Do you know what Quantum Entanglement is? It’s one of those mind-blowing discoveries I read about online. When you have two electrons (subatomic particles) and you pair them in a special way, they become identical. This means that they have the same spin and charge. So, let’s say, you spin one of them in one direction, its twin will automatically spin in the same direction. If you change one of them, the other one will change in the same way.
I feel my school best friend and I have been entangled like that since we first met. Neelam Sheoran is a tiny, stubborn, curly-haired firebrand. I met her when I was 14, when my father put my school bag next to hers on the desk and left me to join my new class on the first day of high-school. I remember she was polite but distant; the year had already started and bonds had been made. I was a stranger, an outsider. My first language was English and I wasn’t very comfortable in a government school that insisted on dedicating a week every month to Hindi. Boys couldn’t talk to girls. You needed to write questions with a black pen and answers with a blue pen. You were packed to the rafters like chicken in a coop. I didn’t think I’d last a day; Neelam made sure I made it all the way to to my high-school graduation.
We had a lot in common: We were both brought up well but could swear like fishwives; we did not like gossip but could talk for hours over the phone; we respected teachers for their knowledge yet judged them for being horrible people.
It takes a while to figure out Neelam. She’s the middle child, with an older sister and a younger brother. She’s competitive, feisty and tough. I once saw her get into a fight with a boy and nearly scratch his eyes out. She’s also infinitely patient, warm and kind. I was once caught by the Vice Principal and humiliated for not wearing a chemise over my bra. I guess I had breasts and she didn’t like them very much. Neelam comforted me by the side of the basketball court while I cried. We also wrote notes to each other on the back of our books. One such note was a long discussion about our lovely English teacher and how old her hands looked (I guess as opposed to the rest of her which was in mint-condition?) We watched innumerable movies together and she was one of those people who was not put off by gratuitous horror. I think the greatest horror came when I sat on her bed once, with my legs folded sideways while my buttocks could not contain themselves (I was rather large back then) and everyone was staring at my underpants. Neelam just pulled up the waistband of my jeans and made no jokes about it, because that was the way she was. We once sat together and practised a geometry sum for three classes until we finally got it. Then I forgot how we did it (because I’m stupid) and she worked backwards and explained it to me.
She’s smart. Incredibly smart. She’s a Physicist pursuing her PhD at North Carolina University in the United States. She’s been working with nanofibers which can be used to make artificial organs and bones. She interns as an assistant teacher during the summer. She does research, lab work and wants to publish a paper soon. I don’t how where she gets the energy from, but if you look back you might be able to see the roots of her perseverance.
She grew up in an extremely oppressive household. Under an autocratic father who measured his children’s worth on the basis of their achievements, Neelam had no choice but to strive to win his approval. I never got along with him: he told me I wasn’t very bright so I should probably become an actor.
It isn’t easy, trying to live up to the expectations of your overbearing, hypercritical, crack-the-whip kind of father and constantly falling short of those high standards. When Neelam left home and went abroad, she was taking a risk: going away from a loving boyfriend and a fractious family to try her luck in another country. The goal was simple: If something’s not happening, make it happen.
It’s not that simple. She’ll have to pull a rabbit out of a hat to be acknowledged as a legitimate Physicist with a PhD. It’s going to need a paper, a presentation and an exam to get her a job in India. She wants to teach, that’s something she’s always been passionate about. And most of the time, she trusts herself. But sometimes, the doubts start to overwhelm her. According to a survey, the number of women in STEM in the U.S is only 43%. In India, only 6% of women in STEM decided to opt for PhD after doing their post graduation. Neelam is one of the few who’s made the cut. But she’s on a deadline now. Her visa expires in 2021 and she has to complete her project on nanofibers if she wants that degree. She’d like to work in research but the number of women in research in South Asia is only 20%. She’s been attending seminars to try and get a sponsor. She might have to come back to India and face the wrath of a family hellbent on getting her married within her caste. She might go to Canada, where her boyfriend (who is definitely not from her caste) is looking for a job in PR. She doesn’t know what to do next. She’s broken the mould, but in reality, has it broken her?
We sit down to talk on a Saturday. While I’m kneading dough to make Chapatis for dinner, Neelam is trying to make up for her lost sleep. She’s spent all of Friday doing a workshop, talking to young girls about how amazing Science is and why they should pursue it as a career. See in America, especially in the Southern States, they tell their girls to do something that has potential. Like beauty or sales. Translation: Don’t go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). So for nearly 10 hours, Neelam has been volunteering to demonstrate lab experiments and answer questions about why it’s cool for women to go into Science. She sounds exhausted but pleased.
Tell me a little bit about your decision to go to America. You didn’t clear the NET and this was your only choice?
Yeah. So I’d just completed my MSc degree at Jamia Millia Islamia University and I’d taken a year’s break to prepare for the NET (National Eligibility Test). So there I was, going for coaching and I met these girls who were applying for PhD programs to universities abroad. It was one of those things where you do something because your friends are doing it too?
I took Science in high school because that’s what you picked. A decision I regret to this day. I know exactly how that happens.
(Laughs) Yeah! And then I ended up applying for the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). I had no clue what I was doing. Then I appeared for the NET twice and I didn’t clear it which was heartbreaking so I started exploring this option. Each test was about 60 dollars and I paid for it out of my own pocket because I’d been tutoring kids for years.
Did your family know about this?
Absolutely not. It was a secret. I didn’t even know if I’d get in and since North Carolina was the first university that accepted me, I went for it. I knew if I hung around at home for too long my father would have me married within the next 2-3 years. I had an amazing boyfriend who basically told me “Look, not everyone gets a chance like that. If you think you can do it, you should go for it. It’s an amazing opportunity”.
That’s all it took to get you out of there.
Yeah nobody had to talk me into it. My sister had just gotten married and we were not getting along at all because her marriage hadn’t turned out the way she’d planned. And she was pregnant. And furious. My father was already planning my marriage and I was barely 23. I knew this was my only way out otherwise I’d go mad. So NCU, that was it for me.
What was it like when you stepped onto the campus grounds the first time ever? The dorms, the classes, the people, the culture- it must have been a shock right?
I mean, it was a huge shock obviously. For starters, English is not my first language. For about 3 months all I’d say was Yes, No, It’s OK and Thank you. I was the only Indian in the program. And there were like, two other girls. I was afraid to raise my hand in class. I’d keep to myself and I’d avoid people. Everyone was really open and relaxed but I was totally outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t even have any family or friends close by.
You sound like Sri Devi in English Vinglish.
I was exactly like that! I kept my head down and just got on with my classwork. It took a long time for me to start opening up and actually get to know my classmates, my roommates, my PI. Now I’m pretty comfortable on campus. But if you’re an Indian, you don’t ever forget the fact that you’re a long way from home. I can’t just walk out of campus alone and decide to go shopping and not spend the rest of the outing looking over my shoulder or flinching at loud noises.
I’ve heard of Indian people being gunned down on the streets here. No apologies.
Have you ever had to face racism there?
I’ve never had to deal with anything like that. I hang out with my friends and I move in big crowds. Inside campus it’s pretty safe. It’s not what I imagined when I first signed up for the program. With Donald Trump as the President, America is not at all what I expected it to be. So I just stick to the people I know. The intellectuals.
Speaking of Intellectuals, we need more women in Science, don’t you think? Tell me about the discrimination you’ve faced in academia. How hard is it to hold on to your position?
I had an experience which I’ve never really talked about before which I’ll tell you now. When it happened, I had no idea what it was. It’s only later when I had time to think about it, I realised that I was being ignored because I was a woman. So when I was in India and desperately applying to all these universities, I needed recommendation letters from my teachers. If you don’t get three letters then your application is automatically rejected. So I went to this professor and asked him if he’d write a letter for me. He agreed and he sounded really enthusiastic about it. And then…….nothing.
He didn’t write you one?
Nope. Not only did he not write a letter, he refused to respond to my emails or my take my calls. He happily wrote one for a guy in my class who also needed it. But for some reason, and I think I knew the reason, he didn’t write one for me. I had to practically beg him outside class so that he’d write me a stupid recommendation letter so I could at least have a shot at getting into a good university.
That was sexism, wasn’t it?
Yeah, blatant sexism. I learnt something from that because when we were asked who we wanted as our adviser at NCU, I picked a woman. I think subconsciously, I knew this was going to be an issue and the more time I spent with women the better off I’d be. The problem is, professors in academia have a lot of power. If you’re a man and working in the industry, you have to be really careful. If you’re accused of moral turpitude, you get sacked and there are 10 other candidates for the job. But in academia, it’s a feudal system. I’ve heard horror stories of a male professor being accused of sexual harassment by a female professor and then he got off with just a warning. Nobody takes it seriously. The woman ends up paying for it because she’s the one who ruined everything. But the guy? He walks away.
Sounds like academia is a hazardous workplace for women.
It is. Barely some of us reach the point to get into research, to be enrolled into programmes or to be accepted at esteemed universities. And then we have to contend with things like “Oh I’ll give you a good grade, just do this one favour for me”.
Ugh. That’s disgusting. But not every guy is like that, thankfully. You’re in love with this great guy who’s waiting for you back home. Tell me how that happened? What made you realise he was the right guy?
So he was from our year back in high-school but I’d never actually met him. He was a friend’s friend. Then one day on Facebook he got in touch with me. Really blunt. He said he had a crush on me.
I know you and telling you something like that is like asking to get beaten up.
I probably would’ve because I thought it was a prank. So I just said “Ha Ha Ha. Good one”. And he was like “What’s that supposed to mean? I genuinely like you!!”
He was really into you, wasn’t he?
He never said he wanted to be friends. It was like “I like you. I think we should be in a relationship.” Normally you become friends and get to know each other and maybe go out a few times. With him, it was very straightforward. He said he was serious about me and he’d always wanted to talk to me but hadn’t had the chance before.
How did you end up falling for him?
He was consistent. I think we were thrown into the deep end of the pool from the very beginning. My sister was dead against my dating anyone at the time. As I said before, she was frustrated with her personal life. She was having problems with her own family and she took it out on me. He was really sweet about it. When my sister’s in-laws sent her to live with us for a while (frankly they needed a break), she became really dictatorial. She’d check my messages and ask me where I’d been all day and fight with me over petty things. My boyfriend told me he’d wait until she’d gone back home and then we could start talking again. He didn’t want to get me into any trouble.
But eventually you got into trouble?
Yes, I ended up having food poisoning and I had to be admitted to a hospital. When I got back home, my family was watching television and I texted him to let him know I was doing better. He was really worried. Then my sister walked in, started shouting at me and confiscated my phone. I think at that point he just lost it. The next morning he showed up at my place and talked to my mother and my sister. He was really mature about it. He genuinely wanted to know what the problem was. Why couldn’t he see me? Why couldn’t we talk? Why couldn’t we be in a relationship? My sister was not very nice, but I could see that it had registered with everyone that he was always going to stick by me. It’s been one of the best relationships of my life.
In total contrast to that, you have a fairly challenging relationship with your father. He’s pushed you hard, to the extent of alienating you sometimes. I remember sleeping over at your place and how when he used to come back from work, we’d sneak around and generally keep a low profile. He was always so difficult to please. Do you think you will ever understand him?
(Takes a deep breath) That’s a really good question. I think I understand where he comes from. He was the only son and he had to take care of everyone in the family. That’s just how he sees women. As if they’re a responsibility. So when it came to education, I think he wanted me to excel at it. He knew how tough it was going to be. Coming from a village to a city, taking care of your mother, your brother and sister, your wife, your kids, being the sole breadwinner- that isn’t easy. So I get that. He’s been through a lot in the last few years which is wrought a change in him. He lost a close friend a few years back, a lot of close family members died suddenly. And all that death affected him deeply. He can’t sleep at night so he takes pills for it. He’s more liberal now and he talks easily with me. So we still have trust there.
But you haven’t told him about your boyfriend?
No. I- I haven’t. I’ve had dreams about it. Telling him. Introducing him to my boyfriend. Receiving acceptance and warmth instead of disappointment and anger. But I also feel those are wish-fulfilling dreams. I really don’t know how it’s going to go down with him when we tell him. My boyfriend and I are going to get married in the next few years. I have no idea how I can keep the relationship with my family intact and not lose them.
This is getting really heavy. Let’s talk about your philosophy in life now. As a woman of Science, you’re accustomed to failure right? In any experiment, like life, the results are either going to go your way or they’re not. So how do you define failure? And how do you cope with it?
Yeah I think I’ve been failing ever since I came to University. It’s something that’s part of my life. It’s only in the last few months that I’ve gotten some positive results in my project. Otherwise it’s just been an obstacle course for me. You’re barely over one thing before the next thing comes hurtling towards you. If you’re a Physicist, then you have to accept that failure is not really failure. It’s just another path to success.
Without the failure that I’ve had, I wouldn’t have known what I was doing wrong. If I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t try a different approach. Or a new technique. So I don’t see failure as failure anymore, more like signs on a map pointing you the right way.
And when failure happens closer to home? Like in your personal life?
Oh that’s easy. If it’s something in my personal life, I tell myself that at least I have a job. I have research and teaching. And if it’s something at work, I tell myself I still have a wonderful mother and a loving boyfriend who are just a phone call away. So I keep passing the buck from one to the other. It’s when both your personal and professional lives go up in flames that you have a total breakdown.
There is this incredible guilt, fear and shame a modern woman has to live with. You should be able to get a good job, earn well, support your family, cook, sew and clean up. If you don’t do that, then your education is a waste and you need to get married. Do you live with that pressure?
Every day. That’s like my biggest fear. I want to a good job but I also know that I’m not super ambitious. I want to do something that I enjoy and earn the respect of my peers. But I also want a husband and kids and a family to come back to. So, can I have it all? Is there a limit to the things that I can get? Am I asking for too much? Should I set my expectations low? I don’t know. It’s a period of uncertainty for me. I want to get a good job but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I want to marry the man I love, but I don’t how that’s going to happen either. So I just don’t know. Maybe I’m asking for too much by wanting to do everything in life.
There have been times when you, along with your peers there, have believed that the chances you took have not paid off. Do you get depressed about it? Does the future scare you?
I’m terrified of the future. I don’t think about it too much. There’s a good chance I may have screwed up. Or maybe I’ve made the right decision. You can never be too sure. It’s the general mood here actually. For one, they make the course very difficult even for the undergraduates. For another, the suicide rates are very high. Every month I hear about all these kids dropping out or killing themselves because the pressure got to them. For me, I don’t think I had much of a choice but yes, I get really low sometimes. I see girls my age going out to clubs and partying all night while I spend something close to 18 hours at the lab all throughout the week and most weekends. I end up wondering when my time is going to come. When will I be able to chill out like that? Thank God I have good friends here and we all boost each other up.
If you’re a woman in STEM, you can’t survive without your girls.
I found out that gravity works the same on all falling objects: so we’re all pretty much going along at the same speed. Do you end up comparing yourself to others and thinking, oh they’re getting ahead faster, I’m going slow?
Yeah all the time! I compare myself to everyone I know and end up feeling shitty about myself. I’m nearly 27 and girls my age have steady jobs, a good income, a working visa, a great marriage. They’re publishing papers or patenting some device or making huge discoveries. So I do that quite often and then I feel really down. Like I don’t know why I do that to myself. You’re right, we’re all pretty much going at the same speed it’s just- relativity, I guess. The more we compare the more it’s going to seem like we are missing out on something. Ultimately though, you can only work hard and try to do something that you really like. I may be pulling an all-nighter but I’m still doing it because I love what I do. That’s what counts.
What is your happy place?
(Pauses) Oooh I haven’t thought about that. I know you always ask that question but I hadn’t really thought about it. There’s a lake on campus that’s a few miles away from my dorm. I go for a run every morning to that lake. I sit there and I cool down. It’s the only moment in the day where I can tell myself how incredibly lucky I am to be sitting here doing what I do. That this is a privilege. It’s just a feeling I get- that everything will be alright.
In the end, I tell her that I’ve known her for a long time. This is the thing with Neelam, it’ll look like she’s got nothing to go on, but then suddenly something will pop up and you will wonder how she made it. So I remind her of that and she laughs, just like she used to when we were teenagers. She tells me that she’s hung everything on that hope: That something will turn up.
There’s a picture of us. Neelam and I are sitting with one of our classmates and Neelam’s older sister. My smile is so wide I look like an infant. We’re holding on to each other and we look incredibly confident that life is only going to get easier from here. That things can only get better, not worse.
That’s not really the truth, is it? High-school isn’t the climax of tough times, it’s only the preview. Our lives have not turned out the way we imagined. We’re on different continents, connected through WhatsApp, each of us trying to justify her existence to the world. She wants more women in Science. I want more women in Activism. No matter how educated, qualified or experienced we are- we’re both still trying to find the right job. And maybe, the right identity.
The bond that ties us together, is a lot like quantum entanglement.
If she spins out of control, I will too. On the other hand, if she shines bright, so will I.