Lilavati’s Daughters

WOMEN ARE UNIVERSALLY underrepresented in science and technology. India is no exception. True, the subcontinent’s institutes of learning are open to all its citizens, but potential female researchers still hesitate at the thresholds of laboratories. Is this because they have seen few role models of their gender in such establishments? “Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India,”  is an inspiring anthology published by the Indian Academy of Sciences in a bid to remedy that visibility problem.

Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India,
edited by Rohini Godbole and Ram Ramaswamy, Indian Academy of Sciences, 2008, 368 pages, $25 paperback (ISBN: 978–81–8465–005–1)

This eye-opening collection of essays is about close to 100 Indian women scientists from the Victorian era to the present-day. Contemporary women give moving accounts of what brought them to science and what kept them going despite the exorbitant social and personal dues they paid along the way. Science historians and amateur writers present the narratives of memorable personalities who are no more. The stories are compelling even where the writing lacks finesse. As an Indian inorganic chemist and a science writer who came to the U.S. for graduate studies, I find echoes from my past in every chapter of the book.

Even the title tells a tale. Lilavati was the daughter of Bhaskaracharya, the renowned 12th-century mathematician. As the head astronomer of the royal observatory in Ujjain, Bhaskaracharya authored an arithmetic text wherein he addressed problems in algebra, geometry, and discrete mathematics to his doe-eyed daughter. History does not record whether Lilavati became a mathematician herself, but the fact that her  father deemed her worthy of solving those problems suggests that she indeed might have. Inheritors of Lilavati’s intellectual legacy, the women in “Lilavati’s Daughters,” with few exceptions, mention an encouraging father. Embarking on a rigorous voyage of learning would be quite impossible without such a central figure in their early years; mentors come only later.

Chronologically, the first achiever in this book is Anandibai Joshi, who, in 1886, was the first Hindu woman to obtain a medical degree in the U.S. “Before my marriage, I could barely read Marathi [an Indian language],” writes Pooja Thakar, who recounts Joshi’s story as a first-person narrative. But when 19-year-old Joshi set sail to America, she was literate in English, thanks to her husband. Readers probably recall from their university days an awkward international student who had to cope with school and culture shock simultaneously. Imagine how hard the acclimatization must have been for Joshi, an orthodox Hindu woman and strict vegetarian from the tropics facing the winters of the East Coast. For a sari-clad woman living by herself in an alien land, the weather brought forth a moral dilemma. Wearing Western attire for protection from the cold was unthinkable for Joshi, Thakar writes. At 22, when Joshi became a qualified physician, the Queen of England sent her a congratulatory note.

Among the early-20th-century women scientists, Marie Curie is one schoolchildren in India learn about, but no textbook mentions India’s own women scientists from that period. For example, in 1940, a young woman, Anna Mani, signed up to do research work in spectroscopy under Sir C. V. Raman, a Nobel Laureate in physics, at the Indian Institute of Science. Abha Sur, a science historian at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in the book about this formidable woman in the chapter “An Appreciation of Anna Mani.” Although Raman was a brilliant scientist, writes Sur, he had rather quaint notions about any casual interaction between the sexes at his institute, dismissing it as “scandalous.” If the atmosphere of segregation hung heavy in the lab, Mani never let on, according to this account. She was not granted a Ph.D. despite publishing five single-author papers on spectroscopy during her time at the institute. After a long scientific career, she retired as the deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department.

Mani remained single all her life, but other women scientists featured in this anthology did marry. A recurring theme that runs through the book is the fact that being married entails a long list of family responsibilities for Indian women, which sometimes eats into the time they can devote to science.

In her essay, “A Career in Mathematics,” Mangala Narlikar wistfully describes herself as a part-time scientist. She finished a Ph.D. in mathematics 16 years after she got married. Household responsibilities came first for this self-effacing mother of three and wife of a famous Indian astrophysicist. Her story, she writes, is representative of many in her generation born around the year of India’s independence in 1947. In the chapter “Negotiating Choices,” Charusita Chakravarty, a present-day chemist who relinquished her U.S. citizenship and now works in India, writes that women make matrimonial decisions in their late 20s and early 30s. But during this same period, they have to establish themselves as independent researchers, just like their male colleagues, she points out.

Darshan Ranganatahn
Darshan Ranganatahn

Charusita Chakravarty Courtesy Of The Indian Academy Of Sciences (Both)

Charusita Chakravarty

MOTHERHOOD usually follows matrimony. In India, a developing nation with few quality child care centers, reliable help comes from considerate grandparents, but this happens only when they don’t need care themselves. In the chapter “Why and How I Became a Scientist,” biochemist Maharani Chakravorty recalls taking her infant along to her workplace. “The poor child used to sit on the rubber sheet spread on the floor of the laboratory playing with test tube stands, right there in front of my working bench,” she writes. Some contributors to the book proudly mention in their essays the fact that their children have become researchers themselves. Sulochana Gadgil, a Harvard University-trained meteorologist, writes in the chapter “My Tryst with the Monsoon” that her mathematician son made critical contributions to two of her recent papers.

Without enlightened policies in the workplace, women scientists can find it hard to realize their potential. In this book, more than one woman mentions years of separation from her spouse because it was too difficult to get appropriate work in the same Indian city. In the chapter “She Was a Star,” the woes and achievements of Darshan Ranganathan, an organic chemist who was also married to one, are recounted by her husband. He writes that she languished as a research associate when he was a professor of chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK), because an unwritten rule forbids spouses from simultaneously holding faculty positions in the same department. “I am left with the wistful feeling that Darshan would have flowered more, much earlier, had she been offered a faculty position at IITK,” writes D. Balasubramanian, director of the L. V. Prasad Eye Research Institute, in a moving tribute to Ranganathan, who died of cancer in 2001 (Curr. Sci. 2001, 81, 217). The Indian National Academy of Science has instituted a biennial lecture in her memory.

Thanks to this book, aspiring women scientists in India can find role models closer to home. Readers with no connection to the subcontinent may enjoy many of the essays because few stories are more heartwarming than that of an underdog who wins against the odds. Clearly, many of these women were by no means favorites. One chapter is about a mathematician who, as a little girl, sported a turban and disguised herself as a boy to attend school. Her uncle, a village headman, thought that educating her was pointless and said so. A city school principal requested female students who had done well in the qualifying exams to give up their spot in science to boys because lab space was scarce. His reasoning was that women only have to work in the kitchen; a science education would be wasted on them.

Given this milieu, what these women have accomplished in the rarefied field of research is nothing short of amazing. The book acknowledges their lonely struggles. Although this anthology has no manifesto, nearly every essay hints at the fact that the establishment can do more to accommodate highly qualified women who want a career in pure science. Open-minded policymakers in India looking for ways to retain talent in research institutes can certainly find some answers here. And despite cultural differences, readers from elsewhere are likely to find unexpected resonances in these narratives on and by women scientists. That is, in part, a testimony to the universality of a life in science. Sadly, it also reveals the ubiquity of the bias faced by women pursuing this demanding vocation.

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