Remember the picture of a bunch of Kancheepuram saree-clad women hugging each other and celebrating the success of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission in 2014? The exuberant women in the photo were among those who led the Mars mission – also known as Mangalyaan – one of the most ambitious projects of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
The names of the women who were among the top leadership for the mission – Ritu Karidhal, Nandini Harinath, Moumita Dutta, and Minal Sampat among them - were made familiar to the common man through news reports; but little more was known about their journeys. After all, the gender barriers in a male-dominated field are certain to have made their lives hard; add to it, all of these women have familial obligations that often restrict women from climbing up the career ladder.
Yet, when author Minnie Vaid approached Ritu, Moumita and Minal for writing a book on them, they were surprised – “Why us? What did we do?” was their question. Minnie, who has been a journalist, documentary film-maker, and a published author, had to convince them about the respect they command, and how their stories can inspire generations of women to pursue Science and assume leadership roles.
After months of following up with the ISRO, Minnie was finally able to interview not just the leaders of the Mangalyaan but altogether 21 women at ISRO – including the four women mentioned above, as well as N. Valarmathi and T.K. Anuradha, along with Rashmi Sharma, Shilpi Soni, and Harshita Tolani among others.
The book, titled Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines: ISRO'S Mission to Mars, was published by Speaking Tiger publishing house in 2019. It was launched in Delhi and Mumbai in March 2019 by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and actress Vidya Balan respectively. Its second edition has been published in January 2020.
Talking to MAKERS India on a Zoom call recently, Minnie Vaid recollected how the women of ISRO shattered the stereotypes of scientists she had had. “They had very enriching lives, and yet they had great modesty. When I struggled with understanding the scientific terms (as part of the research for the book), the women I interviewed patiently explained those to me. Their only request was to call them scientists, and not ‘women scientists’,” Minnie says.
The Story of Women Everywhere
Interestingly, Minnie’s previous book was also about women who were previously unheard of yet made a mark with their determination and resilience. In The Ant in the Ear of the Elephant: The Story of the People's Struggle Against the Koodankulam Nuclear Plant, published in 2016, Minnie had covered women at another end of the spectrum – poor, unlettered women who conducted non-violent protests against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) for around four years since 2011 in the coastal village of Idinthakarai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
It was the proverbial fight between David and Goliath, according to Minnie, with the villagers living in the vicinity of the KKNPP (and hence most affected by it), pitted against the Central government. “National media had not even covered the issue when I went to Idinthakarai in 2013 to interview the women who had been protesting for about three years by then. Thankfully, my publisher (Rajpal Publishing) was very supportive,” she tells MAKERS India.
The launch of The Ant in the Ear of the Elephant in 2016 was attended by actor-filmmaker Nandita Das and veteran journalist Kalpana Sharma in Mumbai. For the launch, Minnie had invited two of those women who led the protests. She recollects, how the audience was enthralled by their stories (despite having to be translated from Tamil by an interpreter), and gave a standing ovation.
Heroes and heroines
Mumbai-based Minnie, who has been a journalist and documentary film maker for about 30 years, says that justice is the underlying theme in her work. May be that’s why the books she has written before The Ant in the Ear of the Elephant were also about individuals fighting for justice and giving hope to marginalised communities.
Minnie’s book Iron Irom: Two Journeys -published by Rajpal publishing house and launched by actor Abhay Deol in Mumbai and Sharmila Tagore in Delhi in 2012- was about Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady of Manipur. Minnie recollected interviewing the renowned activist, and also how her previous stint at a journalist in the North East was instrumental in the writing of this book.
Notably, Minnie’s first ever book A Doctor to Defend: the Binayak Sen Story (translated in four regional languages) was on a controversial hero – Dr.Binayak Sen, the Chattisgarh-based doctor and public health specialist who was imprisoned for supporting the Naxalite movement.
Minnie, who has produced, directed, and scripted over 30 films and television programs, some of which have won national and international awards, also produced a documentary on him under the same title. The book was launched in Delhi by Nobel Laureate Prof. Amartya Sen in January 2011.
Asked about her inspiration to base her first-ever book on Dr.Sen, Minnie says, “It was very much in line with the kind of work I'd been doing in the past – (stories) of a small person fighting against the might of the state. These kind of stories anyway have huge attraction to me. Justice is the underlying thread through and through.”
However, Minnie’s latest work - the awesomely titled (and written) ISRO's Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines - is about celebrating the spirit of women who overcame centuries of gender inequality and injustice to make history. Her dream is to see a woman chairperson at ISRO one day.
“At ISRO, you get the work that you merit and deserve; your promotions are according to your work, not your gender. It is hierarchical, so you can't just skip over a person and jump ahead,” she says, adding that there are less number of women in the senior roles at ISRO today because 30 years ago, very few women joined it. “But more women have joined in the last 10 years; so we may see a woman chairing ISRO soon,” Minnie hopes.
After all, every woman’s success story is an inspiration for a generation of women to come forward, and that’s why telling women’s stories are all the more important. “It's impossible not to be favorably biased towards telling women stories because other people don't tell them. There are very few people telling women stories consciously,” Minnie signs off.