Managing Combustible Equations

Simran our star achiever underlines the evident paradox of being a brilliant student when born as a girl in this country. This topper in Chemistry, who joined the prestigious Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore, has reached here not by just excelling in academics but also by learning to juggle her aspirations within the rubrics of her conservative Jat community. She has by her own admission, “plays by the rules” meted out to her by the family as well as her village community, to ensure her goal for doing research in organic chemistry is not interpreted as a ticket to women’s liberation nor does it become a catalyst for stopping girls from her village from studying.

So she shies away from spelling out any career goals and even as she narrates about her academic record or her admission into IISc, one strains to hear any hint of pride or jubilation. Instead it is a very measured and low-key tone, and anyone who is not aware of the context might even dismiss her as a very naïve village girl who is not even aware of her achievements.

But for those who are familiar with the culture of Simran’s village, her attitude does not come as a surprise. Haryana her home state, while evolving rapidly, is still known for its staunch patriarchal culture with one of the lowest sex ratios in the country at 831 per thousand and a female literacy rate tipping at 65%; women are traditionally discouraged from asserting their independence.

It takes several questions, to get to the ‘real’ Simran and what becomes evident is the deliberation of each move as she weaves in between these powerful patriarchial norms by carefully downplaying her achievements in order to ensure she can continue with her studies.

This marginal farmer’s daughter, who lives in a sleepy village called Kanina in Haryana, shares that she is aware that as a girl she has a defined role within her home and so when she is at home she takes the lead in doing the housework before sitting for her studies so that she is seen as a “dutiful” daughter.

Confessed Simran, “Frankly, I don’t feel bad because when I compare myself with the girls in my village I have a lot to be grateful for. My father enrolled me and my siblings in the best school in the area despite his meagre means. And because I loved studying, I hoped that after finishing school, I could enrol for graduation. Since I had no idea about anything beyond my village I depended on my father to take care of those details.

Despite getting 100% in Chemistry for her Board Examinations, her joining Delhi University’s was not a forgone conclusion. It happened because a kind teacher intervened and even then the choice of a college was fuelled more by practical reasons like the fees and the distance from her village.

Says Simran “It was important to fulfil all the criteria Sashakt scholarship specified. One of which was to get admission in the shortlisted colleges only and so I gave up my seat at St. Stephen’s without any pangs, because for me college education was only possible if I got a scholarship till I finished my graduation. And fortunately Sashakt provided that.”

The eldest of three kids, Simran found Chemistry fascinating and admits that she can spend hours studying it without getting tired. “It was my Chemistry teacher in school who got me hooked to this subject. He taught well and he encouraged students to give their best. Finally it was he who nudged my father to allow me to do my PG too by saying that IIT Delhi was a good option. However, they agreed for me to join IISc because it came with the offer of a stipend. But when I got into IISc, my family’s first concern was about the five years it would take to complete my course as they see this as a possible deterrent for my marriage!

Surprisingly Simran talks about it without a hint of any agitation and says “I am very aware of my circumstances and my background. One wrong step can put an end to all my dreams as well as get my parents into trouble with our larger community. So my philosophy is to take one day at a time. I am sure the right door will open at the right time. For the moment, I need to just focus on grabbing this opportunity.”