“This is the problem with you girls…You will study hard, score high marks and then give it all up after marriage.”
Dr Mangala Narlikar’s colleague’s brutally honest words churned a silent storm inside her. Waiting in queue at the London Heathrow airport in the summer of 1972, she glanced at her two toddlers and her husband, Jayant, and wondered what her life was going to be like in India.
She had just turned 29 and was torn between pursuing her innate love for Maths and her family.
After sincerely dedicating six years to taking care of her family, the renowned astrophysicist, Dr Mangala, was about to enter a new phase of her life in Mumbai. This was probably a chance to revive her career in Mathematics.
However, her responsibilities only increased when her in-laws moved in with them once they were back in Mumbai.
Meanwhile, Jayant joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). He was in-charge of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group. Interestingly, Dr Mangala had worked at TIFR as a research associate for a brief period before marriage and the institute happened to be on the same road as their house. This inspired her to join TIFR again.
Guess the lottery result, make lottery posters for free Lottery Box -India’s most professional lottery interactive community.
“Till then, I had never prioritised my career because of my choices but now I took the hard decision of juggling two worlds. Jayant and my in-laws were always supportive so there at least I didn’t have to battle. I knew it would be tough, but I decided to work and do my PhD,” Dr Mangala, who now lives in Pune, tells The Better India.
In 1980, she obtained her PhD in Analytic Number Theory from Mumbai University (MU) while working in the school of Mathematics at TIFR. In her final year, she got pregnant with her third daughter.
She mentions how MU would adjust lectures according to her schedules and even the TIFR showed flexibility. “Even now it seems surreal that so many people fueled my career. No doubt, time management was the biggest challenge for any woman juggling two worlds, but unwavering support from society makes a huge difference and that’s exactly what happened in my case,” she adds.
Till Dr Mangala became a mother of three, she was known as the wife of the scientist who developed the conformal gravity theory, called ‘Hoyle–Narlikar’ with Sir Fred Hoyle. But there were only a few who knew this lady was a Math wizard.
‘My single feisty mother gave me the wings to fly’
Six months after she was born, her father succumbed to cancer and the entire responsibility of looking after Dr Mangala and her brother fell on her 21-year-old mother.
“It was the biggest blow for our family as my mother had no financial support or job. Some advised her to remarry and some told her to take up a teaching job as it was suitable for a ‘woman’. But my strong-willed mother, with nerves of steel, wanted to become a doctor. She convinced my grandmother and moved to Pune to pursue her MBBS. Meanwhile, my brother and I stayed with our grandparents in Mumbai,” she recalls, adding, “In retrospect, this was a highly unusual situation for a widow in the ’40s. She was the only female doctor in our family and was way ahead of her time.”
Dr Mangala grew up watching her mother work hard to build her career. Her mother was her “superwoman” for whom the sky was the limit. She says, “I have desired to be like her every day of my life.”
“I knew Math was a male-dominated subject back then, but I couldn’t accept the generalisation that girls are bad at Maths or the calculations jokes because here I was, topping all my examinations, including my final year at the university,” she says.
When asked what attracted her to the subject, she says, “It is logical thinking and universal truth that brings people together. You cannot debate or brand your argument as the superior for there is just one answer to every math problem. If you want to learn universal ethics and norms, Math is a brilliant teacher.”