Close-up on research

Breaking the Rules

Text and Photos: Andreas Unger

Her future had been decided for her: the man she was supposed to marry, her role as a housewife, a life dictated by the rules of her caste. But then Geetha Thangavelu discovered her love of mathematics and everything changed. The story of a career swimming against the tide and against all expectations.

Geetha Thangavelu (Photo: Andreas Unger)
Geetha Thangavelu (Photo: Andreas Unger)

You can’t miss Geetha Thangavelu in a crowd of Stuttgart mathematicians – not just because of her traditional Indian sari and the little purple dot, called a bindi, on her forehead. She also has a clear, hearty laugh. Geetha specialises in the representation theory of finite groups and cellular algebras and only recently joined the University of Stuttgart on a Humboldt Research Fellowship. She has travelled an exceedingly long way on her journey from home in India to Germany, not just in terms of geography but also of culture. Geetha’s husband Bakkyaraj, also a mathematician, has accompanied her to Germany. He sits quietly next to her in her corner office while she tells her story:

About her home town of Erode in the state of Tamil Nadu in the southernmost tip of India. About the house she grew up in with her parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – 25 people under one roof. About her mother’s life spent cooking and cleaning. About the handmill she used to grind flour. About her grandma who did not want to see her granddaughter Geetha when she was born because she was so disappointed: yet another girl and still no sign of a future head of the family.

Geetha’s mother and father had an arranged marriage: their parents met, exchanged horoscopes and decided their children would marry. The two of them only actually met at their wedding. And this was what was supposed to happen to Geetha, too – with one proviso: her mother, who had only attended school for two years, insisted that she should be allowed to complete at least a Master’s degree.

Carpet market in Erode
Carpet market in Erode, Geetha Thangavelu's home town in the state of Tamil Nadu in the southernmost tip of India. (Photo: www.flickr.com/Frank Hebbert/CC BY 2.0)

Making clothes until late at night

Geetha made the best of it. She attended an undergraduate college and took a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She financed herself by working into the night sewing and embroidering clothes. And during the day, she studied. “For the first two years I was useless at mathematics – because I had no idea what it was all about.” But she got to know another student, Bakkyaraj who worked with her and helped her discover that the more abstract something was, the more satisfaction she got out of it.

Around this time, Geetha happens across a book: a Tamil translation of the biography of Marie Curie. She reads it some 200 times, in half-hour instalments, before she falls asleep at night. “It totally changed my perspective on life. Since then, I’ve known that I’ll never be a housewife, but a researcher.” Marie Curie was the first female professor at Paris Sorbonne University, was awarded Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, and is the only woman to this day to have received more than one Nobel Prize. One aspect of Curie’s life particularly captures Geetha’s imagination: that her husband was also an outstanding researcher.

The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart
The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart,  Geetha's host city during her  Humboldt Research Fellowship. (Photo: Getty Images / Allan Baxter.)

She completes her Master’s in Erode in two years and subsequently takes a Master’s in the philosophy of mathematics at Salem. The campus has no internet and no printers. To check her emails, Geetha has to take a 15-kilometre bus journey. The library only holds books up to Master’s level and does not subscribe to specialist journals. At the weekend, she catches the bus to Chennai, 350 kilometres away, to use the library there, 20 hours return. Geetha knows she has to dig her heels in if she wants to get on.

It is Bakkyaraj, now a maths student in Chennai, who helps Geetha to discover the broader horizons of her subject. He and their friend Rajasekar meet every weekend to spend Saturday or Sunday teaching Geetha all the things they have learned during the week. They get together at each other’s houses. When they do maths at Geetha’s, the place is teeming with cousins, her father watches television, her grandma keeps an eagle eye on them and her mother does the cooking.

The girl who wanted to know too much

„Geetha discovers the biography of the Nobel Laureate Marie Curie. She reads it 200 times. The book changes her life.“

Every week, she has just that one day to catch up on all the things it has taken five days to teach. But she manages – which not only tells you something about how disciplined and talented she is, but also how passionate – because whilst she is busy cramming formulae she discovers the beauty of mathematics. “I gradually understood the difference between learning maths and doing maths.” Her teachers at the time were wary of her asking too many questions. “My behaviour was considered unseemly. Sometimes I was sent out of the class when I wanted to know too much.” The books Bakkyaraj and Rajasekar bring along do not only contain tasks to be done but questions that are open to debate. Certainties are not the issue, productive scepticism is required. She encounters questions for which there is neither a right nor a wrong answer. In fact there is no answer at all. “I gradually stopped reading formulae and started reading mathematics. It’s like finally understanding the rules of a game and suddenly being able to play it. And to enjoy every moment of it.” After just two years at Salem, she completes her doctorate on “Cellularity of large classes of diagram algebras” and moves to Chennai.

Geetha with her husband Bakkyaraj
Geetha's husband Bakkyaraj has accompanied her to Germany. He, too, is a mathematician. (Photo: Andreas Unger)

When Geetha turns 16, parents from the neighbourhood start appearing with their eligible sons. “They wanted to fix this girl” is the way Geetha describes it – which means they wanted to arrange a marriage and “fix her” at the same time, sort the girl out and make her see sense. But Geetha does not want to get married and is not slow to tell them. “This girl is too talkative,” the visitors declare.

Don’t let the neighbours know

Geetha knows that, however successful a mathematician she becomes, it will lie in the power of her future husband to prevent her from being a researcher. Indeed, if she is really unlucky, this man could even prevent her children from being educated. She knows it will get harder and harder for her parents to find a husband for her because many men do not want wives who are better educated than they are and have a higher income. And she knows something else too: she will never have these problems with Bakkyaraj. “And anyway, I already knew that he loved me,” she says, sitting in her office in Stuttgart and glancing mischievously at Bakkyaraj. “So I asked him if he would marry me.”

„When she turns 16, local parents start visiting with their eligible sons. 'They wanted to fix this girl.'“

And that is what they do, but without the approval of Geetha’s family, because the complicated Indian caste system means that they are allowed to meet in the same house, since they are on the same level of the hierarchy, but because they do not belong to the same caste, they are not allowed to marry.

So since their wedding, Geetha has had no contact to her family. “Officially,” she says – which means that most of the neighbours and other relations are not allowed to know that she sometimes speaks to her mother and sister secretly on the phone. Geetha hopes that this relationship will right itself one day, at the latest when the baby she is expecting has been born. At some stage, she wants to return to India, introduce teachers and maths students to research, become a professor. And live together with her family in harmony.

published in Humboldt Kosmos 105/2016

Dr Geetha Thangavelu, born in 1984, conducts basic research in mathematics. She focusses on the representation theory of finite groups and the theory of cellular algebras. She completed her doctorate at Periyar University in Salem, India, in just two years. Thangavelu is a member of and reviewer for the American Mathematical Society. She has spent time working on research at the University of Iowa, USA, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, India. In addition to her academic work, she is also particularly engaged in continuing mathematics education for teachers and women in India. One of the research areas of her host, Professor Dr Steffen König of the University of Stuttgart, is category theory.