Janaki Seshadri was one of the first women to join IIT-M’s BTech programme. As the institute turns 60, the nuclear power plant designer looks back at the memories
In 1966, Janaki Seshadri arrived at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), excited to be an Engineering student on a campus where spotted deer, blackbucks and bonnet macaques roam the leafy grounds. She was a student of Presentation Convent, Church Park. On campus, Usha Rangan of Rishi Valley School joined her. They were the first women to join the coveted five-year BTech programme at the institute that turns 60.
Thanks to the progressive leadership at the institute, the young women never felt out of place. “The professors on the 15-member interview panel made me feel comfortable,” Janaki recalls.
She picked Civil Engineering as her major; Usha would opt for Electrical Engineering. There were just two of them in a batch of over 200 men. Their male classmates took a couple of days to get used to the “intruders” in their midst, but after that things improved, Janaki wrote in the student magazine Campastimes.
In a curriculum designed to keep students on their toes, workshop week would alternate with lecture week. The women entered the machine shop in khaki coats, worn over half-saris, and picked up the tools of carpenters, welders, and fitters.The models they created that first week were far less impressive than the blisters and bruises on their hands, Janaki recalls light-heartedly. But their skills got better and prepared them for what lay ahead. “Working in a plant is quite different from being a software engineer,” she says.
Life on the verdant campus was fun. They would cycle on the traffic-free avenues. On Saturdays, they enjoyed watching English films at the open-air theatre under the night sky. On Sundays, Janaki went home to her family in Gopalapuram. Her father was a physician and her older sister was in medical school. “Why did your parents let you go to that college in the forest?” a grand aunt would ask with concern. “Who will ask for your (blistered) hand in marriage?” Janaki found her soulmate in Narasimhan Raghupathi, an engineer from Bombay’s Institute of Chemical Technology who was in the PhD programme at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1971, she transferred her credits to the same school in the US, and did a Masters’ in Structural Engineering. Busy with her new life, she lost touch with her old friend Usha.
For nearly four decades, Janaki worked full-time with Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh-based company whose technology is the basis for nearly half of the world’s commercial nuclear power plants. She designed nuclear plants. She clambered up ladders, crawled into pipes, and checked the innards of reactors to find issues which could turn into big problems if not caught on time.
Earlier in her career, Janaki was an outsider in a white man’s world. “There really weren’t that many homegrown female American engineers either,” she says. So, she took people’s reservations in her stride, advanced her career and before long, was helping train young entrants to the field.
In the 1970s, Indian professionals in the Pittsburgh area came together to build a Hindu temple in their new hometown. As a structural engineer, Janaki worked on the design and layout of the temple facilities; as a believer she was involved in the rituals. The landmark temple, consecrated in 1977, became a community centre for Hindus.
Now retired and a grandmother in Pittsburgh, Janaki still has an active social life. But she is not a big user of social media. So, I volunteer to poke around to find her old friend, Usha. I report back to say that there is a person by that name on Facebook, about the right age, but “she doesn’t really look like an engineer”.
Gently, Janaki admonishes me. “There is no such thing as a person who looks like an engineer.”