New Delhi: “She was one of the first women, along with Aditi Pant, to set foot on Antarctica.”
This is how Chandrima Shaha, an eminent biologist and soon to be the first female president of the Indian National Science Academy, introduced the geologist Sudipta Sengupta.
The occasion was a forum entitled ‘Women in Science and Technology’ at the India International Centre, New Delhi, on October 31.
Shaha proceeded to recount Sengupta’s accomplishments as a geologist in the 1980s, a time when women were discouraged from undertaking field-work.
Sengupta, a guest speaker at the event, began by quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” – an idea she said she believed in throughout her journey.
The government established the Geological Survey of India in 1851, and the country’s first geology department emerged at the Presidency College in Calcutta in 1892. However, until as late as the 1990s, geology in India remained the preserve of men. Male teachers even discouraged female students from accompanying them on field trips.
But Sengupta herself decided to study geology instead of physics after speaking to a professor at Jadavpur University, at least in part because she loved to travel.
She is from a middle-class progressive Bengali family and, in her telling, considers this background her foundation.
In her work as a structural geologist, Sengupta has studied the formation and deformation of rocks, using the results to compose what she called the “story of a region”.
To help with her work as well as to further her dreams, she studied at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, training under Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two men to scale Mt Everest in 1953.
Sengupta also remembered her mentors: Subir Ghosh, her PhD supervisor; Janet Watson, her postdoc mentor; and Jonn Ramsay and Hans Ramberg. After studying under their guidance, she joined Jadavpur University as a professor in 1982.
“For the first 15 years of my life, there were hardly any woman in the class – in most of the years none,” she said. The principal barrier was that the university wasn’t prepared to accommodate women during field-trips. It was only after 1996 that the fraction of female students improved, nearing a third.
“In our times, it was terrible. We stayed in dharamshalas and sometimes huts. Now the situation is far better.”
She feels safety has moved in the opposite direction: “It was better in our times. I did my PhD studies alone and travelled through remote places with bad roads and no communication, but I never felt unsafe. These days, I wouldn’t dare to send a girl alone for field work.”
But the advent of satellite-based navigation has been helpful. “We never had GPS. It was terrible to spend time to find our geological location. Technology is a tremendous help.”
Apart from the virtues of getting one’s hands dirty, Sengupta also remembers field work for the other things it taught her. Her work on the Scandinavian Caledonides, an ancient mountain range on the Scandinavian Peninsula, showed her for example that “people are the same everywhere. They are basically good and basically helpful” – even if “to see an India girl moving around with a hammer was very new for them.”
“Those days we used to dream in remote corners, in our tents, to someday visit Greenland or Antarctica. I never thought that dream would come true.”
It wasn’t easy, of course. Geology’s prejudices extended to the land as well. “Antarctica was also a male bastion,” Sengupta said. “Women scientists weren’t allowed there before 1956.”
She remembers men joking about what a woman would do without a beauty parlour on the icy continent. The Soviet marine geologist Maria Klenova became the first female scientist to visit Antarctica in the mid-1950s.
In 1982, Sengupta volunteered to join an Indian expedition to Antarctica but her application was rejected because she was a woman. “All your life you are [ignored for] important responsibilities. You just have to work hard,” she told The Wire.
The next year, the government invited her to an interview and then sent her to train in Kargil. She would travel to Antarctica in 1983 and again in 1989.
“Both times, we travelled on ship. It took about a month to [get] there.” She recalled how the continent appeared in front of them like a swathe of crystalline ice that could cut through ship like paper. Once they were on land, the crew had to get to work in the face of powerful blizzards and a Sun that never set.
And since 1983, women have been going on Antarctic expeditions every year, Sengupta told The Wire. Women have also made up “30-40%” of the expedition crew.
In recognition of her work “in interpreting the deformation of boudinage layers as well as pebbles in conglomerates by application of theoretical and experimental modelling and field testing,” she was awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 1991.
“I come from the land of Durga. We worship Durga and as a child I believed that she lived in Kailash. Now, I know that Durga lives in us, in all women.