The School Doctor: Dr Haimabati Sen, Born 150 Years Ago

In the latest column for Schools Improvement, The School Doctor reports on a summer reading about a Bengali doctor born 150 years ago…

Summer is the time of year when many people – especially teachers – catch up on the reading they meant to do over the course of the rest of the year.

This year, I caught up on last summer’s reading. More specifically, I finished Theodore Zeldin’s The Hidden Pleasures of Life: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future. I picked up Zeldin’s book just after it was published in 2015, started reading it, then put it to one side once September started and I spent all my time marking. The book didn’t move for a year, so I thought it was about time I revisited it.

I was initially drawn to The Hidden Pleasures of Life as I thought it might have some profound words to say – from an historical, literary and philosophical perspective – that could feed in to some of the ‘mindfulness’ ideas that are becoming more and more prevalent in schools.

It certainly does, and one of the most striking of Zeldin’s case studies that I have encountered so far centres on the life of Dr Haimabati Sen (1866-1933).

Born 150 years ago in Bengal, Sen’s jaw-dropping story is one of extraordinary personal resilience and selflessness in the face of grinding poverty and mistreatment. The following is a summary of Zeldin’s telling of that story.

Sen was married at the age of nine to a man thirty-six years her senior. He died within a year of that marriage. As a widow, Sen was spurned by society as she was considered to attract adversity. When her parents also died shortly after, she was left alone.

Another marriage, this time at the age of twenty-three, was also a trial, as her husband left his job to ‘search for God’ and treated Sen badly, sometimes violently. The household was reliant on Sen’s income, as well as her domestic chores, which she began at four each morning. She had five biological children, four of whom were more preoccupied with themselves than helping their mother.

When Sen’s husband died, there was not enough money for his burial rite. Indeed, at times in her life, so extreme was her poverty that Sen scavenged for discarded food and at one point was so hungry she even ate clay. She would not accept charity, Zeldin says, because she found it embarrassing; she let her neighbours believe that she only cooked once a day for spiritual reasons, not because she simply could not afford to eat any more.

Despite this adversity, Sen rarely felt sorry for herself, and she devoted her energy to caring for others, no matter how difficult her own personal circumstances may have been. She learnt to read at a time when young girls in Bengal would be considered unmarriable if they were educated.

She went to medical school on a scholarship, gained top marks (though had to settle for the silver medal because, as a woman, her peers would not allow her the gold), and looked after her patients despite relatively low pay and all the demands placed on her back home.

If this were not enough, Sen adopted a family based not on biology but on the need to be cared for: Sen’s need to be cared for by others, and her need to care for them. She raised 485 children, sometimes thirty or forty in her house at a time. ‘The more relations you have in this world’, she said, ‘the better for you’.

Sen sacrificed material comfort for the needs of others. And, as Zeldin puts it, her response to the cruelty of the world was ‘to build her own world side by side with the cruel one and to try to ignore the “vanity and pettiness” of men’.

Sen’s story is a truly humbling and remarkable one, and one that puts into some perspective so many modern woes. The prevailing sense of selflessness, self-sacrifice and heartfelt support for others is inspirational, and is one that I hope teachers would like to share with their pupils. When better than now, the 150th anniversary of Haimabati Sen’s birth?

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.

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