“A woman’s place is in the kitchen”: My experience as the only girl in an engineering college in the ’60s

All eyes on her.
All eyes on her.
Image: AP photo/Aijz Rahi
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My mind went back to 1968. I was a seventeen-year-old girl with an abundance of courage, confidence and the dream to become an engineer. I came from an educated, though middle-class, conservative Brahmin family. My father was a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology in Karnataka Medical College at Hubli, while my mother was a schoolteacher before she got married. I finished my pre-university exams with excellent marks and told my family that I wanted to pursue engineering. I had always been fascinated with science, even more so with its application. Engineering was one of those branches of science that would allow me to utilize my creativity, especially in design. But it was as if I had dropped a bomb inside our house.

The immediate reaction was of shock. Engineering was clearly an all-male domain and hence considered a taboo for girls in those days.

I filled out the application form for BVB College of Engineering and Technology, submitted it and soon received the news that I had been selected to the college on the basis of my marks. I was ecstatic, but little did I know that the college staff was discomfited by this development. The principal at the time was BC Khanapure, who happened to know my father. They both met at a barber shop one day and the principal expressed his genuine anguish at what he perceived to be an awkward situation. He told my father, “Doctor Sahib, I know that your daughter is very intelligent and that she has been given admission only because of merit, but I’m afraid we have some problems. She will be the only girl in college. It is going to be difficult for her. First, we don’t have a ladies’ toilet on campus. We don’t have a ladies’ room for her to relax either. Second, our boys are young with raging hormones and I am sure that they will trouble her. They may not do anything in front of the staff but they will definitely do something later. They may not cooperate with her or help her because they are not used to talking to girls. As a father of four daughters, I am concerned about yours too. Can you tell her to change her mind for her own sake?”

My first day of college arrived a month later. I wore a white sari for the first time, touched the feet of all the elders at home and prayed to Goddess Saraswati who had been very kind to me. I then made my way to the college. As soon as I reached, the principal called me and gave me a key. He said, “Here, Ms Kulkarni, take this. This is the key of a tiny room in the corner of the electrical engineering department on the second floor. You can use this room whenever you want.” I thanked him profusely, took the key and immediately went to see the room. I opened the door excitedly, but alas! The room had two broken desks and there was no sign of a toilet. It was so dusty that I could not even consider entering it. Seeing me there, a cleaner came running with a broom in his hand. Without looking at me, he said, “I’m so sorry. Principal Sahib told me yesterday that a girl student was going to join the college today, but I thought that he was joking. So I didn’t clean the room. Anyway, I will do it right now.” After he had finished cleaning, I still felt that the room was dusty. Calmly, I told him, “Leave the broom here and give me a wet cloth, please. I will clean the room myself.” After cleaning the room to my satisfaction, I brushed off the dust on my clothes and went to class.

When I entered the room on the ground floor, there were 149 pairs of eyes staring at me as though I were some kind of an exotic animal. It was true though. I was the one hundred and fiftieth animal in this zoo! I knew that some of them wanted to whistle but I kept a straight face and looked around for a place to sit. The first bench was empty. As I was about to sit there, I saw that someone had spilt blue ink right in the middle of the seat. This was obviously meant for me. I felt tears threatening to spill over, but I blinked them away. Making use of the newspaper in my hand, I wiped the seat clean and sat on a corner of the bench.

One day, they brought a small bunch of flowers and stuck it in my plaited hair without my knowledge when the teacher was not around. I heard someone shout from the back—”Ms Flowerpot!” I quietly ran my fingers through my hair, found the flowers and threw them away. I did not say anything. At times, they would throw paper airplanes at my back. Unfolding the papers, I would find comments such as, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen or in medical science or as a professor, definitely not in an engineering college.” Others would read, “We really pity you. Why are you performing penance like Goddess Parvati? At least Parvati had a reason for it. She wanted to marry Shiva. Who is your Shiva?” I would keep the paper planes and refrain from replying. There was a famous student-friendly activity in our college known as “fishpond.” Rather than an actual fishpond, it was a fish bowl that carried a collection of anonymous notes, or the “fish.” Anybody from the college could write a comment or an opinion that would be read out later on our annual college day. All the students would eagerly wait to hear what funny and witty remarks had been selected that year. The designated host would stand on the stage in the college quadrangle and read the notes out loud. Every year, most of the notes were about me. I was often the target of Kannada limericks, one of which I can still remember vividly:

“Avva avva genasa,
Kari seeri udisa,
Gandana manege kalisa.”

This literally translates to:

“Mom Mom, there is a sweet potato,
Please give me a black sari and send me to my  husband’s house,
This is because I’m always wearing a white sari.”

Some of the romantic north Indian boys would modify the lyrics of songs from movies like Teesri Kasam:

“Sajan re jhoot math bolo
Sudha ke pass jaana hai
Na haathi hai na ghoda hai
Vahan paidal jaana hai.”

This can be translated as:

“Dear, come on, don’t lie
I want to go to Sudha
I neither have an elephant nor a horse
But I will go walking (to her).”

When the exam results were announced, everyone else knew my marks before I did. Almost every semester, my classmates and seniors would make a singular effort to find out my marks and display them on the notice board for everyone to see. I had absolutely no privacy.

In time, I became unfazed that my marks were displayed on the notice board. On the contrary, I was proud that I was beating all the boys at their own game as I kept bagging the first rank in the university.

Excerpted from Sudha Murthy’s book Three Thousand Stitches with permission from Penguin Books. Murthy is the chairperson of Infosys Foundation, an author, and philanthropist. She is married to Infosys Technologies founder NR Narayana Murthy.