First Lady

A short story by Rituparna Khan about Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, the one of the first practising lady doctors of British India and South East Asia.

“New Eden Hospital for Women and Children, Calcutta,” an engraving, 1882

It was 1894, Eden Hospital, Kolkata. A young, married woman was brought to the hospital by her husband and mother-in-law. They were in a state of confusion and plight. The young woman was smarting with acute abdominal pain. The lady doctor present in the emergency department was asked to look into the matter by the Hospital Super.

“What! A lady doctor? Is she a doctor or just a mid-wife?” exclaimed the arrogant husband of the poor, suffering wife. “So many doctors have checked my wife and tried to diagnose the cause of her pain and bulging abdomen. They couldn’t understand how to operate the tumour. They all failed. Now, what will this woman do? Does she have a proper degree?” He almost created a scene at the reception.

The poor wife lay quietly on a bench, suffering in patience.

Disturbed by the din and bustle a lady came out. Attired in an impeccable, sober get up she tried to understand the reason for such a cacophony in the hospital corridor. In a while, she came to know that she was the reason of that humdrum and confusion. Hardly paying any attention to the arrogant husband, she asked the attendants to take the woman inside a cabin to examine her thoroughly. After proper examination she was certain that the woman was pregnant. Though there were some complications, it was far from a case of a tumour.

She came out of the cabin to share the good news of motherhood of the arrogant husband’s wife.

“Chatterjee Babu, you might have doubts on my medical abilities and degrees, but the fact is, your wife is not suffering from any tumor. She is going to be the mother of your child. Though there is some complication in her pregnancy, it can be sorted with proper treatment and regular checkup.” explained the lady doctor with her usual self composure.

The mother-in-law was elated to get the news. After so many years, her beloved bouma (daughter-in-law) would be giving an heir to the family. The husband was befuddled, yet happy to gather the news.

“Take her home now. I shall visit her every alternate day for check up, if you really believe that a so-called mid-wife like me can be any good to your pregnant wife Chatterjee Babu,” she spoke with composed and authoritative demeanor.

The embarrassed husband fell short of words to apologise for his misbehaviour. He was inquisitive about the identity of that lady doctor. However, he felt it would belittle him to ask her for her name openly.

The lady could read his mind from his inquisitive eyes. She invited him to her chamber to remove his doubts. The she began another story:

“A girl was born in 1861 in Chandsi, in Bengal’s Barisal district (now in Bangladesh). A born protagonist in a family of five siblings and guided by a very stern and orthodox mother, she was the apple of her father’s eye. A few years after she was born, the family shifted to Bhagalpur district of Bihar and settled there. Her childhood was strongly influenced by the Bengal Renaissance and her father, Braja Kishore Basu, was a renowned champion of the Brahmo Samaj. He was the headmaster of the local school and a dedicated soul to female emancipation. He was also the co-founder of Bhagalpur Mahila Samiti in 1863, the first of its kind of women’s organisation in India.

A steadfast, straight forward, fearless girl from the early days of her life, she was always at the forefront of all social services in her village for which most of the time she received brickbats rather than bouquets. But that couldn’t curb her indomitable spirit. Much to the society’s annoyance, her mother’s dismay and much to her father’s ardent belief in her, this little girl wanted to be a doctor, the first female doctor who could serve people, especially, women.”

After delivering this short yet mesmerizing monologue, she paused. She asked the husband to follow her to the cabin to see his wife. Happy, yet befuddled, the man followed the stately lady.

Chatterjee Babu was relieved to find the real reason for his wife’s ailment. He comforted his shy wife and asked her to rely on the doctor’s advice.

“Madam, please continue with the story,” he pleaded.

“Yes, I shall, and I wanted to share this other half of the story with both you and your wife. So, I asked you to come here. Please sit there on the chair.” She instructed.

Again, she began: “The little girl reached adolescence. She was more determined than ever to go for higher studies to become a doctor and serve her nation. All were against her rebellious ideals except her father, who supported her.

“It was 1875. The village and its vicinity were badly infected by cholera. This young girl along with her brothers went from door to door providing required aid to the poor, hapless patients. That was not all since more challenges awaited her.

“One fine morning her cousin, Braja Babu’s niece, was dropped off in her uncle’s home because she was suffering from cholera. Her orthodox in-laws were not ready to keep her in their house. Braja Babu’s family members, including the mother of the ailing girl were not prepared to accept her entry into their house. The poor girl was given refuge in the shabby cow shed. She was left to die in grief. This young girl couldn’t bear the plight of her cousin sister. She asked the family members to call a doctor for her treatment. In those days getting treated by a Saheb (British) doctor was a sin. It was considered to be more glorious to die than get touched, examined and treated by a male British doctor.

“With no other options left, the younger cousin hatched a daring plan. She went to the British doctor at the local dispensary and asked him to visit her cousin in disguise of a female mid-wife. She also requested the doctor not to touch her sick cousin. She requested guidance to help him examine her cousin. She wanted to be his hands effectively. The doctor was stunned at the courage and self-confidence exhibited by the young teen. Half-heartedly, he went to the patient. The girl examined her cousin exactly in the way the doctor instructed. To his utter surprise, the girl could successfully diagnose that her cousin was not infected with cholera. She was just pregnant. Later, the family members came to know the truth. Though they were angry to start with. As a result of her father’s intervention and the doctor’s certification about bravery and wisdom of the young girl, she was spared. In a few months her cousin gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

“That was also a story of a true diagnosis of a pregnant woman. After eighteen years, this is also a story of diagnosis of pregnancy of another woman. In both the situations, the examiner who could make the proper diagnosis was and is this lady, sitting in front of you, a lady doctors at this hospital. That day also no one wanted to believe in her, a young teenager from a village. Today also the scenario has not changed much. Why should you believe that an Indian lady may be competent enough to be a successful doctor! But you believe it or not Chatterjee Babu, the fact is that I am a lady doctor with proper degrees and am interested to treat your wife if you allow me to do so.”

Ashamed of his earlier arrogant presumptions, the man apologised. He was certain that his wife was in safe hands under the treatment of this lady. Happily, he came out of the chamber with his wife.

At the next instance he exclaimed to his wife, “Oho Monorama, I forgot to ask her name. Who is she?” With these words he turned towards her chamber again.

Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, FRCS, LRCP, England: the board at the entrance of the chamber blinded his eyes with utter befuddlement.

“How stupid of me! She is Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, the first practising lady doctor of India and South East Asia. How could I be so blind, arrogant and prejudiced? Who could be the best option for my Monorama and our family than this magnanimous human being and a great doctor? Oh God! I have no face to stand in front of her and beg an apology. You please forgive me.”



Rituparna Khan is a creative writer. “Tales told and Untold” is her collection of short stories. “Melting Thoughts” is her collection of poetry. By profession she is a geographer.



Hope never dies; not even during the times of Corona

By Rituparna Mahapatra

This feels so dystopian. The world today. The television streaming clippings of people, suddenly thrown out of work and asked to leave, to go back to wherever; just leave. Isolation is the keyword, it seems. Lock yourself in your homes, if you don’t have a home somewhere; in a drain pipe, a hole, a box anywhere. Just leave they have been told. They have been let down by the cities of their dreams, the people they worked for, the world collectively. Can we do anything about it? Nothing! And we hang our heads in shame, in our living rooms.

Panic grips as I learn, in Italy the death toll has crossed ten thousand. I don’t want to know, but the WhatsApp forwards, don’t let me be. I have heard great leaders speak that they have everything under control, the fear on their faces, still visible. I don’t believe them. I look for the latest data on a live update on the virus, my finger going touching the names of the places, I had dreams of visiting.

I live in one of the most affluent cities in the world, we have been blessed with abundance. Food, water, electricity, shelter. our city is being sanitized I hear, and I feel protected. But then fear is not far behind, every time I get to know someone, who is not supposed to have stepped out of the home; is irresponsible.

The truth is, none of us is safe anymore, anywhere. Dubai, New Delhi, New York, Madrid, Rome, Paris; all of them vulnerable, and heartachingly weak in the face of this Pandemic. I try and think of something cheerful and look at a picture of our friends on my phone at the last house party.  So, we decide to meet online, the familiar faces smiling back to me from a computer screen. We laugh, chat and raise a toast. It feels like ‘almost normal’.  It will be a while till we get to hug them touch them, till then these smiling faces are good enough. I am thankful for them. This will be over soon. This surreal life that we are living in.

Our kids are attending school from their bedrooms, sometimes huddled in their beds; their identities shrunk to initials. Their beloved teachers are just faces attempting to cheer them up while teaching. They struggle to focus on solving that equation, while the pet dog lying at their feet is vying for attention. Dogs and cats are immune to the virus, I am told. You can hug them as much as you can. That for me seems to be the only silver lining.

I share pictures of my cooking with my friends, a beautiful watermelon and feta cheese salad, tossed with balsamic vinegar. I have stocked up well to cook exotic meals so that my family is not bored. I have planned our meals for days in advance, every meal promises to be a surprise, to bring a twinkle in the eye. While I bask and revel in my culinary and ‘disaster management skills’; a friend shares a picture of an old lady walking alone towards home thousands of miles away, since transport has been shut for the Pandemic. More pictures come in of people swarming, towards a place. A place that will be safe for them. Does such a place exist? What do these people know of social distancing? Social distancing is a privilege, for them.  I cringe, my stomach churns and I feel terribly uneasy. The privileges I have are the reason, I am devasted by them.

This — I am told is grief. Oh, is it?  If this is grief, then it’s good. I am relieved. My greatest fear was that one day I will be sanitized to all these happenings around me. The face of that old woman is going to haunt me. I feel guilty of being blessed with an abundance of food, of shelter, of feeling happy, after chatting with my friends. Since, when has this crept into our lives? Since when has ‘feeling happy’ become loaded with so much of heaviness and helplessness. This is becoming too much, these ramblings in my mind. These are calamities I can do nothing about. I still have to cook, sing, paint, write; do things that make me happy and keep me sane.

Suffering has always been there in this world; even before I was. Every time someone laughed, there has been at least one person somewhere in utter sadness. I grieve for all things lost, for everything that shouldn’t have happened. I have tremendous respect for the health workers, the cleaners, the researchers looking for an antidote. Each one of them, who have risked their lives for mine. And I am not going to just clap, I will do more, I promise.  While most of the things look grim; I have hope. Hope for humanity to bounce back. This is a time for great learning, at every moment. We will do our bit in our way when we are ready.

The world has shrunk, we all have come together. There is no superior nation, no superior power anymore. We all have been battered equally; we stand broken. And we will come out of it collectively, till then we have to hold on to each other. Cherish every happy occasion and shed a tear for every death, in every corner of the earth. Because that is the balance, the fulcrum on which this world will keep going. My family back home, are making bread at home to distribute to the stray dogs. They are making sure that the wages are paid to the employees. These small things; are hope personified. I am sure there are many like this amongst us. We just have to find ways. There is a way. There always is. I smile; this time without feeling guilty. I sigh and cup my face with my hands. Someone shrieks, “no don’t touch your face”. I dash towards the rest room, wash my hands, reach out for the sanitizer bottle, and say a prayer!

Rituparna Mahapatra, is writer based in Dubai. She taught English literature at Sambalpur University, Orissa and Delhi University. She worked briefly with Britannica India, and has contributed to many leading newspapers both regional and national. Currently she is editor-at-large UAE, of; and teaches creative writing in English.