The granddaughter of Seth Cursetjee Manekjee Shroff, the noted philanthropist whose statue in Byculla Mumbaikers fondly call ‘Khada Parsi’, Dosebai Cowasjee Jessawalla (1832-1911) was one of the first Indian girls to receive the benefits of an English education. This decision made by her mother, Meheribai, triggered both criticism from the Parsi community and mockery from the popular press. However, its life-changing effects were apparent in just a few years—and endured for a lifetime—as Dosebai became a part of both Indian and Western society and was empowered in ways unimaginable for most women at the time. In her lifestyle and choices, she proved herself to be of brave spirit and independent mind.
A formidable woman with a great zest for life, Dosebai marched through the Indian- Parsi society without a care for its stifling patriarchal norms that bound women to household drudgery. Dosebai went out into the world with rare confidence: she attended the Delhi Durbar of 1877 that declared Queen Victoria the Empress of India; became acquaintances with Governor-General Lytton and his wife; travelled widely, from Europe—where she met the English monarchs at Windsor Castle and the Pope in Rome—to Japan and the United States; learnt to drive a car and rode a hot air balloon.
First published by her sons only months after her death in 1911, Dosebai’s remarkable autobiography describes her youth, education, marriage and global travels. Her experiences are not just a reflection of the challenges faced even by privileged women in the nineteenth century, but also of attempts to indigenize European practices.
A fascinating autobiography, The Story of My Life is also a valuable document about the evolution of the Parsi community through the nineteenth century, and the merging of tradition with modern sensibilities during that important time in Indian history.