The words most people have used to describe educationist and social worker Angur Baba Joshi after she passed away on Saturday at the age of 89 is: “A woman ahead of her time in Nepal.”
Indeed, Joshi was among the first four women to pass the SLC high school exam in 1949, the first Nepali woman to graduate from Oxford University, Nepal’s first female college principal, the only woman in the committee to work on a new draft constitution in 1966.
The fire of knowledge burnt fiercely in Joshi from a young age. Girls were not encouraged to study and read books in those days, but Angur Baba sat in with her brother and cousins to learn the Nepali and English alphabets from a home tutor.
She snitched their books and would teach herself English, and when her brother could not answer a question, she would surprise the teacher by blurting out the answer. She got her brother to tell her his secret mantra after his thread ceremony.
But, as was the tradition in those days, she was married at age 11. Fortunately, her young husband was Balaram Joshi, whose mother Chandra Kumari Joshi was herself a pioneer, having gone to high school and someone who valued the importance of education – especially for women.
She was happy to have a daughter-in-law who was also interested in studies. Chandra Kumari is now a sprightly 106 years old in the Joshi household in Bagh Bazar.
Both Balaram and Angur Baba passed the SLC exam together as married teenagers. Balaram in fact topped the board, and Angur Baba took on private tutors after Tri Chandra College refused to admit a woman in science. By this time, she had already given birth to a son.
The two then went to Banaras to do their Bachelors, where Angur Baba gave birth to her second child. After graduation, they entrusted the children with their parents and carried on with their Masters. She then returned to Nepal and started teaching at Padma Kanya girl’s college.
When her husband got a scholarship to do a PhD in Britain in 1957, she also applied to Oxford University and was accepted, but was refused permission to go because she was a woman. She sought an audience with King Mahendra and got permission. The couple left their three children with their parents and left for UK, he to Glasgow to do a doctorate in nuclear physics and she to Oxford to study law.
Returning to Nepal, she became principal of Padma Kanya for 12 years, and educated a whole generation of Nepali women. To get back at not being able to study science when she was younger, she started a science curriculum in the college for young women. Later, she was nominated to the Rastriya Panchayat legislature by King Birendra and also served in various academic and social service organisations.
Along with her interest in science studies, Angur Baba Joshi was also a deeply spiritual person, and was well-read in the Sanskrit scriptures. She set up a religious school in Dev Ghat, arguing that it was the male gurus who discriminated against women, not the Hindu religion itself.
She also felt strongly that Nepal should never have become a secular country, arguing that the Hindu concept of ‘dharma’ was different from the English term ‘religion’, and the separation of faith and state did not make sense in Nepal. She expounded on this in her acceptance speech for the Jagadamba Shree Award for lifetime achievement in 2014, and in numerous books on spiritualism.
In 2003, Joshi was diagnosed with cancer, and an operation disfigured her face. But she said in numerous television interviews that it did not matter what a person looked like from the outside. “It is the inner beauty that is important,” she used to say, quoting several Sanskrit verses to prove her point.
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