I grew up in Madras, India in a liberal and progressive family where books and education were taken for granted. There were precedents in my family for higher education in the West. My father and uncle had studied at Oxford, and a cousin did brilliantly at Cambridge, where she later became a don at Newnham College. Her brother became a radio astronomer and worked at Cambridge, Stanford, and Sydney. (A byproduct of this environment was that I learned English as a child and grew up bilingual.) However, behind the expectations of doing well at school was an unspoken assumption: education for a woman was not intended to lead to a career. Rather, the highest fulfillment for a woman came through marriage and children; her education was intended to help her be an intelligent partner to her husband and well-informed mother to her children.
I had a grandfather who was an amateur practitioner of mathematics and I was supposed to have taken after him. In any event, as a teenager it was my favorite subject at the all-girls' high school that I attended. I was fortunate to have a good mathematics teacher under whom I studied Euclidean geometry and learned to write proofs. I went on to do my BA in Mathematics at a co-educational college in Madras. The curriculum was old-fashioned and the textbooks were those that had been used in England at least 30 years earlier. I graduated from this uninspiring program and enrolled in a Master's program at the University of Madras, at which point the quality of my education changed dramatically.
An important presence in the mathematical scene at Madras was a Jesuit priest, Father Racine, who headed the Mathematics Department at Loyola College. He was acquainted with the latest mathematical developments in Europe. Several of his undergraduate students later went on to do research at the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay. However, Loyola College did not admit women and thus women students were denied the opportunity of studying under and being noticed by Father Racine. The first piece of good luck I had was that Father Racine gave a course on abstract algebra at the University of Madras, using the great text by van der Waerden based on lectures by Emmy Noether. I also had courses on topology and other subjects from two other excellent professors. Thus I was suddenly thrust into the twentieth century, and this was an exciting experience for me. However, I did not have any ambitions to be a researcher in mathematics at this stage, or, for that matter, to pursue any serious career at all.
After receiving my master's degree I got married, as was expected of me, and followed my husband to Manchester, England, where he, a mechanical engineer, was to receive practical training. This was my second big break, for I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Manchester and started working with J. A. Green. In spite of the ever-gray skies in Manchester, I enjoyed my first exposure to western intellectual life, both mathematical and otherwise. My husband was totally supportive of my having a mathematical career and sometimes opposed his own family. So now there was no turning back.
My husband returned first to India, and I followed after completing my Ph.D. I got a position at the University of Madras. Though I did not experience overt discrimination, it was quite common for people to say to me ``Your husband has a good job; why should you work?'' or ``Aren't you taking away a job from a breadwinner?'' and so on. One well-meaning family friend said ``It is a pity you don't have children; but isn't it wonderful that you have something to keep you occupied?''.
During my years at Madras I had some contacts with western mathematicians. In particular, I met Armand Borel when he visited Madras and he invited me to a special year on algebraic groups and finite groups at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. This was another great opportunity for my research and to make further contacts.
In 1970, I emigrated to the U.S. and started teaching at Clark University. (By this time, my husband and I had parted for reasons not connected with my career, but we remained friends.) I plunged into a new life and a new career in the U.S., and made new friends, especially with some women mathematicians in the Boston area. I moved to Chicago in 1980 when I got a position at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While keeping in close contact with my family in India, I am now very happy living and working in America.
If I think back, in midlife, to the early stages of my career, I realize that many of my decisions and advances were due to fortuitous circumstances such as being in the right place at the right time and having the right kind of support at the right moment. My male relatives and friends held as a birthright the idea that they would strive for the best professional life they could attain; for me this was a long time in coming. I welcome the changes in women's expectations that have taken place in the last decade.