The 19th century Italian writer Emilio Salgari once remarked that ‘reading is travelling without the bother of baggage’. That is great advice, particularly in the time of COVID-19. Now that one is forcibly home-bound, works of literature and of scholarship can help transport one to different countries, different times. They can stimulate the mind, and uplift the heart.

Shortly before the World Health Organization announced that humanity was facing a new pandemic, I had begun reading the autobiography of the pioneering feminist and civil rights activist Pauli Murray. Born in the American South in 1910, Pauli faced three kinds of discrimination from the time she entered the world: those of class, race, and gender. To these were added the burden of being an orphan, for her mother died when she was an infant, whereas her ailing father was admitted to an institution. Pauli was raised by her aunt Pauline, a woman of great character and substance, who never married, because she had to care for siblings as well as nephews and nieces. Pauli’s memoir presents a loving portrait of Aunt Pauline, of her courage and selflessness, and her devotion to her work (she was a schoolteacher).

Inspired by her aunt, Pauli herself determined to become the first person in her family to go to university. After an arduous struggle she got admission to Barnard College in New York. It was in the City that she became interested in creative writing—experimenting with poems and stories—and in activism, associating herself with the emerging civil rights movement.

In the 1930s, racism in the American North, though ever present, was less crudely and less cruelly expressed than in the American South. In her memoir, Pauli writes vividly of her journeys back home to see her aunt, of the discrimination she faced in buses, trains, and hotels, and of how she sought to combat it. She was determined to study further, and applied to the premier university in her own state, North Carolina. But since she was black they would not admit her, even though she had all the necessary qualifications.

Having had such first-hand experience of racial discrimination, Pauli thought that she should become a lawyer, all the better to fight it. She joined the law school at the all-black Howard University, based in Washington D. C. Here she was taught by some remarkable professors, who were active in drafting petitions to the Supreme Court to remove restrictions on people of colour. She did brilliantly in her studies, and applied for admission for a further degree to Harvard Law School. But while Harvard had in the past admitted a few male students from Howard, they dogmatically refused to admit Pauli, despite her outstanding record.

Undeterred, Pauli Murrary went to New York, and—working against the barriers of race, class and gender—established a successful legal practice. Then, inspired by anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia (she was a great admirer of Gandhi), Pauli moved to Ghana shortly after that country became independent. She taught in a law school, passing on her knowledge and idealism to young Ghanaians. On moving back to the States, she chose to do a doctorate at the Yale Law School. This she did successfully, whereupon, in the last groundbreaking action of her life, she became the first woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

This is the story of an amazing life, and Pauli Murray tells it beautifully. I read a lot of memoirs and autobiographies, and as a (sort of) connoisseur of the genre, I would rank hers as one of the three or four best autobiographies I have read. Pauli writes with love, learning, and compassion. The portraits of her friends, teachers, and comrades are wonderfully vivid. The horrors of racism and sexism are narrated unflinchingly, but the tone is one of reproach, not of angry polemic.

Not long after I finished Pauli Murray’s autobiography, I began reading the manuscript of a biography of the pioneering woman scientist E. K. Janaki Ammal. The author is a historian of science Savithri Preetha Nair, and her book should be published early next year. Janaki Ammal was slightly luckier than Pauli; in that, while she faced prejudice on account of her gender and the colour of her skin, her family was moderately well-to-do. Nonetheless, born a woman in colonial and patriarchal India, she faced massive hurdles of her own, which she overcame with courage and resolution.

Born in Malabar in 1897, Janaki Ammal was educated in Madras, where, unusually for an Indian woman at the time, she chose to specialize in science. On graduating, she taught botany in a local college before winning a scholarship to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 1924 this slender Malayali lady, dressed in a sari, set sail across the seas to a land she had never seen before. She was to do both an MSc and a Ph D at Ann Arbor, becoming the first Indian woman to do a doctorate in science (as well as the first female doctorate in botany from an American university).

Much of Janaki Ammal’s early researches was on grasses. After her Ph D she moved to the UK, where she joined the John Innes Horticultural Institute, in Surrey, where she worked with the great biologist Cyril Darlington. The eminent Englishman was impressed enough with his young colleague to ask her to collaborate with him in the writing of A Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, a landmark work published in 1945, and which decisively reshaped the field.

Janaki Ammal enjoyed her research at the John Innes centre. She made close friends in the UK, male as well as female. However, after India became independent, she came back to serve her country, inspired to do so by meeting Jawaharlal Nehru in London. She made important contributions to Indian science; reorganizing the Botanical Survey of India, and inspiring young women to take to research. Even while doing all this administering and mentoring she continued to be active in research herself, publishing her results in prestigious journals, and pioneering the field of ‘ethno-botany’ in India. Her quest for knowledge was unquenchable; in her seventies, she was doing field research on the plants of Ladakh, in her sari (albeit with boots). All this while, she faced a great deal of prejudice from her colleagues, and from the bureaucracy and the political class. Male scientists who were distinctly inferior to her were given awards and promotions which she was denied.

Janaki Ammal’s was an exemplary life, and she had been lucky in her biographer. Preetha Nair matches her subject‘s zest and energy, following her traces in far-flung archives in the United States, the United Kingdom and India. She closely tracks Janaki Ammal’s relations with her scientific peers, and with her extended family (to whom she was very close). Her scientific research and achievements are narrated expertly, in language accessible to a lay audience but with no sacrifice as regards complexity and nuance. When published, this will be the best biography of an Indian scientist written thus far. In the authoritativeness of its research, and the sensitivity of its treatment, it far outdoes the existing biographies of male scientific icons such as C. V. Raman, Homi Bhabha, and Meghnad Saha.

As a privileged upper-caste male myself, I read these two books with wonder and amazement, and an increasing awareness of my own frailties. Men such as this writer never remotely face the discrimination that Pauli Murray or Janaki Ammal faced, not once or twice, but lifelong. Pauli and Janaki overcame these apparently insurmountable hurdles with resolution and dignity, going on to make major contributions to scholarship and to society. Reading their stories in the time of COVID-19 was both chastening and uplifting. If humanity as a whole can now show a fraction of the courage and grace that Pauli Murray and Janaki Ammal once did, there may be hope for us yet.

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 28th March 2020)