My mind went back to 1968. I was a seventeen-year old girl with an abundance of courage, confidence and the dream to become an engineer. I came from an educated, though middle-class, conservative Brahmin family. My father was a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology in Karnataka Medical College at Hubli, while my mother was a schoolteacher before she got married.
I finished my pre-university exams with excellent marks and told my family that I wanted to pursue engineering. I had always been fascinated with science, even more so with its application. Engineering was one of those branches of science that would allow me to utilize my creativity, especially in design. But it was as if I had dropped a bomb inside our house.
The immediate reaction was of shock. Engineering was clearly an all-male domain and hence considered a taboo for girls in those days. There was no questioning the status quo, wherein girls were expected to be in the company of other female students in a medical or science college. The idea of a woman entering the engineering field had possibly never popped up in anyone’s mind. It was akin to expecting pigs to fly.
I was my grandmother’s favourite granddaughter, but even she looked at me with disdain and said, ‘If you go ahead and do this, no man from north Karnataka will marry you. Who wants to marry a woman engineer? I am so disappointed in you.’ My grandmother never thought that I would do anything she disapproved of. However, she also didn’t know that in the city of Mysore, across the river of Tungabhadra, lived a man named Narayana Murthy who would later want to marry me.
My grandfather, a history teacher and my first guru to teach me reading and writing, only mildly opposed it. ‘My child, you are wonderful at history. Why can’t you do something in this field? You could be a great scholar one day. Don’t chase a dry subject like engineering.’ My mother, who was extremely proficient in mathematics, said, ‘You are good in maths. Why don’t you complete your post-graduation in mathematics and get a job as a professor? You can easily work in a college after you get married instead of being a hard-core engineer struggling to balance family and work.’
My father, a liberal man who believed in education for women, thought for a moment and said, ‘I think that you should pursue medicine. You are excellent with people and languages. To tell you the truth, I don’t know much about engineering. We don’t have a single engineer in our family. It is a male-dominated industry and you may not find another girl in your class. What if you have to spend four years without a real friend to talk to? Think about it. However, the decision is yours and I will support you.’
Many of my aunts also thought that no one would marry me if I chose engineering. This would possibly entail that I marry somebody from another community, an absolutely unheard of thing in those days. However, I didn’t care. As a student of history, I had read Hiuen Tsang’s book Si-Yu-Ki. Before Tsang’s travel to India, everybody discouraged him from making the journey on foot, but he refused to listen and decided to go. In time, he became famous for his seventeen-year-long journey to India. Taking courage from Tsang, I told my family, ‘I want to do engineering. Come what may, I am ready for the consequences of my actions.’
I filled out the application form for B.V.B. College of Engineering and Technology, submitted it and soon received the news that I had been selected to the college on the basis of my marks. I was ecstatic, but little did I know that the college staff was discomfited by this development.
The principal at the time was B.C. Khanapure, who happened to know my father. They both met at a barber shop one day and the principal expressed his genuine anguish at what he perceived to be an awkward situation. He told my father, ‘Doctor Sahib, I know that your daughter is very intelligent and that she has been given admission only because of merit, but I’m afraid we have some problems. She will be the only girl in college. It is going to be difficult for her. First, we don’t have a ladies’ toilet on campus. We don’t have a ladies’ room for her to relax either. Second, our boys are young with raging hormones and I am sure that they will trouble her. They may not do anything in front of the staff but they will definitely do something later. They may not cooperate with her or help her because they are not used to talking to girls. As a father of four daughters, I am concerned about yours too. Can you tell her to change her mind for her own sake?’
My father replied, ‘I agree with you, Professor Sahib. I know you mean well, but my daughter is hell-bent on pursuing engineering. Frankly, she’s not doing anything wrong. So I have decided to let her pursue it.’
‘In that case, Doctor Sahib, I have a small request. Please ask her to wear a sari to college as it is a man’s world out there and the sari will be an appropriate dress for the environment she will be in. She should not talk to the boys unnecessarily because that will give rise to rumours and that’s never good for a girl in our society. Also, tell her to avoid going to the college canteen and spending time there with the boys.’
My father came back and told me about this conversation. I readily agreed to all of the requests since I had no intention of changing my mind.
Eventually, I would become friendly with some of the boys, but I always knew where to draw the line. The truth is that it were these same boys who would teach me some of life’s lessons later, such as the value of keeping a sense of perspective, the importance of taking it easy every now and then and being a good sport. Many of the boys, who are now older gentlemen, are like my brothers even after fifty years! Finally, it was the lack of ladies’ toilets on campus that made me understand the difficulty faced by many women in India due to the insufficiency or sheer absence of toilets. Eventually, this would lead me to build more than 13,000 toilets in Karnataka alone!
I knew that my classmates were acting out for a reason. It was not that they wanted to bully or harass me with deliberate intention as is the norm these days. It was just that they were unprepared—both mentally and physically—to deal with a person of the opposite sex studying with them. Our conservative society discouraged the mingling of boys and girls even as friends, and so, I was as interesting as an alien to them. My mind justified the reason for the boys’ behaviour and helped me cope. And yet, the remarks, the pranks and the sarcasm continued to hurt.
My only outlet in college was my actual education. I enjoyed the engineering subjects and did very well in my exams. I found that I performed better than the boys, even in hard-core engineering subjects such as smithy, filing, carpentry and welding. The boys wore blue overalls and I wore a blue apron over my sari. I knew that I looked quite funny, but it was a small price to pay for the education I was getting.
When the exam results were announced, everyone else knew my marks before I did. Almost every semester, my classmates and seniors would make a singular effort to find out my marks and display them on the notice board for everyone to see. I had absolutely no privacy.
Over the course of my studies, I realized that the belief ‘engineering is a man’s domain’ is a complete myth. Not only was I just as capable as them, I also scored higher than all my classmates. This gave me additional confidence and I continued to not miss a single day or a single class. I persisted in studying hard, determined to top the subsequent examinations. In time, I became unfazed that my marks were displayed on the notice board. On the contrary, I was proud that I was beating all the boys at their own game as I kept
bagging the first rank in the university.
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books from the book “Three thousands stitches: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives” by Sudha Murty.
You can buy the book here