Independence Day Special – The Girl Who Went On A Hunger Strike To Study

Padmavathi Chandrashekaran, 88, went on a hunger strike to be allowed to study. Her story is about silent struggles that made the path smoother for women later. 

The start of this story is around 1948-49 in a village in Kerala. This was a newly independent India, but ideas of freedom were still faraway thoughts for many young girls across the country with tradition-bound lives. Fifteen-year-old Padmavathi, who loved math and wanted to study beyond matriculation (Grade 10), was one of them. The custom in those days was to get girls married early and that’s what her parents wanted. It would mean an end to education and a life spent largely within the confines of home. But the girl who regularly topped her class in math, could not give in without resistance. She loved numbers and wanted to learn more. So, she did what not many 15-year-olds of that time would’ve done. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Padmavathi went on a hunger strike or Satyagraha, living on nothing but water for three days. It made an impression on her grandfather, a judge. “She seems to be genuinely interested in further education, let her study,” he told her parents, the weight of his words probably adding to the granddaughter’s extraordinary fight.

Padmavathi had won her first battle. She went on to win other battles too, ultimately joining All India Radio as one of the first few women on the technical side.

Now 88, Padmavathi speaks to us over a patchy phone line from Bangalore. Her humility is touching. “What is so special about the story of my life?” she laughs as we coax her for more. Through snatches of conversation, her determination to live a life beyond the norm comes out. Even as a 12-year-old, she would grind rice for dosai, draw water from the well and finish other kitchen chores, to be allowed to attend school. “But I was lucky to have been born in Kerala, where education was considered a necessity,” she says, choosing to see the positive side of it.

As a young girl, Padmavathi was ready to go to any length to avoid marriage and study further. This included a plan to run away from home and become a nun. Single-minded in her pursuit, she was almost ready to leave home to meet the Mother Superior of her school’s convent when her parents caved in. She went on to study at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, staying in a hostel – another rarity for that time, completing her BSc in Physics with Math as a subsidiary and topping it with an MSc. It was her first taste of freedom. “I was independent, free and happy,” she says, the thrill of it still clear in her voice.

In the early 1950s, higher education for women, especially on the technical side, was rare. Padmavathi’s parents worried no one would be ready to marry her. “Teach in the village school instead,” they told her, once she took up a job. But Padmavathi, who had found a job in the telecom industry, persisted, a trait she displayed through her working years. She also met her husband B L Chandrashekaran, a senior in the industry, who became her partner in life and an engineering mentor over the years. Eventually, she joined All India Radio (AIR) in Chennai and moved to Bangalore after marrying Chandrashekaran.

“Fiercely independent,” is how her oldest son, Vinod Chandrashekaran, describes Padmavathi. “When even men were looking for employment in a small radius around their home town, for her to venture out into the wider world—Madras and Bangalore – was quite new.”

Padmavathi with her husband

Life in the office wasn’t always smooth for Padmavathi. Initially, being the only female engineer at AIR Bangalore, she faced discrimination from some male colleagues, who even went to the extent of preventing her from technical training opportunities. “You are married. Go home and look after your children,” was something she heard often. It angered Padmavathi but she stayed quiet and uncomplaining, letting her work do the talking. Despite the unfair treatment, she stood her ground with dignity, impressing seniors with her knowledge of technical matters, including a visiting director from Delhi and becoming a favourite with the programming staff at AIR Bangalore for her meticulous attention to detail. A few years later, when other women joined the technical team, she became a role model to them, their friendships lasting beyond retirement.

The struggle to study and the discrimination Padmavathi faced hasn’t disappeared for women in India. But awareness, resources and changing workplace agendas have made the path smoother. Stories of pathbreakers like hers didn’t make headlines, but they did something bigger — helped create changes and shift mindsets, to make way for women who came after.

Padmavathi’s husband was a constant support throughout her career. Her sons tell us it was a marriage of equals, with both of them sharing responsibilities. Vinod remembers his mother leaving for early morning shifts at 4.30 am. “Someday we would not see her in the evening because she had a shift and would only reach home after we went to bed at night. So those were the days when my dad would be the one in the kitchen. Among our peer group, few mothers worked or had that kind of schedule and we were very lucky how organized our life was, even though both our parents were working.” The equality they saw at home left its mark on Padmavathi’s sons. “My mother would have a shift on Sunday mornings. It was my father who would give us kids an oil bath and have food on the table when my mother came back home from work in the afternoon,” Rajesh Chandrasekaran, her son, remembers.

Love for learning is rooted in Padmavathi and reflected in the education she ensured for her four children—Vinod, Rajesh, Murali and Pramod. “Education was the property we gave them,” she says.

“My mother values intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Her quest is really about the mind. Material possessions mean nothing to her,” says Vinod, who gifted her the Bhagwad Gita for one of her birthdays, and was amazed when she finished reading it in its entirety. Padmavathi now keeps herself fit with Yoga and Sudoku and is always “doing something or the other.” That desire to stay active kept her going even 20 years ago, after losing her youngest son Pramod, a doctor, to cancer. She is honest about the toll the grief took on her. “I prayed to God, please keep me engaged through the day, I can’t sit home and weep.” She picked herself up by joining the Nightingale Elder’s Enrichment Centre, a senior citizens’ group, to stay occupied.

Inspired by her late son’s desire to help the underprivileged, Padmavathi and her family started a trust, Pramod Ashraya, to fund education and medical needs. She worked on it until her health allowed, visiting schools, old age homes and cancer care centres, even after her husband’s death a few years ago. “It gave her a sense of purpose and she felt she was fulfilling her late son’s dream,” Rajesh says.

A giver at heart is how a close friend describes Padmavathi. “She cannot eat alone, without sharing food with someone else.” As we finish speaking, I ask how would she describe her years as a working woman in an emerging India of the 50s and 60s. She talks of her husband’s unflinching support and the discrimination at work that she faced head-on. She could have complained but being the stoic person she is, let her quiet courage make an impact. “I fought for equality too, you can write that,” she says, as we wrap up.

All images courtesy: Padmavathy Chandrashekaran & family

About the author

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Reshmi Chakraborty

Reshmi is the co-founder of Silver Talkies. She loves books, travel and photography.

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