The Whole Universe Is a Lesson: Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems by Shikha Malaviya, reviewed by Linda Michel-Cassidy

Anandi Gopal Joshee (1865-1887) traveled from India to the United States in 1883 for her medical education, the first Indian woman to do so. Anandibai, as she was known, was married to a widower at nine, and in her early teens had a baby who died from a lack of medical attention. This loss drove her to study to become a physician, a choice that her progressive husband supported. Anandibai, in seeking to be India’s first female physician, desired a course of study unavailable to her in her home country. While she was from a well-regarded family, that standing could have only gone so far in making her achievements possible. 

In her introductory comments to her book, Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems, poet Shikha Malaviya tells how she happened upon Anandibai’s story, one that wasn’t widely known. The poet researched the limited documentation and found the telling skewed towards lionizing her husband. While, without a doubt, she would not have made it to America without his support, as well as that of her American patroness, Malaviya turns our attention to the extraordinary personal story of Dr. Anandibai Joshee. 

Malaviya writes in the persona of Anandibai, using an array of forms, mixing epistolary poems with found text, prose poems, pantoum, and ghazals, among other modes. The utilization of so many and different formal aspects seems fitting for a subject who occupied so many spaces, many of them hostile to her. The poet went at the project from different angles, researching the limited documentation available, and eventually found the isolation of the pandemic opened the space for the poems:

My life came to a standstill, while Anandibai’s came alive. In the quietness of the sequestered world, I was able to let the past in. The poems started coming out in a voice that didn’t seem like mine—quiet, contemplative, slightly formal, but insistent. (…) I wrote over forty poems, all in the imagined voice of Anandibai.

Writing in the “imagined voice” of Anandibai, Malaviya finds a successful route to navigate the questions of her subject’s life, as well as the opportunity to portray, if obliquely, multiple barriers, such as religion, duty, societal mores, feminism, and caste. As successful persona poems must, the speaker transports the reader, in this case, to the late 1800s. Located first in India and later in Philadelphia and the surrounding area, the voice, cadence, lyric style, and restraint all work to echo the time and geography, as well as the gender and status of the speaker.

In “Outside the Chaukat,” the speaker talks about her hometown and gendered border lines that kept the women close to home, cut off from those things men could easily access. We feel the speaker’s longing to learn both academically and about the larger world, telling us from inside the cloistered existence that even with her life so closed off, she knew enough to realize she saw little and wanted so much more. In looking at her beginnings, we can begin to appreciate how very far she goes:

If you want to know what happens in this bustling town by the sea,

(…) ask the men, for they are the ones who wear shoes that take them

outside the chaukat. They are the lucky ones (…)

—whereas the women tiptoe softly, their bare shoulders hardened walking

from kitchen-to-cowshed-to well, fingertips charred from stoking the 

chulha, thoughts spilling over like water from vessels balanced on their

heads, of what lies beyond a door frame, that make a splash and then 


Malaviya uses to great advantage the flexibility that comes with writing in persona. We see a psychological proximity that third-person doesn’t offer, as well as the poet’s work to get at emotional truth—so critical in poetry—that can be deeper and more telling than historical facts. Here, we see an unburying where the source material was limited and, as histories are, shaped by the lens of the one doing the telling. Persona poems, when written conscientiously, are no more “made up” than the history books from which many of us were taught.

When the speaker hears she was betrothed at eight to an older man, a widower, she has doubts about her own worth. In “The Promise of What Was/What Will Be,” she knows she is from a good family despite their diminished wealth, yet she wonders: 

(…) and who will be lured 

by such long gone sweetness 

who will unshoulder

the burden that is 

unwed girl 

who will want 

someone like me 

so ordinary?

In the space of a single poem, “Loss: An Invocation,” the speaker suffers a great loss—the death of her newborn son—and finds her life’s calling to become a doctor. The boy’s death could have been prevented, but for the custom that the women could not be seen by the male doctor. The speaker addresses her deceased boy, telling him that in her grief she has found purpose. Anandibai knew then that India needed women doctors, and that she must become one:

I volunteer myself to my countrywomen

As I take the oath of Hippocrates

To help and to heal, to do no harm, to don

The white coat only men have worn

As it was impossible and unheard of at the time for a woman to get a medical education in India, Anandibai needed to move abroad. In “Sarawati in My Satchel” the speaker is shamed for desiring an education, which only makes her more determined. The poet consistently demonstrates what poetry in persona can achieve—moving past the gaps to bring the reader, via the poet’s imagination and empathy, to the reality of being the young girl who only wants to learn despite being tormented, “slaying them each day with my dogged presence.” Made of two stanzas packed with information, the poem is muscular, which compliments the new confidence we see in the speaker.

In “Cutting Through Stone” the speaker’s determination deepens as the pacing slows. She speaks of her husband, their ostracism, and loneliness. The lines of the poem are spaced apart and wind like a river. The poem is almost languid as we see Anandibai rise above her critics. Malaviya’s form choices not only set tempo, but offer cues about mindset. In some, the speaker rolls out the facts of her life in an orderly and compressed fashion—it is almost as if in defending herself, she must use a specific contained space. 

Featuring a compelling mix of techniques, “The Whole Universe Is a Lesson to Me: Epistolary Exchanges” is a sonnet crown that uses found text, including letters from Theodora Carpenter, Anandibai’s American benefactor. The speaker writes of the cultural differences she anticipates, wondering how and if she could fit in in America while still maintaining cultural aspects that are important to her. This series unifies many of the poems that come before, as well as allowing us to read expanses in Anandibai’s voice. In reading the speaker’s portions, it becomes clear (if it was not already) that what Anandibai sought to do was more than a longshot—it was beyond imagination. Her desire is unwavering, and when written lyrically and in the tempereded style of the day, these letters read like prayers. Still, they are conversations wherein the imbalance of power is the constant subtext. 

Against convention and likelihood, Anandibai traveled alone to Philadelphia, PA to begin her medical studies. In “A Mental Photography,” a found poem culled from Anandibai’s entry in Mrs. Carpenter’s autograph book, we see the speaker at the threshold of her new life:

I was ravenous 

shoving the open mouth 

of my mind 

with morsels of knowledge


And so I write 

in the album of Mrs. Theodocia Carpenter

of Rochelle, New Jersey, ever so carefully

answers that introduce me to myself

While in America, Anandibai continues to float between several worlds. While it appears that she was welcomed, she was always made to be some sort of a specimen, held up as an example.  

In 1886, Anandibai graduated from The Women’s College of Pennsylvania, becoming a doctor. From “Commencement,” the speaker, now Dr. Anandibai Joshee, recognizes her own accomplishment, but humbly: 

They call me brave, announce my name, 

the prefix of doctor before it, I am astonished 

at how this feat was done, this title 

on which I now lay claim

Anandibai moved in a world that was shifting, if slowly, towards the future of education for women, Indian women in particular, while still functioning under the social constraints of religion and societal mores. She was shamed in her home country and exoticized in America, yet still worked towards providing much-needed medical care for Indian women. Unfortunately, she died of tuberculosis shortly after returning to India. There is no question that Dr. Anandi Gopal Joshee was remarkable, and these finely crafted poems give the reader an elegant way to imagine this extraordinary life. The poet makes use of the benefits of historical facts about the subject, which gives the book weight. The gap-filling done in persona never feels forced, because the poet embodies Anandabai in a way that feels authentic to the time and places the poems occupy. Anandibai’s story is compelling, without question, and Malaviya’s poems are an artful mix of inventiveness, unburying, and lyricism.