Kamala Breaks Barriers: Marking World Radio Day

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!


A Crusader for Women’s Health

Ashoka Fellow Indu Capoor is Founder-Director of Centre for Health, Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA), based in Ahmedabad, India, an organization she started when she was just 23 years old. This was in the early 1980s when the young nutritionist had a vision of an India where the health and nutrition of marginalised women and children mattered. So when she was asked by a multilateral funding agency to write a proposal, she wrote a note going well beyond a project. She proposed an institution that would work as a bridge between policy and practice. And CHETNA, or Centre for Health, Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness, was born. Chetna means awareness in Hindi.


Indu is an old friend and a senior colleague. Yesterday, I met up with her for an hour and we chatted about many things, including the subject closest to her heart—woman and child health. Here is the interview.

Me: Indu, you have been in this field for over 3 decades. What still remains the major challenge to women and child health.

Indu: Women’s self-esteem, self-confidence and agency. Somehow you can link everything back to these. Poverty is of course a major issue, but social practices and beliefs are as significant.

For instance, take anaemia. About 50% women in India are anaemic and this is the major cause of underweight children being born, and other childhood problems. There is a lot of focus on child health, but I think we have to focus on the root cause—the health of the mother. If we fix that effectively, the problem is solved. But it is still true that women do not get enough food, or enough nutrition. Their food is not a priority. A young girl, at her in-laws place, has no say on what she eats. During pregnancy, it is important that a woman eats to her liking. But is that really possible? And the women themselves believe that they are the last priority.

I can never get over the fact that at my wedding, one of the vows I was supposed to take was that I would first ensure that my husband, children and guests were fed before I ate! I obviously refused to take the vow. But this is how deeply it is ingrained. We have to socialize boys and girls to understand that nutrition of young girls is extremely important.

Me: Have you seen any positive changes?

Indu: Yes, I do see changes in women’s confidence, mobility, decision making space etc. in urban areas, and the borderline poor. But not in the really poor.

In fact, ‘livelihood development’ and outside work sometimes adversely affect these women because their work burden increases hugely. No one else in the house shares domestic work, and in addition, she has to go out and work. This has implications for her health and well-being.

Me: This is worrying. Any other such concern areas?

Indu: Yes. Spiralling food prices, pollution, market forces, cost of medicines, loss of food diversity, all of these have huge implications for nutrition in general and women’s nutrition and health in particular.

Me: What is one critical action which can help in this situation?

Indu: I think we must consider each and every policy from a gender angle. We must ask: ‘how will this affect the health and well-being of women, especially marginalized and poor women’? And only then can we finalize the policy.


For more: Read ‘A Shared Destiny: My Journey with CHETNA’ published by Academic Foundation is about Indu’s journey in of 3+ decades in the field of woman and child health.

Keeping Tradition Alive

July is here. And along with it, the festival season. Pujas—a time for festivities, fun, enjoyment with the family. A time to get back in touch with our traditions. A time of solemnity and also gaiety.



But also today, a time for stress! Who knows what the auspicious grass for Ganesh Chaturthi is? Or the prasadam to be made for Thiruvadarai? What is the rangoli to make for Rathasapthami?

And how to answer questions from the kids? Why is Naga Panchami celebrated? Who is Ekadashi? Why do we make sundal for Navaratri?

“Follow the Hindu Moon: A Guide to the Festivals of South India’, by Soumya Aravind Sitaraman, will answer all these questions and more. Brought out by Random House about 10 years ago, this magnum opus is in two volumes, totaling to over 800 pages. But don’t be put off by the weight and the bulk. The publication is erudite and comprehensive, but extremely easy to read and refer to. The text presentation is clearly organized and simple.

What really brings the book to life are the more than 400 colour plates. Beautiful, un-posed, real—they bring alive the beauty of our traditions. Whether it is the decoration of Varalakshmi or the photographs of the delicacies made for different pujas, you wish you could be there in the photo, living that moment. The photographer is Usha Kris, Soumya’s mother!

Volume 1 is called  ‘Celebrate’. It covers: “Puja Basics’—everything from aartis to vastram; ‘Embracing the Almighty’—a guide to pujas;   ‘ Getting organized’—pooja checklists to annual festival planner; and ‘Celebrate’—detailed walkthroughs for every festival of South India, including procedures, observances, rituals, sankalpams, stories, etc.

Volume 2 called ‘Understand’ has sections on everything from ‘Reading the Panchanga’ to shlokams, to naivedya recipes, and festival-specific rangoli designs.

The books work at several levels: as a ‘Do-it-yourself’ guide for novices; as a reference book on details for experienced mamis; and as a fascinating browse for anyone.

At first look, Rs. 3500 seems a bit of an investment. But this book is bringing to you almost those many years of tradition!

So whether you are an experienced puja veteran, or a student in the US who wants to celebrate festivals the traditional way, or an ‘armchair cook’ like me, you are going to enjoy this book. So buy it for yourself. Or share the joy of a festival and gift it to a loved one!


Matchmaker, Matchmaker….

Shared memories are probably what define a community or nation or any grouping.

And one indelible memory shared by millions of Indians is seeing miles and miles of walls painted with:

‘Rishtey hi rishtey

Prof. Arora

Mil to lein’.

Prof. Arora rocked social media before social media was invented!

But this piece is not so much about the ‘world-famous in India’ professor, as about how matches were and are made.

Detail from ‘Matchmaker’: A painting by Nilofer Suleman



When we were young (and for centuries before that, I would imagine), it was about

Pushy pishis

Mission-mode mamas

Chatty chachis

Anxious ammammas

Each activating their network of relatives, friends, acquaintances; chatting up people chance-met at weddings or house warmings or whatever; reaching out to guests of their neighbours, sisters in law of their cousins, whoever. But the fundamental strategy was ‘pass the word, pass the word’.

And boy, did it work! Everyone (except the resolutely resistant), did end up getting married.

‘Matchmaker’: Nilofer Suleman



And then came a generation where it was considered OK to put up a matrimonial ad in TOI or Hindu or whatever the local dominant newspaper was. This seemed to work fairly OK too.

Today, with so-called efficient networks and all manner of specialized networking sites, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. I meet so many 30+ people who are not married. It could be that they don’t want to get married. But I know at least half of them do want to. But they never seem to find the right person. The trick seems to be to find a soulmate in school or college. It seems to get increasingly difficult afterwards.

Then parents come into the picture. And they are pretty clueless!

Which makes me think that we have to find some other means to fix matches. Have no idea what, but maybe go back to real-live human beings as intermediaries, rather than just bits and bytes of information floating in the ether?



It is building up to Mother’s Day again! As we are reminded by all the mushy gushy ads—a day to thank dear mummy with gifts galore! There is even on offer, an online course that will teach mothers “how to re-connect back to you, let go of mummy guilt, practice self care, gratitude and how to turn mundane tasks into magical mindful meditations. Learn how to feel connected, content and calm on your motherhood journey!”

This made me smile! If only mothers had the time and energy to take such a course! “Hey Presto! Look kids, Mummy is Connected!!”

Being a mother seems to get harder every day—you have tiger moms, helicopter moms, soccer moms, and more. I am reminded of the early phase of my own motherhood journey. We did not bear such titles, nor wear such mantles. We were simply hassled mothers!

I think back to the many years when, waking at dawn, I used to pack bags of clothes, boxes of food, and paraphernalia for the day, for two infants, and take ourselves off (the whole caboodle being dropped by husband, on a trusty scooter) to my office by 9.15 every morning. I was indeed blessed to have a crèche on the premises, but that did not excuse me from taking back, at the end of a long demanding working day, piles of soiled diapers (yes, dear ‘Pamper’ed mommies, it was before the days of disposables!)… all to be washed and dried and repacked the next morning. Coming home tired and cranky, while the children were fresh and raring to go, one barely made it through the evening of domestic chores (packing into a couple of hours an entire day’s agenda), till one collapsed with exhaustion, only to rise and shine again the following day.

Somewhere along that journey I wrote a little poem.


A song of those in mid-career,

who start a family.

Coping with home and job and kids,

with never a moment free.

No breathing time from dawn till night,

nor energy to take stock of life.

Burdened with the nagging guilt,

of being an inadequate housewife.

Juggling all the fronts at once,

trying to keep the balls aloft.

A precarious state it is indeed,

never sure if the battle’s won or lost.

Few realise the task it is

unless they really wear the shoes.

“Where am I going, and where is arriving?”

These are the superwoman’s true blues!

Dedicated to all those who are today, where I was yesterday! This too shall pass!



Happily Ever After?

I must confess, I am a regular ad observer! I believe that ads improve my GK as it were! They give me a sneak peek into “what’s hot”, “what’s cool” and where its “raining discounts!” Ads add to my vocabulary, introducing words like Swag (!), and now KDM. Ads paint me a world where the swag and gloss of the PYTs is never to be touched by the seven signs of aging; the housing schemes that promise “paradise on earth”; and dhamaka deals that will make it feel like Diwali every day! The world is your oyster–Just choose, click and add to cart!

Pardon me if I sound like I don’t relate! In fact I don’t want to, in this make-believe air-brushed world, while the mad, bad rest of the world continues to grapple with the daily business of survival–water shortages, spiralling prices, blatant corruption and abuse of power, and the horrors of every kind of atrocity that humankind can unleash.

But I digress. Coming back to the ad ad ad world. A long-time item of my ‘ad education’ is a scan of the Sunday paper’s matrimonial pages (another confession!). This is in some ways a tiny window into what society considers “a suitable match”, and how things are changing (or not). Some years ago girls were ‘wheatish’ complexioned and ‘homely’ (wonderfully Indian use of the word which in British English means cosy and comfortable and in American English means unattractive!) Of course we use it to mean home-loving and, perhaps, skilled in domestic duties! The other attribute highlighted was the “cultured” family background.

A quick look-over of last week’s page revealed that ‘Beautiful, slim, fair’ were the main adjectives used in almost 80 per cent of the ads. Somewhere in the fine print is revealed that the girl is also well-qualified professionally. Another interesting, though curious, point was the highlight on the “successful business family” angle. A case of lucre over culture? On the same page are also some Elite ads in which everyone, without exception, is ‘looking for a like-minded and well-educated/well-read match.’ I would love to know how these very noble-sounding words are interpreted!

On the very same page was the proud announcement by the newspaper that it has started a BooksOverBeauty initiative through which the intention is to change the format of matrimonial ads so as to put education over looks. The paper promises to highlight every ad that puts education first. I am flummoxed—are looks and books so irreconcilable? Does it always have to be one or the other? Are we continuing to reinforce the comic-book stereotype of the frothy beauty vs the geek? I thought we had moved beyond that?

It would be interesting to see how that initiative unfolds. At a time when our society seems to be at the lowest ebb of basic human values and respect for dignity and life, are we merely paying lip service to the notion of respect for women? Or are we merely playing with words? Will the mere order of words change the way we see women, we treat women, and perhaps even how women see themselves?