In the nineteenth century, the Italian writer Emilio Salgari once said that ‘reading is traveling without the worry of baggage’. This is great advice, especially during the time of the Covid-19. Today, when everyone is tied to their home, literature and other scholarly works can help take them to another country and other times. These creations can strengthen the mind and relieve the heart. I began reading the autobiography of Pauli Murray, a leading feminist and civil rights advocate before the World Health Organization announced the new epidemic. Born in 1910 in the South of America, Pauli faced three forms of discrimination as she entered the world; Class distinctions, racial distinctions and gender differences. The burden of being orphaned with these distinctions was different. The mother left when she was very young and the ailing father was admitted to a psychiatric institution. Paulie was brought up by her aunt Pauline. Auntie Pauline was a wonderful woman, He did not marry, as he had to take care of siblings and nephews. Pauly engraved Mausi Pauline’s very cute character in her memoir, praising her courage, sacrifice and dedication.

Pauline was a school teacher, with her inspiration Pauli decided that she would become the first member of the family to study at university. After relentless struggle, he was enrolled at Barnard College in New York. While living in this city, he grew fond of creative writing, poetry and story. While here, he associated himself with the struggle and the civil rights movement. There was racism in the northern part of America in the 1930s, but less brutal than in the southern part. In his memoir, Pauly describes in detail the discrimination faced by buses, trains and hotels. Pauly applied for admission to the main university in her state of North Carolina, but since she was black, she did not get admission, even though she had all the necessary qualifications for admission.

Having the first major experience of this kind of racial discrimination, Pauly thought he should become a lawyer, which would be the best thing to fight. He was admitted to the law school of the All-Black Howard University of Blacks, Washington DC. Here he performed brilliantly and applied for further studies at Harvard Law School. His application was rejected despite a brilliant record. Pauli then launched a successful advocacy against barriers of race, class, and gender. She was a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. After teaching for some time in newly liberated Ghana, she returned to America. Earned his doctorate from Yale Law School. She became the first woman to receive a special honor at the Episcopal Church. His life story is interesting. I have read a lot of memoirs and autobiographies and I would put this composition of them in three or four best autobiographies. Paulie loves you very much, Written with learning and compassion. After the autobiography of Pauli Murray, I began reading the manuscript of the biography of leading lady scientist EK Janaki Ammal. It is authored by science historian Savitri Preetha Nair. Janaki Ammal was a bit lucky with Polly. His family was middle class. But this woman, born in colonial and patriarchal India, faced a lot of obstacles. He overcame obstacles with courage and determination.

Janaki Ammal, born in Malabar in 1897, was educated in Madras, where she unusually chose a subject like science. He taught botany at a local college after graduation and before receiving a University of Michigan scholarship. A thin Malayali woman wearing a sari reached an unseen land across the sea in 1924. He was to do both an MSc and PhD in Ann Arbor. She became the first Indian woman to do her doctorate in science as well as the first woman doctorate in botany from American University. Many of Janaki Ammal’s early research was on grass. After her PhD she moved to the UK, where she joined the John Innes Horticultural Institute in Surrey. There he worked with the great biologist Cyril Darlington. He contributed to the writing of a historical work ‘A Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants’.

After India’s independence, Janaki returned to serve her country. The meeting with Pandit Nehru in London inspired him to return to the country. He contributed significantly to Indian science. Reorganized Botanical Survey of India. Motivated young women to research. His knowledge is undeniable. He also faced the prejudices of his colleagues, bureaucracy and political class. They were ignored and given awards and promotions to junior male scientists. Of course, Janaki Ammal’s life is exemplary. When his biography is published, it will be the best biography of an Indian scientist. The biography of this sentiment will transcend the existing biographies of ideal male scientists like CV Raman, Homi Jehangir Bhabha and Meghnad Saha.

As a privileged upper caste man I have read these two books with astonishment and my awareness of my own weaknesses has increased. I have never had to face the discrimination that Pauly and Janaki have faced not once or twice, but the age. Both had overcome insurmountable obstacles with determination and dignity. Both went on to make major contributions to the field of knowledge and society. In the time of Covid-19, his stories were enriched. If even humanity can show today a part of the courage and fragility that Polly and Janaki had introduced in totality, it would be amazing.


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