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The life and times of a pioneer


Professor Anna Mani ,a pioneering woman in Indian science, passed away on August 16. Highly regarded in scientific circles and admired as a woman of great character, she was one of India's early feminists. She transcended the delimited cultural and physical spaces available to her, says ABHA SUR.

IT WAS Autumn, 1992 . I had barely introduced my project on writing a history of women scientists in India to Professor Anna Mani, when one of her colleagues at the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore, came over to us. Mani, with a quizzical smile, turned to her colleague and introduced me: ``Meet Dr. Sur. She is from America and thinks I am history.'' I mumbled incoherent protests but to no avail. She continued questioning my gendered motivations, thoroughly amused by my obvious discomfiture. ``Why do you want to interview me? My being a woman had absolutely no bearing on what I chose to do with my life. What is this hoopla about women and science? It must be getting difficult for women to do science these days. We had no such problems in our time.''

Anna Mani came from a large family (she is the seventh of eight children, three girls and five boys) in the former state of Travancore, (now part of Kerala) in the southern part of India. Her father was a prosperous civil engineer who owned cardamom estates. Although Mani's family belonged to an ancient Syrian Christian church, her father was an agnostic. By the time she was eight, Mani had read almost all the books in Malayalam at her public library. On her eighth birthday, when she was gifted with diamond earrings, as was the custom in her family, she opted instead for a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

As a child, Mani was drawn to Gandhian politics. Gandhi had visited Mani's hometown when she was a little girl. He spoke of self-reliance and promoted a large-scale boycott of foreign goods, especially of cloth from British mills. Mani recalled, with a touch of pride, how she took to wearing only khadi after that. Averse to wearing any jewellery, she mused, ``in the olden days they would compile all the family assets on papyrus. If a woman's worth had to be measured by her jewellery and assets, wouldn't it be easier for the woman to wear a list of these assets around her neck?'' Anna Mani could not be bothered about marriage either. She said she could ``handle only one Syrian Christian at a time'' as, in her own words, they were always ``hatching, matching, and dispatching.''

In the matter of education, Mani followed her brothers, who were groomed for high-level careers in government service. While there was no opposition to her desire for higher education in physics from her family, there was little encouragement. In 1940, a year after finishing college, Anna Mani obtained a scholarship to do research in physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. She was accepted in Raman's laboratory as a graduate student. Mani worked on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. She recorded and analysed fluorescence, absorption and Raman spectra of 32 diamonds. She studied temperature dependence and polarisation effects in these spectra. The experiments were long and painstaking: the crystals were held at liquid air temperatures, and the weak luminescence of some of the diamonds required 15 to 20 hours of exposure time to record the spectrum on photographic plates. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on the luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her Ph.D. dissertation to the Madras University and was awarded a government scholarship for an internship in England, where she specialised in meteorological instrumentation.

Mani returned to Independent India in 1948. She joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune, where she was in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. She published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation of meteorological instrumentation. She retired as the deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976 and subsequently returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), and worked on a project for harnessing wind energy in India in 1993. Despite her interest in, and involvement with, issues of environment, Anna Mani ``got out of the business,'' as environmentalists (``carpetbaggers'' as she called them) seemed to be ``always in orbit.'' She preferred to stay in one place.

Gender Blind Science?

In an interview granted to the Bulletin of the World Meteorological Organisation Anna Mani states, ``For myself, I must say that at no time did I experience professional discrimination as a woman in what was considered largely a man's world. I did not feel I was either penalised or privileged because of being female.'' Yet, Mani's assertions that the institutions of science were gender neutral did not reflect insensitivity to women's condition. Rather, Mani saw herself as a beneficiary of the institutional and social privileges that accrued to her class, in comparison with which the individualised gender discrimination encountered in doing science faded into insignificance. Reminiscing about her university days Mani recalled, ``In those days, we had respect only for the leftists.'' Anna Mani had gravitated toward socialist politics during her years in graduate school. She associated with left- leaning people, read socialist literature, and considered herself quite ``enlightened.'' Egalitarian politics was an integral part of her ideological makeup.

Anna Mani displayed a healthy disdain for victim politics as well. To the extent that the discourse of discrimination carries with it aspersions of inequality, so that personal achievement and success become contaminated with ``special consideration'' and patronage, the stoic and proud Anna Mani would have no part of it. ``I had worked hard to gain my academic qualifications and was judged fit to carry out the work that was needed,'' she would insist when asked whether her being a woman had any impact on her work. ``Selection for the scholarships at Bangalore and in the United Kingdom had nothing to do with one's sex.''

Yet, as I asked Anna Mani about the social environment and the support of her peers, a deep-seated hurt and anger surfaced. ``He was an odious man,'' she said, referring to a colleague who had done his best to make the women feel inept, both as scientists and as women. Any slight error the women made in handling instrumentation or in setting up an experiment was immediately broadcast by some men as a sign of female incompetence. When Mani audited a course on theoretical physics, it was generally assumed that the material would be beyond her ken (which Mani, with her characteristic humour, admits it was).

Raman maintained a strict separation of sexes in his laboratory. The crucial practice of discussion and debate about scientific ideas among peers was denied to women, rendering them peripheral to the scientific enterprise. Casual, informal association with male colleagues was strictly out of bounds. Raman frowned upon any interaction between men and women. Mani recalled how he would mutter ``Scandalous!'' every time a male and a female student walked together by his window. With a touch of amusement, Mani noted that Raman must have had an uncanny sense, for even while bending over a microscope, he would be able to catch a glimpse of an ``offending'' couple. She remembered one incident vividly. She was talking to Nagamani, one of her male colleagues in the laboratory. In the middle of a sentence, Nagamani looked up to find Raman at a distance, cycling slowly (``like a big bear'') toward them. Nagamani turned pale and fled the scene as fast as he could, she recalled, "leaving me to face the music alone.''

Mani laughed at the recollection but communicated nevertheless the loneliness and professional seclusion forced upon the women. Anna Mani remembered with gratitude the warmth with which a few of her male colleagues, especially their wives, welcomed her into their homes: ``Mrs. Venketeswaran, the wife of her immediate supervisor at the Meteorological Department was like a goddess. She had not had much education but was more broadminded than the so called educated people.''

As a graduate student, Mani became close to Mrs. Raman, who treated her ``as if I was her own daughter.'' On a visit to a famous Hindu temple near Madras, Mrs. Raman smuggled her into the inner sanctum, which was forbidden to non-Brahmins and widows. The priest, horrified to see Anna Mani without red kumkum on her forehead, which signifies a Hindu woman who is not a widow, was about to throw her out of the sanctum when Mrs. Raman intervened. She deftly put kumkum on Mani's forehead and chided her in front of the priest. ``Saraswati,'' she said, ``why are you so careless about your appearance?'' Anna Mani told me that she was pleased Mrs. Raman had referred to her as Saraswati, the goddess of learning and wisdom, and not as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

The scientific institutions, however, perpetuated their own gender biases. Anna Mani was never granted a doctoral degree. Her completed Ph.D. dissertations remain in the library of Raman Research Institute, indistinguishable from other bound dissertations. Madras University, which at that time formally granted degrees for work done at the Indian Institute of Science, claimed that Mani did not have a M.Sc. degree, and therefore could not be granted a Ph.D.

Anna Mani represents the confluence of the modernising aspects of science, nationalist, and gender ideologies. She is a success story to which few women (or men) could aspire. She transcended the delimited cultural and physical spaces available to her and created not only a room of her own, or a laboratory of her own, but also a whole workshop, a mini-factory of her own. In the industrial suburbs of Bangalore, Mani headed a small company that manufactures instruments for measuring wind speed and solar energy. Here one witnessed an almost complete reversal of gender roles. Some 30 workers, largely men, stood up with alacrity and deference as Anna Mani walked in the door, much as schoolchildren rise from their seats to greet their teachers. The gesture was both amusing and perplexing. The unhesitant respect Mani commanded seemed refreshing. However, even as the gender roles were being redefined, class relations remained intact and unfaltering in Anna Mani's workshop.

There has been a lingering hope among feminists that the participation of large numbers of women in traditionally male- dominated fields of inquiry would change not only the institutional biases but also, more importantly, the very nature of these fields. The slow trickle of women into the higher echelons of education in the late nineteenth century did over time change the institutional response to women. However, altering the very nature of science would have required a self- conscious affirmation of gender identities by the women scientists in opposition to the coercive womanhood forced upon them by their male colleagues and the society at large. The received enlightenment of Anna Mani's generation was washed clean of its tainted history — the history of exclusion of women and people of colour from political participation in the West.

The constitution of Independent India granted equal rights to all citizens, eliminating the need for Indian women to organise as women. The women of Indian enlightenment were not gender-blind but perhaps mistakenly took gender equality for granted. Indeed, toward the end of our many conversations Anna Mani, who until then had steadfastly resisted the notion of gendered science, became wistful as she began to realise that during the years when she had worn the mantle of science, had had the authority to hire women as scientists, and could have been a conscious role model for younger women, she had been unaware of the need to do so.

(The writer is a physical chemist and historian of modern science and a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Programme on Science, Technology, and Society.

The title of the essay is borrowed from American feminist artist May Stevens' series of paintings on Rosa Luxumberg and May's mother Alice Stevens. The essay is excerpted from ``Dispersed Radiance: Women Scientists in C. V. Raman's Laboratory,'' which appeared in the journal Meridians, Spring 2001.)

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