I grew up in suburban Mumbai. My father was an Accounts Officer with the Central Government. My mother was, and still is, a homemaker. As a kid, I was constantly asking how? What is this and why is this so? I devoured the ‘Tell me why?’ series of books. It was a very nerdy thing to do but I really enjoyed it and discussed it with my parents. Academic excellence was very important in our family. I was always at the top of the class at St Mary’s Convent School, Mulund. It was easy to believe that I can do whatever I want to do, and for this, I must also thank my mother. She constantly instilled in me self-belief. In junior college, I dropped biology. And at that point, my father said, if not medicine, then you should do engineering. And if you are doing engineering, you have to get into IIT. Pursuit of excellence - nothing but the best! So I prepared for JEE, solved tons of Agrus problem sheets. It was challenging but genuinely fun. We were on vacation when the result came out. When I got back, my neighbor had stuck a note on the door saying, “You have done well!” And that’s when I came to know my AIR rank was 14. I took up computer science because I had a high rank, that’s what all toppers do. And I knew no better!
It was amazing, as a 17-year-old, to have unfettered freedom, living in a hostel. My fondest memories of IIT are the cack sessions in the wing and the night cafeteria. Also, the weekend hikes. Sitting in a cave or overlooking a lake - no light pollution, no sound pollution, just the stars in the sky. Chatting, singing, enjoying the beauty of nature. In my first year, I went a bit berserk participating in extra-curriculars. During the inter-hostel fresher’s competitions, I acted in two plays. Based on that, I was chosen to act in that year’s Hindi annual production, ‘Pagla Ghoda’ by Badal Sarkar. Rehearsals went on Monday to Friday after dinner for three hours, for three months. The process was a complete revelation to me because we were all equal, sitting together, discussing how to present. Incidentally, I played four different female characters in that one play. Initially, my grades were nothing to write home about. It took 3-4 semesters before I figured out a reasonable balance between doing extra- curriculars and giving attention to academics.
By the time I finished my M.Tech. from IIT Bombay I had dabbled with hardware, software, networking, but didn’t particularly enjoy any of it. So I thought, let me explore theoretical computer science, and enrolled for a PhD at IIT Madras in automata theory. I had an opportunity to audit a course in complexity theory and fell in love with it. I switched my research topic after completing my thesis, and it became my subsequent life long career. One of the things that I’m working on right now is proof complexity, which is totally fascinating. What we are doing is we are looking at statements which are obviously false e.g. 50 students join IIT. They have to be assigned rooms in a hostel which has 40 rooms. It’s clear to you and me that everybody will not go to single rooms. But a proof of such a statement, written in many formats, is humongously difficult for programs to check. Complexity theory is about formally proving what cannot be done, what are the limits of computation. Nowadays, every smartphone is a pretty powerful computer, yet we are worrying about how much disk storage we have. Is that enough for the kind of code we want to run? Somebody has to tell the designers that beyond this point, do not aim to try and optimize further. The big buzz word is ‘lower bounds’. My research interests also include algebraic complexity, counting classes, circuit complexity, and its connections to automata. I enjoy teaching courses about Boolean function complexity and concrete lower bounds.
When I was a student at IIT, I decided that I’m here to make the most of it, and the fact that I am a woman and not a man does not matter. I was the only computer science student in H10, in my batch. Many of my classmates would sit together and solve assignments whereas I was doing them alone. But that didn’t bother me. It’s really a question of allowing external circumstances to make a difference vs not allowing them. At IIT Madras it was even less of an issue because by then I was already doing PhD and my advisor Dr. Kamala Krithivasan is also a woman. At IMSc, where I do my teaching and research, I have been fortunate and never experienced any kind of bias.
You imagine this balance between scales - work on one side and life on the other. I cannot resonate with that at all because my work is something I enjoy so much; it is part of life, not versus life. Each one finds his or her own way, but my way has been to always keep a distinction between ‘important’ and ‘urgent’. You try to make sure that there are not too many urgent things that impinge on your time and distract you from doing what is important and what matters. For me, it’s never been a question of sacrifice. It’s a question of choices. When my kids were very young, I did not travel to work shops and conferences or for collaborations. Maybe if I had travelled more I would have had one and a half times as many publications by now. Does that make me any less successful? I don’t think so.
The main thing I would say is ‘stick to the plan’. Just believe. You know that you want to do this. Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. There are places, points in time, when it’s going to be hard. It’s hard for everybody. You may feel it’s hard for you because you’re a woman. It’s hard for men also, in a different way. Just don’t think about it. Your self-belief is worth everything - hang on to it tightly!