story stood out for me:
a) Muthulakshmi never languishes in the victim mindset.
There is a sense of an abundance and generosity mindset, and this coupled with courage and tenacity becomes a key resource for her. Throughout her life, she is never seen to be angry, victimised, despairing — she is attacked by men from her childhood for her social identity of being a ‘devadasi’ — a community of women who have been painted by men in bizarre fashion. Much like the ‘Geishas’, the devadasis were ‘romantically?’ painted by some men as the ‘owners’ of art, aesthetics, music, and dance, and with powerful patrons… these narratives pale before the common man’s judgment of the community, and perhaps these are closer to the truth — as that of women bought and owned by powerful men, as prostitutes and whores.
Devika in her writing, paints Muthulakshmi as an intense brilliant women, never imprisoned by shame and judgement, but as someone who just courageously walks along. There is a time when she becomes the first woman to join a college that offered, unsurprisingly, education only to men. She sits in the classroom that is divided bv a screen, sits alone, facing the teacher, and is to have no connect with the boys — she has to skulk in and then out, before the ‘innocent boys’ get seduced, tainted, and tarnished by the devadasi woman. She of course tops the college and walks straight into a medical school.
Even in her older years, as she battles in courts and in public dialogue spaces, she does not get trapped in the victim mindset. Devika refers to a line of her opponents who support the devadasi movement — a line that i am not likely to forget easily — that of seeing the devadasi commune as “social institution (for men) where women offer sacred safety valves to men” — she is not provoked…
b) Muthulakshmi never gets trapped in stereotypes
It is interesting how these days, we use labels such as the ‘the colonists’, ‘the patriarchs’, ‘the feminists’ …
Devika as an author draws our attention to numerous people from white men who are compassionate, white women who share similar histories of exploitation of women by men, royalty who are compassionate and generous, men including her father who may be labelled as weak hypocrites, women who are strong despite their frailties such as Muthulakshmi’s mother, and men who are spontaneous and generous including her husband…
Devika presents a set of people who are human beings and do not fit in one label or the other — and thus offers a valuable gift — of not getting stuck with stereotypes and labels, but to see people as who they are — human, unique, irrational, emotional, generous, beyond their dark sides.
Muthulakshmi also evolves as a person — at times she is seen as role-bound, self sacrificing martyr, but there are also other loveable parts of her — there is a period of time, where she is earning more than her husband, who too is a doctor, and there are times when she relishes her travels to UK and to USA, meeting brilliant people and building a network that offers her many a resources for her varied quests. There are references to how she impacted Gandhi and partnered with him on empowering women. In the latter years of her life (in 1960s), she offers herself to all others as the loving mother offering a touch and not just her intellectual acumen or a sense of justice.
c) Muthulakshmi — Valuing and leveraging serendipitous connects but to a Purpose beyond Self
As one reads the book, it offers a journey where one marvels at how Muthulakshmi is also fortuitous, and how she comes across well-meaning, discerning, and compassionate Others from various fields and parts of the world. Muthulakshmi seems to have graciously received these gifts from each of them, and yet devoted and transformed these serendipitous connects into alliances and friendships that are also imbued with a sense of Purpose — a purpose that goes beyond self and mutuality.
Muthulakshmi becomes a brilliant surgeon and then works on cancer for decades. However, she remains open (unlike the doctors in my family) to explore traditional medicine and practices — exploring a relatedness between modern science and for lack of better words — ancient wisdom.
So it leaves the reader breathless, as she moves from one arena to the other within medicine, and across — including law, constitution and politics, institution building for women, without appearing to be arrogant, fixed, and wanting.
If ever i was to talk about a story of a person who lived the ‘Growth Mindset’ — I would quote this brilliant woman as a exemplary and an icon.
In the EUM framework, this aspect can be best described as a fusion of UPA, UMI and UDS (please do read up on my other blogs on the EUM framework or visit our website — www.eumlens.org) — a fusion where both the individual sense of purpose, excellence, achievement gets integrated with a larger collective purpose, without one being sacrificed for the other.
I personally am convinced that this book should be read by all — but especially by young women and young men. For all my reading, I never knew about this woman — and her tale is a wonderful gift.
I think the author — Devika has penned this book beautifully and i do hope to meet her one day (through Naren of course) and offer not just my gratitude but understand her research and her interests.