The editors invited me to contribute an essay recalling the events, influences, and challenges that have shaped my professional life and led to my current role as Professor of Earth Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
ONE OF MY MOST vivid childhood memories is standing with my father, holding his hand, beside the river near our ancestral home. I was six years old. “Just as small streams fill this big river,” he told me, “little events make for a full life.”
I was born the ninth child in a family of ten: four boys and six girls. We lived in Thalayolaparambu, a small village in the southeast Indian state of Kerala. Kottayam, the busy town made famous by Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, is nearby. Its rivers, lagoons, and palm-fringed coastlines make Kerala a popular tourist destination. It’s also known for the amity among its Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities.
Prior to the exodus of workers to the Persian Gulf that began during the early 1970s, the region was predominantly agricultural. Higher education was closed to my parents, as it was to most of their generation. My father joined Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement when he was in the ninth grade, eventually dropping out of school as a result. By the time of my birth in 1954, he was a leading Congress Party politician and a long-time member of Kerala’s legislative assembly. My mother was a homemaker who possessed remarkable organizational skills, intuition, and foresight.
The India of my childhood did not encourage girls to reach their full potential. Indian society remained profoundly patriarchal. Boys were the natural heirs to ancestral property. Daughters were married young and expected to live with their husband’s family. Almost every marriage was arranged; intercaste or interreligious unions were rare. These social conventions were observed less strictly in Kerala than in other parts of India. Popular movements that arose during the 1920s, led by social reformers such as Narayana Guru, had promoted gender equality and spiritual freedom. While most Indian women were confined to their homes, girls in Kerala began attending school.1 Left-leaning political movements helped to reinforce egalitarian ideas. I was born into an era of social change.
At the age of fifteen, I entered my final year at the A. J. John Memorial Girl’s High School—one of the worst performing schools in the state. My eldest brother subsequently arranged for me to be admitted to St. Joseph’s Girl’s Higher Secondary School in Alleppey, a coastal town three hours’ drive away. Described as the Venice of the south by Lord Curzon, Alleppey is a scenic town with many estuaries and waterways, and it was here that I spent the next year with my brother and his family, finishing the school year with good marks.
St. Teresa’s College in Kochi, a coastal city an hour’s drive from Thalayolaparambu, was one of the best private women’s colleges in Kerala. In 1976, I completed a five-year undergraduate course at St. Teresa’s, graduating with a major in chemistry, and minors in physics and mathematics. I had become fascinated by organic chemistry and dreamed of becoming a cosmetic chemist. I had little idea of the prospects for such work, and had been guided by the advice of my teachers. By this time, my father had died, and it was my mother’s responsibility to provide for the higher education of her three youngest children. Any chance of continuing my studies seemed unlikely. My family had, in fact, begun considering whether it was time to find me a husband. Then came a turning point.
My sister, a structural engineer, was working for the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) in Roorkee, a town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. She assumed responsibility for my education, and I applied for admission to the University of Roorkee, known for its engineering courses. Chemistry was my first choice, but my sister and her husband, also a structural engineer at CBRI, suggested switching to geophysics. Still entertaining notions of becoming a cosmetic chemist, I attended the opening geophysics lecture. Entitled “Frontiers of Geophysics,” and delivered by Vinod Gaur, a renowned seismologist, the topic was the environment, and how humans were disturbing its delicate equilibrium.2 It was a lecture that was both enthralling and years ahead of its time. I decided then and there to switch to the geophysics program. Government-funded scholarships for a three-year master’s program were available and the job prospects were good.
Nine students were admitted that year, including three from Tanzania. I was the only woman among them. There had been no women in previous years either. I often found myself feeling lonely and isolated as a result, especially during field trips. “You were ahead of your time,” Gaur remarked to me some years later, “but that is what makes the difference.” The same could be said of my mother, who had been in no hurry to get me married; and my sister, who introduced me to geophysics; and it could also be said of my husband, who ignored prevailing norms and married outside of his caste.
In February 1980, I joined the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) in Kerala’s capital, Trivandrum, as a junior scientist. It was here that I met C. P. Rajendran, known to his friends and associates as CP. He came from a prominent family of left-wing writers, journalists, and intellectuals, was widely read, and during our courtship often spoke about his hero, Che Guevara. I used to make fun of him for getting sidetracked when romance was in the air. We married the following year.
CP was studying the evolution of Kerala’s coastal basins when we first met, work that subsequently earned him a doctorate. My own research at that time was focused on the occurrence of earthquakes around artificial reservoirs. I was working with Harsh Gupta, a noted seismologist, who had done pioneering work on reservoir-induced seismicity in the central Indian state of Maharashtra.3 In 1962, one of the state’s largest dams had been built on the Koyna River. Five years later, a devastating earthquake occurred nearby. To better understand the problem, I began examining case studies from around the world, which eventually led to my doctorate.
In 1986, I began working on the World Stress Map database, a global project sponsored by the International Lithosphere Program. The objective of the project was to characterize and understand the buildup of stress at the edges of tectonic plates using data derived from earthquakes. My role was to gather data for the Indian subcontinent and contiguous regions.4
After a break of eight years, I became a student again in 1988. I had been invited to undertake doctorial research by Pradeep Talwani, a professor of Geophysics at the University of South Carolina (USC).5 I was apprehensive for a number of reasons, not least among them being separation from my son Rahul, who was only five years old. Although settled in the US, Talwani maintained strong ties with India, and his wife, Anita, became a tremendous source of emotional support.
Nine months after leaving India, I was joined in the US by CP and Rahul. CP began working at USC, but soon became interested in paleoseismology, the study of prehistoric earthquakes. South Carolina’s coastal plains, the site of the 1886 Charleston earthquake, were the perfect location for such work. CP began exploring the sedimentary formations around Charleston, Hilton Head Island, and nearby towns, searching for evidence of past earthquakes. Rahul and I would sometimes accompany him on these field trips. At first we tagged along to enjoy the countryside, but I gradually became more and more involved in the work, which I found exciting.6
I completed my studies in 1992. We moved back to India the following year, resuming the positions we had left. In September 1993, ten thousand people were killed and thirty thousand were injured by the Latur earthquake, whose epicenter was near Killari, a village in Maharashtra—an area with no known history of earthquakes. The disaster stimulated seismological research in India and, with government support, CP and I embarked on a new research project. The center of the Indian peninsula was the source of the Killari earthquake. Located far from any active plate boundaries, this was a region long believed to be free of tectonic activity. But sifting through the historical, archaeological, and geological data, we found evidence of ancient earthquakes.7 The Latur earthquake was followed by events in the Himalayan district of Chamoli (1999), at Bhuj in the state of Gujarat (2001), and near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (2004). We studied the effects of these events firsthand at all these sites, including the damage wrought by the tsunami triggered by the 2004 event.
In 1819, a significant earthquake occurred in the Rann of Kutch, a vast saltmarsh near the India–Pakistan border. We became interested in this particular event because of its similarities to the 1886 Charleston earthquake. The 1819 event is discussed in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in 1830, and among the very first books on geology.8 The source of the 1819 earthquake lay in the border region, very close to the border itself. Special permission and support from the Border Security Force was needed before we could safely work in the area.9 In 1999, we began by mapping the region in great detail, followed by trenching investigations. In 2001, we published our first paper on the predecessor to the 1819 earthquake, which we dated to about a thousand years beforehand.10 The region was then hit by another damaging earthquake, this time near Bhuj. Our work there continued until 2013, generating a number of detailed publications on the earthquake history of the region.
Our papers were by now receiving considerable attention and were often cited. As the Rajendran and Rajendran geologist-seismologist duo, we had achieved a degree of recognition. Despite the growing interest in our work, I often found myself feeling professionally isolated. I felt a need to move to a larger organization, work with larger groups, have access to better facilities, and begin working with students. Curiously enough, it was a physicist and a biochemist who helped me achieve these ambitions. I was, at the time, associated with Current Science, India’s leading science journal, first as a reviewer and later as a member of the editorial board. It was through this work that I met Sivaraj Ramaseshan and Padmanabhan Balaram. Both were former editors and former directors at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. Ramaseshan chose me as one of the guest editors for a special edition of Current Science entitled “Seismology 2000.”11 Comprising sixteen articles about contemporary topics in the field, the issue was a great success and relaunched my career as a seismologist.
In an editorial published after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2004, Balaram observed that the prospects for the earth sciences in India appeared bleak.12 The earth sciences, he believed, did not quite generate the same level of excitement as other fields. A new generation of students trained using a multidisciplinary approach across the earth sciences was needed. The IISc had several departments of science and engineering that could spur multidisciplinary research, and as a result, the Centre for Earth Sciences was established just as the IISc was preparing to celebrate its centenary. I joined the Centre as its first faculty member in mid-2007. My friends and family questioned my decision to leave the Centre for Earth Science Studies and my settled home life. They thought I was a little crazy. My husband, CP, would also need to find a new position. But we had our reasons. Among them was a developing atmosphere of intrigue at the CESS, an existential crisis of sorts that afflicts many Indian institutes and universities.13
I faced a number of new challenges at the IISc. Aside from adapting to a new academic culture and workload, I also had to interact with the engineering community. I soon became aware of a cultural divide between the earth sciences and engineering. At a time when I was trying to find my place in a new environment, and temporarily separated from my family, I was gripped by a fear of underperformance. But with the passage of time I gradually settled. CP soon joined the Centre as a Ramanujan fellow, before switching to the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, where he remains a member of the geodynamics faculty.
At the IISc, I began teaching, both at undergraduate and graduate level. I also began directing PhD students. My research on subduction zones, tsunami recurrence, and tsunami modeling was greatly strengthened during this time. I published numerous papers with my students. A recent study of Himalayan earthquakes, written with CP and my doctoral student Revathy Parameswaran, was a particularly satisfying experience.14
I AM OFTEN ASKED if I had a mentor during my career.15 I didn’t. I can easily imagine the benefits. The scarcity of women who occupied leading roles in my field may be one reason. The most important influences that shaped the later years of my career came from outside the earth sciences—Ramaseshan and Balaram. Limited female representation at top positions in Indian science establishments could well be a factor that inhibits recognition of deserving female candidates. The national science academies in India are little better, and I remain unconvinced that individuals are being judged solely on intellectual merit.16
I am also often asked how culture, in India and elsewhere, limits the possibilities for women in science. Most women of my generation are inextricably bound to the cultural and social values they grew up with. Assuming a high-level administrative or leadership position involves remaining subservient in the family sphere while also assuming an equal or leading role in the workplace. I see similar anxieties expressed by women in command-driven and male-dominated areas such as the armed forces. The younger generations, it should be noted, raised by increasingly urbanized and educated parents, are less inhibited.
A unique challenge I have faced as an earthquake scientist is participating in field work at remote locations. Some of these places, such as the borderlands in the Rann of Kutch, have been dangerous, and especially so for women. Working amidst the rubble of the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj was also difficult. Our tents must have looked tempting for the snakes, mules, dogs, and other animals that roamed freely. Indian women of my generation, traveling alone or with male colleagues other than their husbands, were frowned upon. I know of many female scientists whose professional ambitions were curbed as a result.
Reflecting on the difficulties faced by women in the sciences, Jenny Graves, a professor of genetics at La Trobe University, remarked:
Enrolments in science are almost equal. But there is a leaky pipeline. Women get science degrees, but drop out progressively until there are few left. It’s the same curve all over the world, although it starts and ends much lower in some countries than in Australia.17
While the gender balance likely differs between Australia and India, I see many similarities. In particular, the deterrents Graves identifies: “some to do with discrimination, some with confidence levels, but many to do with the practicalities of forging a career in science.” And, above all, her conclusion that, “One stands out: having a family, caring for young children.”
FROM TIME TO TIME, I return to Thalayolaparambu, my childhood home. I visited again recently. Standing alongside the river, which flows ultimately into the Arabian Sea, I found myself reflecting on the words of my father. It was here that my own journey began. “Just as small streams fill this big river,” he told me, “little events make for a full life.” These words have traveled with me, their meaning only deepening over time.18