Kamala Harris made headlines in 2020 when she shattered glass ceilings, but way back in the 1940s and ‘50s, another Kamala was already doing this. After studying Engineering at Guindy Engineering College Chennai, she became the second woman-engineer to join All India Radio.
To mark two relevant days which just went by–World Radio Day (13 February ) and International Day of Women in Science and Technology (11 February)– here is an interview with Mrs. Kamala Subrahmanyan.
Me: When did you do Engineering? Were you the first woman in your college?
Mrs. S: I did my Engineering from 1949 to 1953. And no, I was not the first in my college. I was in fact the seventh—the first woman had started her engineering studies in 1943 and had already finished before I joined. There was one more girl in my batch, and that made things easy.
Me: At a time when engineering was not a normal option for girls, what made you choose it?
Mrs. S: My father was a Deputy Registrar and on his single salary, he supported a large family. I was always fired with the desire to help him. At that time, there were only three professional courses available to anyone—engineering, medicine and law. Well, one of my uncles was studying to be a doctor and I had seen him dissect frogs. I knew I could never do it. So engineering seemed the best option!
Me: What was the reaction of your family?
Mrs. S: My parents were very supportive. And my grandfather who was my role-model encouraged me. So with this kind of backing, I had no problems.
Me: Was there any negative reaction from anyone?
Mrs. S: One of my uncles did not approve. He thought girls should only take up teaching or nursing if they wanted to work. I don’t know about society at large. I did not interact much with anyone outside a small circle, and even if there were negative reactions, I never got to know. Anyway, since my family supported me, I did not really care about anyone else.
Me: How was it at college? The reaction and support or otherwise of classmates, faculty etc.?
Mrs. S: Things were very normal. When we first joined, boys would throw paper planes at us. And when our roll numbers were called for attendance, they would call out ‘Present Sir’ in squeaky voices. But even that stopped in a while. Things were very decent and polite in those days. We all worked together with little differentiation.
We neither asked for any special concessions nor got any. We did our practicals on the lathe or foundry or in surveys just like everyone else. And nor did we face any discrimination.
Me: Then you joined work?
Mrs. S: Yes. Jobs were not easy to come by in those days. As a Telecommunications Engineer, I attended an interview in the State Broadcasting Corporation of Madras Presidency and got my first job there at a salary of Rs. 175 per month. My basic job was to assemble radio sets to be given to community listening centres. There was one more girl with me; she was in the Scientific Stream, not engineering. But we worked together.
Then I got selected in All India Radio and that entailed a move to Delhi.
Me: That was quite a move! How was it?
Mrs. S: For me, it was work, that’s all. I got a place at the YMCA not too far from my office. I would walk up and down. My salary was Rs. 325 per month. I saved most of it to send home. Well, our wants were also very few in those days!
I was the second woman engineer in AIR. Apart from the two enginners, there was also a lady who was a scientist there and senior to me. I was a Technical Assistant and my work was to monitor and control the broadcasting consols. I was the only woman there for quite some time.
Then sadly, my father passed away and on my request, I was posted to Chennai.
Me: What were the various responsibilities you handled during your career?
Mrs. S: Quite a variety. From controlling consols, to going out physically with equipment to do recordings, to doing desk jobs, to looking after maintenance of equipment in various locations, to being in charge of ‘duplicating’ station, to technical purchases.
Not all jobs are equally exciting, but it is up to us to give our best and make it so and find ways to peform well and help the team perform well. For instance, at the High Speed Duplicating centre Vividh Bharathi and the Studios at AIR Kolkatta, I had a large number of staff under my control. I made it a habit to go around the places of work the whole day to check if everything was going smooth Those who worked sincerely were also happy that their work was noticed and appreciated.
Me: What are some of the challenges you faced as a woman?
Mrs. S: Nothing very daunting. Some bosses would not initially give responsibility to a woman. But if one was proactive and looked out for what needed to be done and did it, they would gain confidence and do so. My experience is that you learn a lot from difficult bosses!
Some peers would make things a bit difficult at times specially if they saw me doing well. But such things are a part of life and work, and one just has to take it in the stride.
When I was in charge of Purchase, I faced the most difficult time. But not because I was a woman. I found that there were some problems—there was a nexus of people and some purchases were not being done at all properly. Old or second-quality equipment was coming in. I got very hands-on—from going to the markets myself to find out prices, to ensuring that Standard Operating Procedures were put in place for every aspect and adhered to, to ensuring process and transparency. Of course I did raise quite a few hackles and faced some slogans and threats. Someone even complained to the CBI, who came one day to my office and took away all my files. They kept them for six months, and returned them because they did not find any irregularity.
Me: Any exciting experiences you remember?
When I was in the Studio Design section of the Directorate, one of my duties was to inspect studios under installation before they are commissioned One was at Bhuj. As advised, I took a train from Delhi Main to Jaisalmer which took almost two days including many long halts. From Jaisalmer I had to take a flight to Bhuj. I reached the Airport and boarded the flight (my first experience). There was another boy on the flight who was quite excited. Suddenly there was an announcement that the plane hae developed a defect and another plane has to come from Cochin for us. Since there were no facilities for night landing at Jaisalmer the flight would be available only the next day. I was in a fix as I had planned my trip to be away from home for the minimum period so as not to leave the children alone. Other passengers in the departure lounge were equally disturbed. Some of them seemed to be discussing about taking a taxi.They appeared to be business men. I asked them if I could join them. They told me that they were going to Gandhidham the then capital of Gujarat They told me that they can take me up to Gandhidham and from there I could go to Bhuj. The taxi drove along the Rann of Kutch, a barren patch of land with just white sand. It was pitch dark and there was an eerie silence. On reaching Gandhidham, they took me to the house of one gentleman by name Aggarwal. I contacted the Station Engineer at Bhuj and requested him to send a car to fetch me. He told that he would send the car the next day as it was too late. The Aggarwals served me dinner and gave me a place to sleep. I thanked them. But I feel so sorry that I had not taken their contacts (there were no cellphones those days). I left from Bhuj the next day and lost half a day.
Me: What about home?
My husband and children were most supportive. My husband and I used to adjust our schedules. For instance, I often had to go on shift duty at 6.30 a.m., or be in the shift till 10.30 p.m. My husband always made sure he was at home.
And also, the establishment was cooperative. If my husband who was in the Railways got transferred, I would request for a transfer to the same place, and they would usually make it happen.
Mrs. Kamala Devi Subrahmanyan retired as Superintending Engineering, AIR. I went to school with her daughters Giti and Suki. She inspired awe in us even when we were in school—maybe the first woman engineer I ever met.
Wish her all health and cheer!