‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.’
This quote by writer James Neil Hollingworth and the philosophy behind it possibly helped B Vijayalakshmi forge ahead despite being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Viji to her loved ones, ‘Daughter of Lilavati’ to her professor-cum-mentor T R Govindarajan and a scientist to the world, Vijayalakshmi was the true epitome of strength and determination.
Born in 1952 in a conservative family, Vijayalakshmi overcame gender restrictions and pursued excellence in education and her field of Physics all her life. After completing her Masters from Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College, Tiruchirapalli, she joined the Department of Theoretical Physics to obtain her PhD from Madras University in 1974.
It was while she was pursuing her PhD that Vijayalakshmi was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but not once did she let the life-threatening disease overshadow her academic ambitions. That was evident in the way she dealt with the debilitating disease.
Recalling the day when Vijayalakshmi broke the news, Govindarajan in ‘Lilavati’s Daughters’, a collection of biographical essays on women scientists of India, says:
Always smiling and friendly, Viji discussed the graduate courses with me like any other student. Once, while we were discussing our work, she expressed some discomfort and I enquired about it. Looking straight at me as if to gauge my reaction, she replied that she had been diagnosed with widespread cancer of the stomach and the abdominal region. I was shocked and speechless for a few moments.
He adds, “Later she told me that her major aim was to make some substantial research contribution and be recognised as a physicist and that her immediate goal was to finish her research degree before anything happened to her.”
She stuck by her words and went on to publish eleven international papers on complicated theories of physics. She worked with Govindarajan to develop different pathways through which the higher spin theories could be constructed. Her work in external electromagnetic and gravitational fields is also well-known.
Vijayalakshmi’s first breakthrough came after she established a dual relation between massless particles and the monopoles of electromagnetic theory post which a series of developments surrounding her theory took place in the field.
Her work garnered a lot of praise not only among her peers but also outside her circle. In 1980, the hall thundered with applause at the end of her talk at the biannual High Energy Physics Symposium of the Department of Atomic Energy at IIT-Madras.
The community of Indian high energy physicists was also very encouraging, treating her with due regard as an upcoming professional, adds Govindarajan.
Vijayalakshmi’s world also involved improving the infrastructure facilities in Madras University. She was an active member of the Association of Research Scholars at University where she tackled issues like fellowships, insufficient lab equipment and students’ contingency grants. Her vocal views raised several eyebrows among her peers but that did not deter her in anyway.
Amidst all this, she met her life partner T. Jayaraman whom she married in 1978. Jayaraman, who was her rock, encouraged her to take up challenging work and her forward-thinking parents-in-law did not shy away from assisting her wherever they could.
The intensity of her research and the chemotherapy sessions continued to rise for the next couple of years. Unfortunately, the cancer spread to her legs and hips which left her dependent on a wheelchair for long distances.
Vijayalakshmi continued to write papers amidst her chemotherapy sessions and completed her PhD in 1982. The gritty young scientist succumbed to cancer on 12 May 1985 leaving a void in the scientific community and in the hearts of her loved ones. In her honour, Doordashan released a documentary on her life titled ‘Vijayalakshmi: The Story of a Young Woman with Cancer.
Vijayalakshmi belonged to that rare community of people who devise new ways to sail if they cannot change the direction of the wind.
Featured Image Credit: Daughters of Lilavati
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)