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Science of the times

Rajeshwari Chatterjee's wonderful book is both a work of sociology and history



Rajeshwari Chatterjee: formidable intellect — Photos: K. Bhagya Prakash

RAJESHWARI CHATTERJEE puts us to shame. At 82, she has the drive that some of us 50 years younger cannot muster. Her intellect, analytical capabilities, range of information, grasp, acute sense of description, and above all, instinct for history, is stunning. You can go on listening to so much that she has to say on science and sociology in the last 80 years that you come away feeling this "applied scientist" can give most sociologists a run for their money too. "I had the fortune of a free family," she remarked when asked how she carried such imagination.

Dr. Chatterjee released her first work of sociology, A Thousand Streams: A Personal History last week. The book narrates her life and times, and by way of that, the life and times of British and Post-Independent India, specifically Mysore region, from the 1920s to the present. She conceived this work at the Nevada University library where she saw a notice seeking projects on history.

Dr. Chatterjee did her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour, in 1953, and like many others, returned to India. Scholars then were expected to work for any public institution in India for at least three years, "though when I first stepped into America, I just loved that country".

She got a job at the Indian Institute of Science in 1953 and stayed on there till 1982. In that time she worked with illustrious colleagues such as Satish Dhawan, "whose real love was mechanical engineering", C.R. Subramanyam, "who built BEL brick by brick", B.S. Ramakrishna, "who became the first Vice-Chancellor of Hyderabad Central University", and K.K. Ayya, who "pioneered dairy research in India". "They were the ones who built science in independent India. They came in at a time when even screws were made in Germany and metal plates in Scotland and England. They were not just outsourcing, like today. They were the hardware workers from the workshop." She described how Satish Dhawan survived the Partition when he made it to the U.S. from Lahore in the nick of time; how Ramakrishna came from the small town of Vizianagaram; how Ayya would work in cowsheds before making it to National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal... "No one writes about the early scientists, people who came with very unusual, humble backgrounds...who made technical India possible," observed Dr. Chatterjee, who herself has written seven technical books, published 100 papers, received international awards and has been a guide to 20 Ph.D.s, most of whom are in top positions today. Two books she has dedicated to the great J.C. Bose, who, she said had done the earliest work in her area — microwaves.

Dr. Chatterjee, who spent virtually every spare minute at the IISc. library, was incidentally the first woman faculty member at the institute. Interestingly, most of her students were men. "People felt then that women should marry early. Middle-school was seen as adequate."

She herself was lucky to have a grandmother extremely progressive for her times. The book outlines the life of Kamalamma Dasappa, the third woman graduate in Old Mysore, who worked for the Mahila Seva Samaja for 50 years trying to educate child widows and abandoned wives. Kamalamma once wrote that rich and poor women were equally illiterate. "She was trying to fight that."

Dr. Chatterjee observed: "Education was important in our house. The word `marriage' was never mentioned. Anybody could read anything." She was also fortunate to have an uncle in B.M. Sri, the litterateur, on whom her book has interesting observations. He was important in spirit to her, though he never spoke much. It is interesting that her grandmother asked her to do history, while B.M. Sri suggested science. "I always loved history. But there were no jobs. I had to do science."

Apart from Dr. Chatterjee, there was only one other woman science graduate (Pappu Subba Rao's daughter) at that time, at Madras University. "No one ever thought that girls should take up engineering," she pointed out, noting also that the anti-Brahmin movement then made it difficult for Brahmins to secure jobs. "That is why B.M. Sri tried to get me a job by talking to the Vice-Chancellor of Mysore University."

Dr. Chatterjee, had, by then, applied for a scholarship from the Government of India and the Mysore State. (The Second World War was raging even as Subhas Chandra Bose was on radio from Saigon.) She secured the scholarship to go to the U.S.. Her book narrates her experience. "I went on an American troopship — from Bombay to Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai to San Francisco. On the journey and in America is where we learnt to eat non-vegetarian. Then, a lot of friends came from orthodox families. The only vegetarian food the Americans ate was boiled vegetables," she recalls. This was quite something for a girl whose father had settled down for some time in Nanjangud, with Nanjangud Tooth Powder B.V. Pundit for a friend.

After her return to India in 1953, she was among the first to take up work on microwave engineering. "Calcutta till then was where science was happening. J.C. Bose, J.C. Ghosh, M.N. Saha...were all there. Even C.V. Raman got his Nobel Prize for his work done in Calcutta. Only when he came to IISc., he wanted all the money for physics. He was a genius all right, but how could he do that?" Bangalore was lucky as the Maharaja of Mysore, and then the Nizam, supported Jamshedji Tata's effort to set up IISc. "when the British gave him absolutely no support".

Indian Institute of Science was where she met another stalwart, her future husband Chatterjee. A specialist in Applied Physics, he had done some unusual work: servicing radio equipment clogged with sand from North Africa "where the Italians were at war", and teaching radio engineering to British soldiers. There is much more to document from Dr. Chatterjee's astounding memory. Even if it seems late, it is not a matter of regret to discover an extraordinary intellectual on a quiet road in Bangalore — one who knows how a cultural practice works as much as an instrument of science. It is not hard to understand why: "We used to have a number of American and British friends from the missions. My grandmother would have separate porcelain vessels for the friends. She would personally wash and dry the vessels. All because — not she — the cook and the servants believed in madi." That was how progressive they were. In those days.

PRASHANTH G.N.

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