Many of the people out there probably have no idea about who Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy is in the first place. In all honesty, even I had no clue about her existence until a few days ago.
My parents were listening to this debate on T.V. about women having to fight for the opportunities they deserve as well as casteism deciding a woman’s fate.
Every speaker spoke of women who fought against adversities and stood up for what was right. One of the names that came up was Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. The very name got me curious.
Having been an avid collector of inspiring stories for most of my life, it kind of surprised me that I had no clue about who she is. But nevertheless, all it took me was a simple Google search to dig up everything I needed to know.
Here in the 21st century, women across the country are fighting for the rights and justice that they deserve. It took us decades of gaining awareness to actually put up a fight in the first place. Now, we’re at war with a world of patriarchy.
Here was a woman who fought for what she deserved when women rights weren’t even a thing. She broke the barriers of her caste and reached for her dreams. By doing so, she became an inspiration to everybody who knew her just like she became my inspiration with a simple google search.
So here is the story of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. She may not be somebody the entire world may know about but she is somebody the entire world should know about.
Breaking the Barriers of Casteism
Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy was born in the year 1886, clearly, a time where casteism and untouchability were prevalent in the society. Her mother was a Devadasi.
Devadasis were women who were dedicated to the practice of passing on the art of dance to the next generation. However, this practice of theirs existed only in theory. In reality, women who were devadasis were subjected to heavy exploitation and were considered to be prostitutes.
The lineage of a devadasi passed from mother to daughter but the young Muthulakshmi’s father wouldn’t have any of it. He was a well-educated man and was the principal of a famous schooling institution. He made sure that his daughter got the education any boy would get.
That very step taken by her father is what differentiated her from the rest of the girls in her generation.
The struggle of schooling
A girl getting into a school in the 19th century may have been a pretty big challenge. However, a girl actually completing her education was an even bigger one. In a class of 43 students, the future Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy was one among the 3 girls that were there.
A curtain separated the boys and girls in class since parents feared that the presence of girls there would hinder the performance of their sons. A teacher in the school even resigned out of protest. But Muthulakshmi’s father’s commitment to give his daughter education did not budge.
After a point, Muthulakshmi had to be home-schooled. She successfully completed her education but she did not want to stop there. She wanted to learn more and grow more.
Becoming Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy
Once Muthulakshmi finished schooling, she decided that she would pursue medicine. However, to do so, neither did she have the money that she needed nor were many people supporting this dream of hers.
She didn’t lose hope. By unrelenting persuasion, she convinced the Maharaja of Pudhukottai to fund her education.
The Maharaja was very hesitant at first. In the society they lived in, a girl in a medical college would be nothing but a ‘distraction’. However, Muthulakshmi’s grit almost forced them to give her the chance.
She became the first woman to study in the Madras Medical College. On completion of her course, she chose to pursue obstetrics. All her efforts started to bear fruits and one fine day, she became an obstetrician. She had reached the pinnacle she was aiming for. Her dream had come true.
So at this point, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s life was going good. She had gotten everything she wanted.
Life takes an unexpected twist
There came a very upsetting turning point in Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s life. Her sister died of rectal cancer.
At that period of time, cancer was really not considered to be the deadly disease that it is today. The cases were few and the people who got it were merely unlucky.
The demise of her sister woke her up to the dangers of this deadly disease. She decided to take the initiative to save innocent victims from its clutches.
She went to the United Kingdom and trained in the Royal Marsden hospital on how to manage cancer patients and she came back to India with hopes of opening up a cancer institute and hospital.
Leading the fight against cancer and oppression of devadasis
When Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy returned to India, there was still a lot of apathy towards cancer. In most peoples’ minds, it was still a mysterious disease without a name.
With the funds that she acquired from the Women’s India Association, she set up the first Cancer hospital in Madras, the Adyar Cancer Institute. The organization provided quality health services to all its patients.
Soon, she also started waging a war against another social evil that she wanted to eradicate, the shunning and exploitation of Devadasis.
The social evil that had threatened to affect her future was now the issue that she demanded to be changed. She fought against many great men and stood for the complete eradication of the culture.
She fought these battles with rigour and determination and finally, all her hard work started to pay off.
All the wars this brave woman waged were battles that our country fought within itself. Killing the apathy towards a deadly disease and eradicating centuries-old practice isn’t easy but they were very necessary. And Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy emerged victoriously.
Today, Adyar Cancer Institute is one of the country’s best institutions for treatment of cancer. The very year of our country’s independence, a bill was passed by the Madras Presidency preventing the dedication of young girls as devadasis.
At one point, she also realised the power of politics and even went on to become the first woman in the world to become the deputy president in a legislative council.
The future also held great honours like the Padma Bhushan for Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. It was all her determination and hard work that won her all that she ever desired.
What Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy taught me
Oh my god, where do I even begin!? Okay, I guess I’m gonna take a philosophical route on this one.
All of us have our battles. We all have causes that we support and would like to improve on or change. More often than not, these problems get overshadowed by the ‘bigger’ problems out there in the world.
In an era where everybody was working towards gaining independence, there was a lady who basically said, ‘Yeah, independence is a big deal, but so is cancer and women rights’, and she fought for it.
If she hadn’t taken it upon herself to start a cancer institute, maybe half our society would still not know that cancer can be managed. Hadn’t she fought for the rights of the devadasis, maybe many of them wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
Fight your battles no matter how small or big they are. They need not be with any regard to ‘the big picture’. If it is a fight that you want to work for, then it IS important and worth it.
Humungous victories may seem all sparkly and shiny but small ones matter too. In the end, they could be what made a difference.
If it gives you joy and causes you satisfaction, even the smallest of victories could turn out to be sweeter then the biggest of battles. Chase your small victories and never give up on them because they matter.
They really, really matter.
Read about our own Wonder Woman; Seema Rao!