We’ve learnt to accept that only few women choose to study Mechanical Engineering, and I, being one of those women, chose to do so, for a silly idealistic reasoning that “Oh, I wanna be like my grandfather and father”, both of whom studied mechanics. The reason was not entirely idealistic though— I eliminated computer engineering because my older sister was studying it and I, with my two plaited teenage head, had often peeked into her books— the attraction of knowing how my car engine works, was far more than knowing why objects should be oriented in programming -- I never understood the importance of what she was heading to.
When I checked the box for “Mechanical” in my college application form, I was pretty proud of myself for being a daddy’s girl. Meanwhile, I stood a neat 111’th in the queue for engineering admissions, and even with that score, I was assured to never get a seat in the coveted computer engineering at the top coveted College of Engineering Pune, also known as COEP, which ironically, was where my father too studied for his mechanical engineering in the golden 60’s (when students were actually interested in learning, and engineers were real engineers).
Since the internet boom, the 50 seats for COEP computer engineer would usually fill up with the students who ranked 1-50, and I am thanking god for this ranking system, because later on a rainy sad day in my life, I convinced myself that I chose mechanical engineer not because I wanted it, but only because I didn’t get a seat in computer science and I wanted to fulfil the ambition to join the “coveted COEP” (which in-itself doesn’t sound so attractive, after you’ve spent 4 years at "coveted COEP", holding in your loo visit to avoid the restroom, and being at the receiving end of the marathi sarcasm of ‘majha doka var taak’).
All’s not lost.
There is one big advantage of being a mechanical engineer and it’s not that you can fix your car.
The shining star of this core field of engineering, is that you can see what you’re studying-- you can see a gear interlock with another gear and measure their teeth dimensions, you can see the movement of the egg shaped cam which is carved on a shaft and placed on top of an engine, and you can design a machine that will take a physical shape during your lifetime. You know to measure 4mm exactly. You appreciate those robot arms that weld over the chassis of a car, moving like they each have a personality & feelings. You feel safe in knowing how building structures are created. Fulfilling, it is!
But the disadvantages come in multiple forms, and the first of which, I experienced there in college itself.
Being the only woman in class, meant being alone on the bench for 4 years as I had no classmates would wanted to be the only friend to me, and an absentee that was immediately noticed by teachers “Maydum, You were not there last lecture?”.
The boys, with their arms around each others shoulders, (laughing at anecdotes I was never privy to), would gather after dark, in the rooms of the hostel boys, to exchange notes and jokes, and complete assignments. In the days where cell phones were a luxury, I knew no way of contacting them to know maybe “the time for submission tomorrow?” and many of them, happy to not share information because “she will top class again”, were glad for the lack of accessibility. But there were a few helpful guys in class-- a hindi-speaking Tiwari, the kashmiri pandit who didn’t know marathi, a few guys who didn’t care about academics, and the more mature students who transferred from Diploma courses.
There was a bit of reverse discrimination— there were people who thought I couldn’t make it, because, woman! I remember being singled out-- the electrical professor who pointed at me, and lifted his finger, an indication for me to stand up immediately. He asked me “So what are the reasons for something to become something?“ My class boys hung their heads, in anticipation of me embarrassing myself, because they assumed, this only girl in class, would not know the answer. Well, I answered the question, precisely and unhesitantly, and they were pleasantly surprised, kind of like ‘oh wow! she can actually think'.
The workshop staff reverse discriminated too-- They assumed I won’t be able to handle the physicality of workshop— they snatched my welding "gun" from me, to complete the task themselves, or tuned the lathe settings for the only women in a batch of 60— me. I clearly remember a 3 member viva (oral exam) with roll number 9,10 and 11 (He was 11, I was 10). He gave the wrong answer and I gave the right one, and he was yelled at by the examiner, who, pointing at me, said “She’s a girl and still she’s studied. And you? You haven’t studied and mechanical is supposed to be a man's field!”. I was confused-- I studied despite being a girl, didn’t sound appealing to me.
After I graduated, the woman angle to this field melted away, and another problem crept up-- though slowly. 4 years after I graduated, I was introduced to data science. I picked up R coding, a programming language for statistics, and I couldn’t ignore the trance I fell into. I discovered, I could spend hours writing that code, reading through stackoverflow, trying new libraries, computing data in different ways-- I loved programming! But those real computer programmers? They were writing data analytics code in python libraries. They were far ahead of me. I tried too. My attempt to learn python failed as I got stuck from the start-- in my way around VI, the code editor, and in the details, trying to understand object oriented programming so that I could understand python better. How many new things am I supposed to learn?
I went back to learning R then, and took a shocking 3 years to learn that language, because I didn’t even know where to start or how to read the help pages. Data science didn’t move forward for me, because I didn’t know how to store and split large amounts of data, which, if I had studied distributed systems, I probably would have known. I could have surfed over high waves, had I been a CS student.
For the first time in my life, I deeply regretted the decision and I carried that regret on my shoulders for many many years.
Now I can’t regret my whole life can I? So last year I took some action.
I jotted down the CS syllabus from some sources-- IIT websites and newly graduated friends, and took a rickshaw to the local book bazaar, to the largest bookstore, and with much confidence, placed the scribbled paper on the table and said “Bhaiyya, give me all the books for computer engineering students”.
It took him some time, but in 25 mins, there in front of me, were books stacked, from different subjects and different authors.
I took each of them in my hand and flipped through them, especially the ones on data structures. “DBMS directory, O(log(n)) and n(p)j = therefore”. I took 30 minutes to flip through all the books, and then, when I was looking at "linked lists", something came over me.
This. THIS IS WHY I didn’t study computer science. I couldn’t relate to its non-physicality! CS had nothing I could see or visualize.
That day, I laid to rest a 10 year regret.
Although computers science makes so much sense to me now, at that time, as an acne cheeked teenager, I needed a visual study field. It worked for me then. I studied mechanical, aced it, stood first in university, got into the #1 school for industrial science. Could I have done that with computer science? Probably not.
I patted all the books and told the bhaiyya to take them back, but I bought one-- “Fundamentals of Languages”.
I've read 18 pages till date, and I really liked it. But it’s sitting there now, with my other books-- ’Lighting for Photography’ and ‘How to Create a Plot for a Novel” and I just can’t find the time for it anymore.
I have accepted my reality.