FIRE IN THE BELLY, WI TH EGGS
She grew up reading Enid Blyton. She worries about her fitness. And she still runs the kitchen. India’s Missile Woman is as down-to-earth as they come.
She comes rushing out of the rickety lift in the defence quarters, clad in her typical zari-bordered sari, a woman who totally fits the Indian description of ‘homely’. Apologising profusely for keeping me waiting with her guard, for 20 minutes, on the landing outside her locked flat door, she asks, “You look so tired, did you manage to have breakfast?’’ I am startled, but she doesn’t wait for a response. “I can give you cheese and bread, and make an omelette. Will that be okay?’’
I demur and blink as she bustles around her house and disappears into a functional kitchen. Her house is welcoming, with a creeper plant, Jesus portraits on walls, various artistic tchotchkes glittering around the room, and the typical Kerala elephant—that she got as a memento from her engineering college in Thrissur—placed carefully on a stool just inside the front door. Her showcase is full of sports medals won by her son Tejas Patel, president of the students’ union at his engineering college in Vellore. But then there are also models of two missiles, Agni I and II, which have a place of pride in her house.
Tessy Thomas, 49, is as far a cry from a missile scientist as is possible for one to imagine. I expect a prissy, science-sprouting, bespectacled professor, and find a warm, down-to-earth woman who rues the state of her house as she has been away for some days at the Agni V launch. She worries about her “fitness’’ and regrets not using the exercise machine. She makes sure I eat a freshly-made omelette of onions, tomatoes and potatoes before sitting down for a formal interview on the success of Agni V.
She makes no fuss as photographers take their time to set up the hot lights they use that make the already sweltering heat of Hyderabad unbearable. She wipes the sweat away each time the photographers allow her to, and deals with all questions without turning a hair.
“It is an honour to be called Missile Woman and Agni Putri,’’ she says, beaming. She loves the moniker, more so because her role model, APJ Abdul Kalam, is called the Missile Man. She could have been an IAS officer; she even wrote the exam. But the Defence Research and Development Organisation ( DRDO) interview happened the same day, and she got through. Kalam placed her in the Agni missile programme once she finished her Mtech from the Defence Institute of Armament Technology, Pune, and that is where she has been ever since. “He created a great forum for the exchange of ideas and all of us have benefited from that,’’ she says.
Thomas, project director (mission), Agni V, is unique. She is equally comfortable discussing the 5,000 km of cables inside the missile and the shenanigans of saas and bahu in TV soaps. “That is how I unwind,’’ she says, casually. “I like the way the actors are all so well-dressed and neatly turned out.’’ I raise my brow. This is a missile scientist? She laughs. “Yes, my husband says the same thing, how do you watch these serials? But I like them.’’
She has had no time to read anything but science journals of late, but Enid Blyton and Archie were childhood friends. Betty or Veronica? “I like Veronica!’’ she says with
“MYHUSBAND SAYS THE SAME THING: HOWDO YOU WATCH
SAAS-BAHU SERIALS? BUTI LIKE THEM.” “INDIA ONLY WANTS MISSILES AS A DETERRENT. SO I AM ACTUALLY WORKING FOR PEACE.”
a disarming grin. No time for her other love, badminton, either. She was the champion at school and college and used to play with her son or neighbours. But the last three years have been Agni IV and V, nothing else. “I am in charge of the mission and guidance of Agni V,’’ she says. After completing over 10,000 computer simulations, her focus among 2,000-strong team was to get the missile going along the right path to its target, which Agni V achieved with great precision on April 19. “It was thrilling. I am happy and content that the mission is a success,’’ she says.
Former scientific adviser to the defence minister and senior missile scientist V.S. Arunachalam puts into context the role she played in the success of the Agni programme. “In projects such as these, a consensus needs to be built up. A woman does not easily give up her point of view, she can be persuasive and irritatingly persistent. It must have helped to have a woman in charge,’’ he says. Arunachalam points out that it is extremely difficult to be a scientist and a woman in the Indian society. “Women have more responsibilities. It is very difficult to be staring at a electron microscope when your child is down with flu. Being a mother, wife and scientist involves sacrifices and lots of compromises. It is a remarkable feat to manage both well,’’ he adds.
Thomas’s husband, Cmdr Saroj Kumar Patel, 55, who was her classmate at Pune, spends long stretches of his career as naval officer posted away from Hyderabad. She has had to juggle work with bringing up her son. But she has only praise for the way her husband and son, as well as her in-laws, parents and four siblings have supported her, be it in her inter-religious marriage or her missile work.
“What she has achieved gives me a great feeling,’’ says her son Tejas, 21. His name is an anagram of his mother and father’s names and not the Light Combat Aircraft. He is looking at a corporate job after studies but does not rule out following his mother’s footsteps into defence technology. “In fact, both my parents are involved in defence work. I have seen their workload and its disadvantages. But whenever I need them, they are there,’’ he adds. Thomas shrugs off the 16-hour schedules she had to put in for years to manage her son’s studies and her work. And there is no end to work. Agni V has succeeded, but she barely has a moment to exult, as she works a full 12-hour day, even on Sunday. Two more tests have to be conducted before the 5,000km intercontinental ballistic missile ( ICBM) can be given to the defence forces, while work has to start on the multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle ( MIRV), the indigenous warhead that has to be fitted onto the missile. Thomas’s IFS officer father and mother, devout Syrian Christians from Alappuzha in Kerala, named her after Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa. But she doesn’t find it odd that she is working on missiles or that she has a gunman on 24x7 duty. “I have built a vehicle that can also carry flowers,’’ she says, with a grin. And adds, “I am building it for a country that only wants it as a deterrent. So I am building it to actually ensure peace in this region.’’
She declines to answer questions on China and its missile programme, and explains that she is speaking to me only because DRDO has permitted her to do so, on Agni. She escorts me out of her house with simplicity and charm, leaving me without any opportunity or reason to ask uncomfortable questions like whether a woman has to deal with ego clashes in the scientific world.
THOMAS AT HER HYDERABAD HOME