maintained by the state (VII: 133)

It is clear therefore that the motive of the priests in forming an exclusive caste was not any consideration of a religious or spiritual or racial nature but one of sheer greed for wealth, women and wine. The ridiculous extent to which they went on advocating their own unimpeachable divine greatness even so late as 100 A.D. may be seen in the Manu Smriti:-

“A brahman is born to fulfill dharma. Whatever exists in this world is the property of the brahman. On account of the excellence of his origin, he is entitled to all. The brahman eats but his own food, wears his own clothes. All mortals subsists through the benevolence of the brahman.”

” Let a brahman be ignorant or learned, still he is a great deity. To brahman, the three worlds and the gods owe their existence. Thus though brahmans employ themselves in all mean occupations they must be honored in everyway, for each of them is a great deity.”

” Let the king after rising early in the morning worship brahmans who are well versed in the threefold sacred sciences and learned in policy and accept their advice.” (Laws of Manu, VII 37).

“brahman is the root of scared law. By his origin alone he is deity even for the gods and his word is authoritative for men.” (XI, 85) in (S.V. Ketkar, 1975:165).

“When a learned brahman has found treasure deposited in former times he may take even the whole of it, for he is the master of everything. When a king finds treasure of old concealed in the ground, let him give one-half to brahmans and place the other half in his treasury” (VIII:35,39).

” brahmans should not be taxed and should be maintained by the state” (VII: 133)

this extract is from the book Dharmatheertha, No Freedom with Caste, The Menace of Hindu Imperialism. edited by  G. Aloysius.

reading these laws is making me want to commission a playwright to write a play. wonder which actor will be able to deliver these lines with the same intent that manu meant and ensured its enactment,  that too,  forever?

” brahmans should not be taxed and should be maintained by the state” (VII: 133)”

————

the most important lesson i have learned from anti-caste writings is that caste can only be dismantled by reason, which is a tough job, when you have manu’s smriti deeply engraved into the indian psyche.

caste oppression has been resisted by millions of people, both in words and deeds, people whose names will remain unknown to history.  anti-caste radicals and thinkers like phule and ambedkar have used their fierce intellect to cause ruptures in this ancient, unreasonable social order. in this long struggle we have had little or no international help in our battle for equality, so far.  and now,  a male-brit-author comes along in 2011 with a book on India, and in an interview he has claimed:

Caste can be substantiated through genetics,” French said, citing a slice of genetic history that he gathered in course of researching his new book, “India: A Portrait“, released at a packed British Council here Wednesday evening.

where does one begin with this kind of nonsense? his subsequent statements indicate the opposite, as it should. did he mean to say “caste can be unsubstantiated by genetics”? anyway, if there is any research based evidence to this absurd announcement, i would only see it as an insidious reermergence of social darwinsim.

a friend assures me that the  brahman who mans all the decision making bodies of academe will never use reason to substantiate caste, they will always appeal to and control the dharma-karma ‘reasoning’ to substantiate caste. i agree, but i am also worried. worried that people are going to aggravate me enough to make me stop working on my research grant and take time out to write a paper on caste and genes and stuff like that. what an absurd waste of time that would be, use the precious few hours i get for activism towards shooting down retrograde ideas such as brahmin genes! wonder if the celebrated author would interview  EMBL scientists  and write an article titled  ‘A royal in your genes’? or ‘A mine worker in your genes’?  if i wasn’t plagued by the sensation that some dalits are going to be playing ball with such retrogressive agents, i would laugh this off.

about the IGIB institute itself i have no worry, the enterprise of science is such that it cannot sell dharma-karma reasoning to the world, and modern science, whether one likes it or not, is global.  these days even a high school graduate will not look for a biological basis in a social category like caste, so there is no question of such nonsense gracing science journals .  it is the popular media that can be played around with, as there is zero capacity to handle science communication in india, and since the system of peer review is not applied there, it is back to dharma-karma along with a random mix of scientific verbiage being dished out.  before i forget to write  the reason for combining a post on Dharmatheertha’s  incisive observations on caste and a white man’s ridiculous observations on the same, please read his interaction with a scientist at IGIB:

It seems like a lot of Bengalis work here,” I said. Dr Mukhopadhyay smiled. “I am a native of Calcutta. If a job is advertised, seven out of ten applicants are Bengali. Some say, “Ah, Bengalis are more clever because they eat a lot of fish and get omega-acids.” I tell them: it’s not like that, clever Bengalis go to academia and clever north Indians go to commerce.

and where do the rest of the indians go? they, will have to read manu’s smritis for an explanation of their exclusion from such cerebral pursuits as figuring out imprints of cultural practices in the genome. we nod sagely that at IGIB like elsewhere ” brahmans should not be taxed and should be maintained by the state” (VII: 133)”

————————————-

note: dharmatheertha, was an anti-caste intellectual from Kerala. in the 1940s’ he issued a call for the reconstruction of a casteless society. he wrote the The Menace of the Hindu Imperialism while residing at Edla Ramdas Ashram in Rajamundry in a span of seven months.  about him, aloysius writes: “……..finally the composition of the erudite but none-the-less highly impassioned text, all these seems to have compounded within him a deep sense of frustration and the near-impossibility of any significant Hindu reform, not to speak of abolition of caste.” i find aloysius’s own writings very erudite and if he is using that term, it must have been a tough text to edit.

Bleeding out in the thirties

Attended the book reading of ‘Mathematics of sex’.

Picture 14

 The book ought to be valuable for all interested in the gender question though the data is specific to the US, issues dealt within it should be relevant anywhere. Definitely contains lots of thinking material for parents with girls.

The review goes something like this: 

Nearly half of all physicians and biologists are females, as are the
majority of new psychologists, veterinarians, and dentists, suggesting that
women have achieved equality with men in the workforce. But the ranks of
professionals in math-intensive careers remain lopsidedly male; up to 93%
of tenure-track academic positions in some of the most
mathematically-oriented fields are held by men.

Three main explanations have been advanced to explain the dearth of women
in math-intensive careers, and in The Mathematics of Sex, Stephen J. Ceci
and Wendy M. Williams describe and dissect the evidence for each. The first
explanation involves innate ability--male brains are physiologically
optimized to perform advanced mathematical and spatial operations; the
second is that social and cultural biases inhibit females' training and
success in mathematical fields; the third alleges that women are less
interested in math-intensive careers than are men, preferring
people-oriented pursuits. Drawing on research in endocrinology, economics,
sociology, education, genetics, and psychology to arrive at their own
unique, evidence-based conclusion, the authors argue that the problem is
due to certain choices that women (but not men) are compelled to make in
our society; that women tend not to favor math-intensive careers for
certain reasons, and that sex differences in math and spatial ability
cannot adequately explain the scarcity of women in these fields. The
Mathematics of Sex represents the first time such a thorough synthesis of
data has been carried out to solve the puzzle of women's
underrepresentation in math-intensive careers.
------

Here, I am trying to put down the highlights of the more interesting part of the reading -the Q and A session with authors Stephen and Wendy. 

Audience: Maybe two men and many women and girls who don’t need a book or statistics to tell them what they live through as most came from math intensive departments. They were there to confirm or contest the major observations in the book.

Wendy: It is a non issue with lopsided numbers in any area as long as it was because women made an informed decision about not being in those careers, however it has to be analyzed and rectified if the numbers reflect some unconscious and conscious biases towards making and sticking it out with these careers.

Stephen emphasized that girls were better or equal mathematicians right through school, and the first drop  in numbers begins in the choice they make for undergraduate courses, the ones who persist and opt for math intensive graduate courses continue performing just as well as the boys. After Ph.D, females are still on par with their male colleagues in job placements, renumeration, publishing, advancements etc. However, in their thirties a major bleeding out of females from math intensive careers happens.

Wendy took over to say, the need for having a family  and unwillingness to relegate childrearing to third party (nannies) is one of the big reasons for this age/stage specific drop out. Analyzing this it is evident that women cannot postpone their decision to bear children if they want to avoid infertility issues with older age. However, this period also critically co-incides with the time when high productivity is expected of young faculty and women take the drastic decision to drop out of careers that they had invested and excelled in all along. Usually never to get back to the system.

Is this an individual loss or loss to the country? The country has invested equally heavily in the training of these women and just when they are about to make a contribution, they reach this impasse. The female attrition is a big loss to the country just as it is to the personal.

Responses that I recall which were interesting, amusing and insightful:

1) A girl from math dept: is there data to show fall in female representation as one goes higher in heiarchy of elite institutes? if the usual explanations don’t account for this, would it indicate sexism is more prevalent in these places?

Others from the same dept : “Of course !”

2) What about non math-intensive careers, why is there no drastic fall there, the biology and early to mid-career demands for high productivity must exist for say law? How have the women overcome this?

Authors answer: Those careers are equally demanding and one does see a fall in the highest levels and few women make it partners, yet such jobs seem to be a little more friendlier to decisions of family and work. And Wendy wondered if it has also to do with female preference for careers that provide an interface with people, making it bearable to hang on in tough times, unlike  math-intensive careers which can be isolating. 

(I found the answers unsatisfactory. None of this explains 93%  male domination.)

3) Another student from math dept, detailed how she started to see fewer and fewer females as she went into higher levels. And contested the data in the book that there were equal number of females at the graduate level. She said in her experience she found herself usually among the very few or sometimes the only one.

Response from a much older faculty: “Looks like little has changed from my time ” to the younger women’s chuckling and sound of weary laughter at all these revelations!!

4) A male student: How come motherhood becomes so important that women take such decisions, the man is the parent too, why does he not have the same response?

Authors: It is changing to some extent.

A mother of 1 year old: “Have to run to pick up my baby (it was after 5.30pm), but want to say my bit, something happens post childbirth, maybe hormones or something that clicks into the mother not the father.” 

Student to this:” Really? Interesting! what hormones does one need to clean the bathroom?”

Wendy: When women give up the decision to have families/children then they are exactly like their male colleagues, so none of theories on brain apititute, biases etc are needed.

5) Question: In the 6% of women who have managed to remain in their careers and reach the top positions, is there data on how many of them chose not to have families and how many have families?

Authors: No clear data, but most of these women are non American, immigrants from European countries, where math ed. is always a push. So, once identified as good in math, the entire system gets them to focus only to enhance their aptitude in it.

Response to this: How does that explain the US having lower numbers of women excelling in math?

Wendy: That is a paradox, one would expect women from more patriarchal societies (Turkey), with lesser freedom to make choices would lead to them not taking up math-intensive careers but the data shows otherwise. One wonders if when presented with choice, women inherently choose what is more satisfying of their need to be in non-isolating careers? 

Indicators of solutions (from random reading over the years):

Studying department structures and cultures-

Departmental attrition data from one state show that the difference between male and female rates of undergraduate attrition from computer science varies by institution. This analysis suggests that departmental factors are important in attrition from CS. Some CS departments inhibit female persistence at the undergraduate level while other departments promote persistence. The observed variation encourages research that compares departmental characteristics such as structure and culture, and relates them to departmental outcomes. Shifting the research focus to departmental characteristics and outcomes will identify effective methods for retaining women.

By taking a hard look at work-family policies-

Employee Assistance Plans, dependent care flexible spending accounts, and emergency child care are associated with increases in the percentage of associates who are female.  Second, these policies are linked to reductions in the turnover rates of associates.  This, combined with the first finding, indicates that work-family policies help retain female employees. Overall, these findings suggest that firm provision of work-family policies can play an important role in retaining female employees without hurting firm profitability. 

Additional useful material is here

Impressed with Indian Science?

A decade back, Goldemberg wrote about the flawed  vision of the technical elite of developing countries; their fancy view of themselves, what they achieved (and did not) and the irrelevance of what they pushed for.

Their approaches were distanced from the local problems, wrecked the environment (social, political and natural), pushed the poor further down and successfully set up nonsensical specialization centers. All this was and is done with the complete confidence that their actions will never be scrutinized and held accountable. In fact this group demands respect that they have been able to promote narrow irrelevant science and technology. Hiding behind qualifications and training used largely to extend kinship base in the establishments that were set up, they deserve the sycophancy they seek.

Here is the article from the  series ‘Essay on Science and Society’,  in the Science Journal written in 1998.

What Is the Role of Science in Developing Countries?

José Goldemberg.

After the Second World War, a small technical elite arose in developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Iraq who had been educated as scientists in the industrialized world. They thought that by pushing for Manhattan project-type enterprises in nuclear energy, electronics, pharmaceuticals, or space research they could leapfrog the dismally low level of development of their countries. India, for example, started a nuclear energy program that mobilized thousands of technicians and cost hundreds of millions of dollars but failed to meet power demands.

What my scientist colleagues and national leaders alike failed to understand was that development does not necessarily coincide with the possession of nuclear weapons or the capability to launch satellites. Rather, it requires modern agriculture, industrial systems, and education. The technical elite naïvely believed that spin-offs from their nuclear energy or space programs would somehow convert their countries to 20th-century industrialized states. Instead, there were heavy economic and political costs. In India, for example, such programs led to the development of nuclear weapons–which only encouraged Pakistan to do the same–while many basic human needs such as health and education were not given the support needed.

In my view, this scenario means that we in developing countries should not expect to follow the research model that led to the scientific enterprise of the United States and elsewhere. Rather, we need to adapt and develop technologies appropriate to our local circumstances, help strengthen education, and expand our roles as advisers in both government and industry. In this way, we can prevent the brain-drain that results when scientists are not in touch with the problems of their home countries or when they face indifference–and poor financial support–from their governments.

Three models for the relationship between science and development.

In Brazil, the use of ethanol as fuel is one example of how this approach can work.1 By encouraging the wide use of ethanol produced from sugarcane–a traditional crop in the country–as fuel to replace gasoline, the government of Brazil was able replace half of the gasoline used by automobiles in the country (about 200,000 barrels of ethanol per day) with a renewable energy source. In so doing, Brazil became a pioneer in an area that had been neglected by industrialized countries. The entire technology, from the agricultural to the industrial phase, was developed or improved upon by local scientists and technologists. I and other Brazilian scientists first had to convince the government that this approach was technically feasible, even though it had been ignored in industrialized countries. To do this, we had to address questions regarding motor technology, environmental concerns, and the trade-off between raising crops for food versus fuel.

In general, the misconceptions held by the technical elite are derived from an idea cherished by many in the developing world that pure research leads to technological development and then to products that open new markets or conquer existing ones (see figure, model A). This naïve “linear theory” or “cradle-to-grave” approach to science and development served as the blueprint for the establishment of the National Science Foundation in the United States and was widely copied throughout the world.2 But that model fails to stress the interaction that should occur among the phases. As one moves from pure research to technological development and then to production and marketing, unanticipated problems arise that require reexamination and adaptation at the earlier stages.

More realistic are models B and C.3 Model B corresponds, generally speaking, to present practices in the United States, where some overlap exists between the successive stages. Model C illustrates the Japanese practice of having the three phases completely superimposed. These are the more realistic models that developing countries should follow. In models B and C, practical needs–that is, demand–influence supply, namely, the type of pure research that is done. For example, after solid-state devices such as transistors made possible the expansion of switchboarding in telephone services, industrial laboratories such as Bell Laboratories lavishly financed solid-state physics. In developing countries, government goals and the “demand side” pull are often lacking. As a result, universities and research centers have become isolated from the rest of the country in an ivory tower, more connected to research centers in Europe or the United States than to the obvious needs of industry, agriculture, and education in their own countries. Science and technology budgets receive little support from the private sector and instead depend on the national treasury.4 Heavy government bureaucracies wind up cultivating whatever science and technology is fashionable in the developed countries, waiting indefinitely for the time when such competence would trigger development in a manner that resembles the wait for Godot in Beckett’s play. More.

Science reporting this?

Cabinet ministers for Science , Education and Climate are introduced by a science communicator in this article on NDTV. Please read. 

 Dream Cabinet may Shore up Indian Science.

I am going to part fisk, part think aloud and generally try not to cringe at wasting time typing a post that I am going to tag as Blah!

First sentence of article:

Science it seems has finally come of age in India.

Sorry Sir, Indian science is yet to be born.

If anyone wants to jump at me with the ‘zero’ yes, I am wrong, birthed yes, did it continue growing to the stage of ‘coming of age’?  Maybe, I missed it (along with the rest of the world).

For, I am talking of Science as a discipline that arises from unbiased observation of the physical world (living and non-living) to form new theories, confirm known or demolish existing theories.

Back to the article: We are to gather that a dream team has been put together. Because.

Somebody is:

Prithviraj Chavan (63),

a)    A mechanical engineer from University of California, Berkeley,

b)    Who spent his early years making electronic components for listening in on enemy submarines in America, was appointed as the new Science Minister.

c)    A heavyweight politician from Western India who on assuming office said, “My first love is science and technology.” Chavan will certainly have a heavy workload as he now has to handle as many as five different ministries.

This sounds a lot like my 8 year old’s idea of the world  “my Lego submarine can listen to aliens planning an attack from Andromeda. I so love my science kit with the magnifying glass, the best.”

Me: Totally excited for my country –like dreaming! Son and country might grow up together and do stuff like ask WHY this or that. Search for truth. Seek and find answers –heavy workload indeed!!

Back to article:

Chavan for the time becomes a single point person for almost all Indian scientific departments as he is also a member of the secretive cash rich Atomic Energy Commission; and the Space Commission — the highest policy making bodies for these strategic departments.

What is this? Somebody tell me, ok, OK, I get it,

Secretive cash rich + 2 strategic departments = single point person = all scientific departments hence perfect to oversee science for a nation of a billion people. No, sorry, I thought I got it.

 What are we to gather here? Since the Atomic and Space commissions are secretive, are cash rich policy making bodies of these two departments (atomic and space?) a minister member automatically becomes a single point person for ALL Indian scientific departments?

With sincere ignorance I want to know how this happens.

Before that, what is a single point person?

I am progressively feeling very very ignorant as I continue reading the article. Please stay with me.

Earlier, when the world’s largest democracy, which voted through a robust gift of Indian science — the Electronic Voting Machine — gave an economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh another five year term in office.

I am looking up the inventors list for Indian names to come up against the EVM’s. And nothing so far, will keep trying; BEL comes up for manufacturing these. Again, it must be me, and my idiotic ideas, about science and manufacturing.

And Education:

Widely regarded as one of the ‘best science minister India ever had’, lawyer-turned-politician, Kapil Sibal (61), has now been appointed the new Minister for Education with a Cabinet rank, a huge elevation in his profile as the top man at the Human Resources Development Ministry. This is a much coveted portfolio since Singh’s government has gone in for a massive expansion of higher education. Speaking about his responsibilities, Sibal said, “He hoped for a synergy in science and education like never before.

Best science minister ever. Ok, I admit I am out of the loop and catch up on Indian news in patches – What did I miss here? Looks like a lot. A change in science policy? New ways of teaching, thinking and doing science? Reduction in bureaucratic interference? Attacked nepotism – joke guys, no, there is no nepotism in Indian science. That thing about CSIR, being a ‘Council of Sons-in-law and Relatives’, bad joke, started by those who did not make it (did not marry the right person types), those IQ less persons.

Science and education. Inertia to synergy. Tough call. But that this got some print space, I love it. Totally grateful!

Now, I have a lot reading to do on the ‘progress in Indian Science’ under Kapil Sibal.

Next dreamboat will save the Climate. Because.

Somebody is:

Jairam Ramesh (55)

a)    Who has studied at Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston and completed a MS from Carnegie Melon University in Program Management was appointed as the new environment and forests minister.

b)    Making the country’s position on climate change amply clear, he immediately said, “India cannot take on any binding emissions reduction targets.”

c)    He also feels that a country which accounts for 16 per cent of the world’s population and accounts for a mere five per cent of the emissions, could not be expected to stop its rapid economic growth and development.

d)    Incidentally, Ramesh, a power minister in the last administration, had emphasised that clean coal, hydel and nuclear will be the mainstay for energising India.

I posses all of the above points.

I too have fancy degrees (a),

Am quick to make claims (b),

And feel (c),

And emphasize (d) on many issues,

So, I should be on the dream team, right? (But I am not a crorepathi, bummer!)

The rest of article is a series of quotes of back patting, yes, we do want people to have faith and express confidence in the cabinet members capacity. The operative word being ‘people’.  We would like to know what the agriculture scientists, farmers, doctors, engineers, people in the industry, teachers, homemakers, parents and children expect of our science minister.

The science communicator of this piece cannot go around asking all these people for an article, right? So, he has decided to ask a few professional scientists their opinion. 3 to be precise. A chemist, biophysicist and a structural biologist. For people who think these three represent different branches of science that spin off theories that can span the width and berth of science -they all study/died molecules. No, I am not of the view a molecular vision cannot visualize and encompass the nations needs. Their opinion counts. And their opinions are: -

Breaking vertical barriers and silos -Mr Vijyan

Tripling of scientific base -Mr  Ramasami

We have to deliver now. -Mr Samir

Check out the number of mallus and bongs who were part of Mr Vijyan and Samir Bhattacharya’s groups respectively. Also check out how many of them went on to find positions. You will get an idea of what vertical barriers mean.

Check out the recent mega attempt to scuttle affirmative action in centres for excellence and you will get an idea of what tripling the scientific base means.

Check out Wikipedia to see contribution of modern Indian science and technology to get an idea of what it has delivered so far. Plenty of departments. And an invention list that stopped sometime in 1950’s.

Yes Sirs. Keep delivering your packs of lies. Now and forever.

Style of science reporting:

Picks two lines from CV’s. Pick pathetic quotes from each. Supporting evidence -add more pathetic quotes from guys who are already holding top government positions. Then claim it as a dream team.

IMHO

Science: Means questioning, after observing a pattern.

Science journalism: Means you question the questioning, are these guys framing the right questions? Are they capable of guiding the process of finding answers?

Don’t parrot what they muttered to you. Let the public decide if they were a dream team –post performance .

This article attempts to convey that big names are the perfect guys my country trusts to keep the nations Science focused on remaining top notch, that is, no slacking in the generation of new Scientific ideas and theories, of working hard to keep the brains continually examining and falsifying theories by rigorous method. It implies that we are almost on top of the game.

We practice good science. We said it. We mean it. So it is true. We don’t need to prove it. Especially, to the rest of the world. We are the world.

These sounds like assumptions to you?

You want data to verify that this is so?

You dare to ask?

Are you non-believer or what?

You want to question our belief?

What do you think this is some theory that you want to confirm and prove wrong?

You think this is science ?

(No, STOP right there, don’t open a new tab, to check out Nobles website, Nature, Cell or Science journals or any of those stupid parameters of scientific performance. Don’t even think about connecting rampant malnourishment, dying crops, non-existent hygiene, importing of the simplest of vaccines, mountains of garbage, HIV numbers, starvation, none of these have anything to do with science, education or climate) .

Aside to the communicator. If you want internet accessing people atleast to believe what you are dishing out, do a couple of things, go over to wikipedia and update the inventors list, bring it up to date from the 1950’s to 2009. Update the contribution of Indian Science and Technology’s to  the world and the nation. Try and edit the story that only details endless expansions and no delivery. Update the progress each of the newly added centres did and let the readers make up his/her mind of how Indian brains working in science and technology have changed the way humans percieve the world. That should effectively stop skeptics like me and the commentator, below. Wikipedia is as reliable as anything else on the web but the future generations are going to be hitting on it for basic information. Imagine giving a school kid the project of finding what Indian science and technology stands for? And the kid finds out that science has basically been dead for a good 4-5 decades now. And if the ministry closes shop, the world will not bat an eyelid.  

 

Posted by Dr.G.Srinivasan on Jun 02, 2009   Science progresses not only because of the minister and encouragement given by the government but also the environment created by the scientists themselves.A brain drained India will not be of much use in this scenario.Even if the brain drain were to be reversed the circumstances prevalent will not allow good science to be done. This is from personal experience– I am a neuropeptide chemist trained from Karolinska and I had to forget this and bank on my basic medical profession for a living . The circumstances were created by jealous people in ICMR, DST, CSIR and all places which had anything to do with science. They are packed with corrupt mediocre people who have no idea of what science is all about . Science is a beautiful tree which can grow only when all the criteria are there. Now we have a gardner . But technology does not mean science .there is a subtle difference

———–

If there is to be a team that dares to dream science for India, it will first question the way we raise our children, the way families answer their questions, the way our schools let them think and way university professors distiguish between original and derivative thought and pave way for our society to open its ancient closed mind.

Then, only then, can we begin to dream of our nation doing science as unbiased observers of the physical and biological world, as seekers of truth and solution finders to some of its problems. 

Sad truth: There is nothing in this article that lets me think and hope that such a vision even happens to be on their radar.

Physical structures– Mothers and Others

[ This is Essay No. 34 in the Blogbharti Spotlight Series, that i wrote sometime back]

I have started to feel physical spaces change, ever since I became a mother a few years back. They appear changed in response to my changed status. Not in their form, function or appearance but in their behavior towards me, some though have remained the same (I don’t feel them). This is sometimes funny, disconcerting and strange, but mostly has made me feel very sensitized to physical structures. I now attribute attitude to them. They may be kind or rude to me, may include, exclude, discriminate or embrace me warmly.

Changes during travel

One of the earliest memories associated with motherhood and the changed physical space was the first overnight train trip, after delivery. My growing apprehension of the trip in my favorite mode of transport, was how am I going to nurse the barely two months old infant?

Advice given: In our country it is acceptable to nurse in public, just look around.

Ok.

What about me? Knowing that other women do it did not mean that I was ready and comfortable about it. Anyway, this and subsequent trips saw a steady decrease in my love for travel by train. I somehow managed to learn the nursing part with the dupata draped just right without smothering the baby. This involved a pretty intricate set of movements in the limited seat space during the day; with co-passengers all around you, being mindful of their space, it was a game of anticipating and coordinating everything before the baby decides to let all know that he was being starved by his mother. (Note: formula food was not affordable on my fellowship, if it was, I may or may not have used that option. Hence, this post is not an argument for or against nursing.)

Soon another structure within the train started to harass me -the narrow berth! Being of average height and build, this space worked fine for me before. But now, with baby steadily growing with each trip, the berth started to be a different thing. All my life I had seen mothers sleep in this narrow space with their children, but to actually experience it was plain uncomfortable. Seeing future trips spent commuting in this cramped fashion, I started to desperately ask, when can the baby have his own seat? Answer: when he turns five!! This is unnatural, mother and child are to morph into one being in the nights, because the train seats, a paid for physical space does not recognize them as two people? All this left me with ‘before and after’ memories of train trips. The toilets, the food, the smells they were all the same, but the train now made me intensely conscious and announced to the world my well hidden shyness. The berth, however, was blind to my changed status. Believe me, they did not do this before. I had never felt their meanness or blindness. They just got me where I wanted to go, let make new friends, dream endlessly, read and stare outside. Now, they were almost hostile and mute to reason. They wouldn’t talk. That is one thing they seem to have cleverly left out while transforming into live monsters. These creatures could be ignored. They were not part of my everyday life and there was a choice of not being in that space.

At the workspace

Unfortunately for me, old familiar structures at the workspace started to take on aforementioned attitudes of the train. Ignoring and avoiding these spaces was not going help. My work was within laboratory buildings, with 24hour access to conduct experiments. I returned here after maternity leave, prepared for many changes including constraints on time. Anticipated changes were manageable, and the higher levels of energy combined with guilt at leaving the baby at a daycare translated into brisk efficiency. Everything was streamlined, nevertheless some experiments would not fit within daycare schedules. Unanticipated space constraints became a challenge. Before the motherhood, I would not think twice about going in the middle of the night to do follow up work, and if the mood took me, do more work. Now, extraordinary effort went into plans to reduce the number and length of such visits, leaving scope for just the essential monitoring, switch on/off kind of stuff. This too, did not work. Tried taking the nuclear family to the lab, while I tinkered rapidly. This, however, got me pulled by the authorities “how would we explain the presence of a baby should something go wrong in the building?” This was not a high security, radiation-spewing kind of lab, just a regular plant and harmless microbe research one. Yet, they had a point, and I agreed.

This kind of transition to work pattern was difficult. I also started to observe and talk to other mothers handling this transition; some had stopped working on the longer experiments, some had learned to delegate, while others moved to administrative kind of work. These were smart decisions at the individual levels to adapt but to me all of this screamed compromise. Most mothers had some support in the form of spouse or friends, who were willing to hold the baby for the short periods of time, when we worked during non-office hours. So what was stopping us? The building? The non-availability of a little space marked out for such times was the only hindrance (not lobbies, stuff happens with babies and many of these buildings don’t even have lobbies). Really, it is just a little a space; a chair, a makeshift screen would do.

I then started to work on what I convinced myself were more elegant experiments, ones that could be left behind at the end of the day. But at heart I knew, and missed the hands-on, getting fingers dirty, elbows scratched kind of work that really allowed the ‘finding a way’ rather than following a way. The natural intensity and passion towards work was being replaced with cool efficiency. The spontaneity was leaving the mothers. And the race was happening without me. As working women in Science, we were aware of the challenges that such careers presented and regularly discussed their impact, but ‘space’ as a significant factor was never articulated and hence left me quite unprepared to deal with it. The stony refusal of the buildings to accommodate the changing needs of some of its workforce, added to all other known factors, in a hidden manner. The rigidity of the physical space could not be blamed on anybody or anything we just learn to live with it. Because, it was we who had changed, I thought.

Workspace in a different land

Two years later, space in the form of an unknown alien land became my destination, landed in a small university town in the US. The laboratories, however, are the same anywhere, but I had no fear of non-existent spaces, for the baby was just weaned. I launched into work with the complete intent of regaining lost ground. In a meeting with an external committee, evaluating the department, I found myself with a bunch of others (lower echelons) being asked about our levels of satisfaction in this place (If as a group we were figuratively tossed back to the countries of origin we would fall in almost all the different continents). Everybody said that the move here was good, a mother of two, however, had an issue. She said this building, did not provide her space where she could pump breast milk for her infant. I observed everybody, each came from a culture that had a different take on breastfeeding in public in their home countries, but here they had probably adapted to the local practice. The younger males probably had wives with the same issues as this woman, the older committee members with hazy memories of parenting days may have had daughters who were nursing. Their expressions were not readable my own feelings were of envy and fellow feeling. Envy, because she had circumvented the prolonged guilt that troubled me when the baby was in daycare and the tiring consequences; nursing through the night, sleepless nights, worry about infant tooth caries etc. The practice of pumping breast milk released women from this trauma, however, this mother was faced with another obstacle: the process required space for short periods and the 11- storied building did not and would not cater to that.

Physical space built around one

The answer to these dilemmas propped up during an all-women meeting, trying to understand why their career graphs looked squiggly and the strain it took to keep it straight. This naturally involves talk about motherhood impacting careers and invariably gets everybody upset and bothered. One member said “you know, Universities were built for a man in the forties, with a wife at home, and the spaces reflect that”. A sardonic reply, “actually for a medieval man.” Much needed tension releasing laughter followed this remark. But in this conversation was the answer that I had been seeking. As always answers to problems that vex me are usually the simplest, obvious and general: Spaces are built for a certain type of individual with certain types of need and functions, and since it is concrete, it remains that way. And all other different individuals will have to adapt around it or stay out of it.

Imagining physical space for ‘the other’

What does different mean with respect to a building space? It could be specific to age, gender, class, professions and so on. Anybody who does not fit the original ‘form’ around which it was designed is different, requiring adjustment of that individual to the physical structure. One could become different for short periods and be impacted significantly (pregnancy, broken limbs, illness etc). Does this mean, if the original design of the structure right from the design boards were drawn and executed to include different individuals they would serve a wider spectrum of people? How do we do this? Can we imagine the ‘different’ and anticipate their needs with the physical space? Let me attempt this while talking about one physical structure that embraced mother and child: the handicap access route -a slope made of wood, concrete or steel. As a mother with a toddler in a new country, our access with a stroller to most public and private buildings was made simple and easy via the handicap access routes. Not for me the Empire State or other iconic buildings, instead it is this simple structure that gets my maximum appreciation. This small town’s total number of handicapped persons would not exceed the numbers in a couple of Bangalore neighborhoods. Yet, one can feel their presence all around in these thoughtful physical structures, including public transport vehicles. Each time I hit a handicap access sign, my thoughts went to my friends and neighbors in the Paraplegic Rehab Centre housing wounded Ex servicemen in Khadki, Pune. The residents were from far away places in India; many were war veterans, and some who were injured at work. These men were very important in the city’s collective consciousness. They reminded us of the horrors of War, and disrupted lives and mostly symbolized a human spirit that was best expressed by their slogan “Please, no pity” while they exhibited paintings done with foot and mouth. Down the road from this centre was the University with libraries and public meeting venues. Across from it were two popular temples hosting many cultural events. I had never seen them participating in meetings and events within these buildings and never wondered about it. For, I did know that a small concrete slant could have been used and that it was missing. I am not sure if they articulated, but I know we did not imagine that need. This absent physical space restricted them to just watch the cultural events from the entrance of rehab centre, seated in wheelchairs. This is a 5year old memory and I really hope it has changed and these structures have appeared, at least in the University buildings and temples.

This is not a solution for all the handicapped in India, every design will have to be rethought, footpaths, elevators, schools, colleges, offices, and other public buildings in villages, towns and cities. A long overhaul surely, but by not thinking about it, we are not just unimaginative, we are indulging in callousness.

Then, there are others who are different in social status and society accords scant respect for their needs, not by lack of imagination but by deliberate omission. Look at any construction site employing few to large numbers of laborers, do we wonder about the lack of onsite restrooms for them? Structures that we demand for ourselves in any place that we would spend more than a couple of hours. And, there are other vivid memories of women in the neighborhoods throwing tantrums “should the housemaid ask to use the bathroom!” That is a human attitude. And I have no wish to dissect that now. No, I am not making a case for just a sloped concrete structure or a wider berth, but a case to imagine and implement physical structures that can serve more than just the ideal individual.