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.

India Today - - PROFILE - By Sowmya Aji

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.

KR­ISH­NENDU HALDER

THOMAS AT HER HY­DER­ABAD HOME

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