Saturday, June 17, 2006

The story of 'Jubie'. (As told by 'Tika.)

A bit of family lore – this time about Ujwal’s (Talpade) family side – as recorded in a school essay by Avantika written in New Jersey:

‘Jubie’, my great grandmother, one of the first Indian women to become a doctor, was born in the sixtieth or Diamond Jubilee Year of Victoria as Empress of India. Although named ‘Shakuntala’ after the heroine of Kalidasa, she was fondly called ‘Jubie’ (short for ‘Jubilee’) thanks to the historic year she was born in.

Jubie grew up into a fair, five-foot-nothing girl with dark long hair and grey-green eyes – and fire in her belly. Though born and brought up in a conservative family, she decided to become a medical professional. When her parents learned of her dream, they were stunned into silence. In those days, girls wore nine-yard sarees, covered themselves demurely with shawls and were married off as soon as they finished high school. Only those who couldn’t find a spouse would pursue higher studies.

But our Jubie’s mind was made up and not even the Almighty could change it. Though her family was not too well off, money didn’t turn out to be the hurdle as scholarships were aplenty. The family did not speak to her for a few months after she entered the Grant Medical College. They would keep her food aside and she would have to eat alone. Only by and by they came to terms with the fact that their darling Jubie who had already given up wearing a shawl putting the whole community’s tail up (“How could a girl like her belonging to a decent family expose herself to the eyes of the whole world?”) was indeed going to become a doctor.

In the college too, it wasn’t smooth going in the beginning. The boys used to rag Jubie saying she had opted for medical education because she couldn’t find a husband. But they too finally came to accept her and respect her as one of them. By not bowing down to convention and familial pressure, Jubie also made it possible for her younger sister, Kusum, to follow her in the corridors of the Grant Medical.

In the meanwhile, the Swaraj (independence) movement was in full swing. Young Indians fired with a nationalistic zeal and answering the call of Mother India were giving up their studies in government schools and colleges. Jubie was studying in the Grant Medical College – which was very much a government college. Unlike her own younger brother, Gajendra Rao (‘Gajumama’), who chucked up his medical studies and never became a doctor, Jubie followed the advice of her favourite school teacher (‘Vaidya Sir’) not to quit college “because India would need doctors even after independence” (to quote his advice in short).

Jubie graduated in 1926 and started working in the Haffkine Institute in Parel in Central Mumbai as a research assistant. Originally known as The Plague Research Institute, opened on 10 August, 1899 by the then Governor of Bombay, Lord Sandhurst, with Dr. W. M. Haffkine as its first Director in Chief, to produce the plague vaccine for use all over India, its name was changed in 1930 and later it began to make rabies vaccine and snake bite anti-venom. Staffed mostly by British, Jubie was among the few Indians working there. As her family lived in South Mumbai, she had to commute to work by a tramcar spending the princely sum of two annas every day for travel.

One day, she happened to reach her work late by two minutes and was reprimanded by her British boss for the blunder. Jubie took the reprimand in her stide and promised herself there and then never to be late again. Says my grandmother, Ujwal, her word was her bond all her life.

In those days, there were a lot many little principalities (known as ‘princely states’) where purdah for women in the harem was very much a part of the princely style of living. Naturally, there was a great demand for women physicians who could look after the harem. Jubie, always the enterprising livewire, got appointed as the State Physician and Gynacologist in the state of Saurashrta (literally “a region of one hundred kingdoms”) in Gujarat, about five hundred miles north of Mumbai, her home town.

Working in a princely harem was no bed of roses though Jubie got her salary in silver biscuits. Though she was a very skillful and competent gynaecologist – she presided over the birth of my grandfather, Deepak, in 1936, for instance – she was no politician. In a harem, when a male child was born to a ruler, his brother who wanted to move up in life would want to have the heir nipped in the cradle if you would pardon me a mixed metaphor. And who else was in the best position to do so but the State Physician and Gynaecologist? Golden carrots would be dangled in front of Jubie as a reward for doing the dirty deed. If you did not become a part of the court intrigue, your life could be in grave danger as well. The fact that my great grand ma didn't die a rich woman although at a ripe old age is enough proof that she managed to tell the Satan to get behind her.

Around the end of the 1930s, she returned to her old job at the Haffkine where her old British colleagues welcomed her with open arms. She also started her own private practice as a general physician setting up a clinic in South Mumbai in an area on the borderline of Hindu and Muslim localities. She had patients from both communities and treated them with equal devotion. Those were the days when at the slightest of excuses, trouble would erupt between Hindus and Muslims. When this happened, her patients from both the sides would see her home safe often risking their own lives in the process.

As India’s Independence Day approached, Jubie’s British colleagues decided to leave for home. So enamoured were they of Jubie’s talent and forthrightness, that they offered her a job in London so as not to lose a valuable member of their team. Jubie remembered her favourite teacher’s advice and decided to stay back. Had she done otherwise, maybe I wouldn’t be here telling you her tale.

[Thank you Avantika, Ujwal and ‘Jubie’ for a great story.]

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