My “Hidden Figures”: Three Octogenarian Indian Women With Particle Physics, Python Programming And Music

admin@qs3 | March 26, 2018

(Rohit Dhamankar, a cyber security expert, in conversation with Physicists: Dr. Bhamathi Sudarshan, Dr. Radha Gourishankar and Amba Raghavan in Austin, TX, Feb 25, 2018)

Early 1950s. Presidency College, Chennai. Three young women, draped in sarees covering their body except face and feet, no make-up, nothing that attracts attention to their womanhood, wait patiently outside their Physics and Math lecture halls.

They wait for their Professors to accompany them inside every class they attend.

They don’t go alone as they could be subjected to pranks the “only” women students in a class could be subjected to.

Amba, Bhamathi and Radha describe it as their “destiny” to be lifelong friends.

Bhamathi and Radha went on to acquire a Ph.D. in Particle Physics.

They must have faced an uphill battle with their families when they expressed their desire to come to the US for their postdoctoral studies as single women then.

Radha did her postdocs in Stanford and Princeton whereas Bhamathi came to Boulder.

Between the two of them, they covered many prestigious institutions where they have taught and delivered seminars in the US, Japan, Australia, UK and Chile.

Bhamathi’s and Radha’s orbits in life after post doctoral studies spun around differently. Radha found her love in an Indian professor of Engineering in a Canadian university.

She continued her career in Physics in a diminished capacity. I almost fell off my chair, when Radha said that she taught herself how to program in Python to help her grandkids design video games a few years back. She was recognized with “Woman of Distinction” award from YWCA, Edmonton, Canada for her work.

Bhamathi returned to India after her multiple postdocs, and became a Professor of Physics in Madras university.

She has many firsts to her credit including being featured as a woman achiever in Femina magazine and the Hindu newspaper.

Years later, she found her love in another well renowned physicist that brought her to Austin.

Trained in an Indian classical style of music under a well renowned lineage, she became active in organizing a music festival and teaching students in Austin.

Amba, on the other hand, decided to honour her family’s wishes of seeing her settled down.

At some point, she began teaching Physics in schools, and won respect from her colleagues for her knowledge and thoroughness.

She counts her successes by the number of calls she continues to receive on “guru paurnima” day.

She relocated to USA from India to live with her son in her 60s. That did not deter her from learning to drive in the US!

In the times, where I see “feminism” sometimes interpreted as not doing anything that a traditional Indian woman does, it is refreshing to see these women, who have defied many traditions in their times, indulge and enjoy the cultural aspects they were brought up with.

The Physics seamlessly blends in with doing a Varalakshmi puja (Bhamathi, Radha), or everyday stotra recitation (Amba).

Radha, in fact, chants thousand names of Vishnu while on a treadmill everyday.

When asked about if they would change anything from their past, as I expected, they have no regrets.

They took the life as it came, and tried to make it better for them, and people around them.

Their general guidance to the coming generation is to have good work ethics making the best use of what opportunities come by the way, and not taking any reward or privilege for granted.

Most importantly, they believe the secret to happiness lies in making and keeping good friends for life!

As I left these mentally young friends to chat more through the night, I was most inspired by their continued spark to be creative, thinking and ever learning souls.

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