An Interview with Ira Trivedi by Rebecca Danos

This first appeared in Wellesley Underground as part of the Wellesley Writes It series, here.

We all traverse different worlds from family to work and school and even to different countries or social climates. We all have stories to tell. Ira Trivedi ’07, bestselling author of What Would You Do to Save the World: Confessions of a Could Have Been Beauty Queen (2006), The Great Indian Love Story (2009), There is No Love on Wall Street (2011), and most recently India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century (2014), not only has her own puissant stories to tell, but gives a voice to those who might only have whispered their plights. It is such an honor to chat with Ira and to discover a little of her journey.

Ira Trivedi came to Wellesley from India with a background in science. As a child, she harbored thoughts of writing, but hadn’t found the story nor the means to realize herself as a writer. She credits Wellesley with developing her skills and learning how to become the author she is now.

But she needed to find a story to tell.

In her junior year, Ira conceived a “half-baked” dream to enter the Miss India beauty pageant, despite the dissuasions of her family and society. Ira persevered, emphasizing that you “have to take risks in life.” And she thought it would be fun. The gamble paid off by winning her, not the crown of the pageant, but what is “far greater than [a] crown,” the material for a story which translated into her debut, bestselling, controversial novel, What Would You Do to Save the World: Confessions of a Could Have Been Beauty Queen (2006). Ira warns that privilege, too, carries a burden of “strings attached,” insinuating, perhaps, the expectations and risk avoidance that accompany the advantaged. She advises, especially for women, the importance of moving beyond what might be a safer choice, even recommending women be single for a year to transcend being “needy.” In fact, she is currently working on a memoir about a year she spent as a single woman, describing it as Eat, Pray, Love meets Sex and the City. As Ira commented about her first novel, “writers need [a] story” which is facilitated when it’s her “own story”.

Ira describes the publication process of her first novel as “smooth” and believes that “things meant to happen, fall into place” like “destiny.” Despite her success as a published author, she admits she “never looked as writing as a lucrative career.” Armed with a degree in economics from Wellesley, Ira moved to Wall Street where she earned an MBA from Columbia. During an absence from school, she worked for a company selling private jets to the wealthy, which provided material for her exploration of the perils of decadent life-styles in her later books. She admits she has lived a privileged life and traveled through glamorous worlds. Her books, however, convey important messages about the disillusionment and contrast between one’s fantasies of glamorous worlds (beauty contests and finance) and reality, the deception of appearances. The young might “aspire to be in [a] glamor world,” but in reality, when you’re older, it’s “not that great.” Her books offer lessons for young people about the “reality behind [the] surface.” After her experience on Wall Street, Ira returned to India to pursue writing full-time, crediting the skills, such as conducting research, she garnered from Wellesley as invaluable to her now. She continues to employ Wellesley students whom she attributes as “bright young women” she can trust with her work.

As a writer, Ira explores the themes she absorbed at Wellesley including gender issues and service to others. In her own words, “[I] owe so much to Wellesley.” Ira is one of the early Indian writers to broach gender issues in her society, penning one of the first pieces on homosexuality and gay rights in India, The Indian in the Closet. She recently explored the themes of the Indian sexual revolution in India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century (2014). In this work, she discusses sex and marriage in a Westernizing India and brings the country’s people’s stories to the rest of the world. For this work, she traveled to fourteen cities and talked to six hundred people. When asked about the experience as a writer in India compared to the US, she notes that the difference is little, but that Indian women often don’t have a voice, which she is trying to change in her journalistic pursuits to tell the stories of impoverished women. In addition to her memoir on her year as a single woman, Ira is tackling a book on the beauty epidemic discussing the increasing obsession of the world with beauty. For this book she traveled to disaster zones and talked with women to understand the importance they place on beauty.

The East. The West. Ira notes that India can learn civic sense and creativity from the US. And from India, we can learn from its holistic, spiritual values and from India’s spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama. In India, there is “a deep regard for all religions and themes.” On Ira’s street, for example, there is a peaceful coexistence of a church, mosque, and temple. The Indian culture possesses a deeply spiritual nature from which the West has much to learn. Ira, a certified yoga teacher, attributes her three-hour morning yoga practice as the most important activity she does in the day, truly exemplifying her ideals.

It might have been early morning for me when I chatted with Ira and mid-evening for her, but despite the separation in time zones, continents, and background, I didn’t feel an awkwardness and experienced a connection to this remarkable woman. Maybe it’s the shared experience of having studied at Wellesley, which nurtures a sisterhood I have discovered that can be more powerful than even that of blood-relatives. I don’t know what it was, but when the call ended, I felt refreshed and energized, like some of the spiritual beauty that Ira referenced was transmitted through her voice. We all have a story, and today I was honored to learn a little of Ira Trivedi’s.

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Survival of the Fittest

Originally posted as a Wellesley in STEM article at Wellesley Underground.

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Every year the day before the first day of school, my family had a tradition where my father would take my sister and me to a museum (or later to the Doylestown courthouse to watch trials). We frequented Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the science museum, where I fell in love with astronomy and physics. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of a career as an astrophysics professor, or later one in high energy physics.

The physics path, however, was strewn with obstacles from performance anxiety to discouragement from every direction, including the male bullies who drove me out of my high school math competition team as well as my nuclear physics course, where in both cases I was the only girl. By senior year of high school, I conceded. I swapped AP Physics for philosophy, nuclear physics for choir, and agreed to pursue my parents’ desire for me to become an international lawyer.

During my first week at Wellesley, one of the Munger dorm advisors happened to be the renowned astronomer, Professor Dick French. As the advisors introduced themselves, he said, “I’m an astronomer.” Those words changed my life. I soon ventured to Whitin Observatory and procured a position within the department  with the support of Professor Wendy Bauer who also encouraged me to take Dick French’s astronomy course.

I remember those early years. Dick French inspired in me the confidence that I could become an astronomer, so I majored in astrophysics which would give me the option of a math major. I loved the community where all the physicists I knew were women.

Of course what lay in my future outside Wellesley’s womb was the full range of gender discrimination from the minor (professors not respecting my knowledge and deferring to men with less expertise) to the severe (sexual harassment) instigated by both men and women. I was attracted to high energy theoretical physics as well, reputed for being the sexiest field of physics and only for the elite. There have been years of misery due to the systematic devaluation in a field which favors the survival of the fittest. In this harsh academic climate, I have found pockets of solace. My college boyfriend, now husband, my MS supervisor in string theory, my PhD group and supervisors in string-inspired cosmology, and friends at my current university among them. There have been other individuals and groups I apologize for omitting.

The academic path post-college is a minefield, starting with entrance exams, comprehensive exams on every field of physics once you are in graduate school, and ending with the defense. Then the competition to procure a post-doctoral position is fierce; in some cases there are as many as a 1000 applicants for a few low-paying positions and generally, in my experience, no less than around a hundred applicants for a single position. I count myself lucky to have been on two college shortlists at the University of Cambridge, one for Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, as well as other shortlists, and have obtained a Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics National Fellowship, though not in high energy theory.

I see two major problems with science in society: 1) the devaluation of women and minorities and 2) the lack of value society places on those who advance basic science, which leads to a highly competitive job market and research environment.  There are also restrictions on academic freedom to explore novel ideas, in part, due to funding restrictions.  Engineering and industry with direct and obvious profitable ends seem more valued by society.

We, especially women in science, need to band together to create a more supportive, inclusive environment. Many of those I’ve known in high energy theoretical physics, men and women, have left the harsh academic climate in search of an improved quality of life. The academic environment is especially caustic for women who constantly have to defend their scientific arguments, sometimes to no avail, which are taken for granted when coming from men.  Part of the problem might be that women are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome and might not convey their ideas in a confident way, translating into seeming less competent. Confidence and competence are unrelated, yet the first projects the second.

I wonder about a society that places more value on athletes and entertainers than the individuals who explore the fabric of space-time, which in the case of general relativity, incidentally, led to your GPS and cell phone technology. I wonder about a community of physicists, men and women, who can either be dismissive or abusive to their women colleagues with equal education and abilities.

Wellesley, to me, is a model for an environment to foster astronomers and physicists. It was challenging but not degrading. We were encouraged to ask questions without preceding them by the qualification I see in seminars, “This might be a stupid question.” We were treated as humans as opposed to machines. Our gender did not subject us to attack for the most part. We were encouraged to cooperate to solve problems and not to work in lonely isolation, as is often the post-doc experience for many. We were valued by default without having to prove ourselves. We were encouraged to fulfill our dreams.

It was not a perfect environment. For a short time, I had a research advisor who demeaned women and screamed swear words at me (he is no longer at Wellesley). Many of us were extremely stressed, sleep deprived, and lacked balance in our lives. I never made the proverbial lifelong friends among my Wellesley classmates. But these issues were minor because I loved the work which justified any hardships. I loved the companionship of all nighters with my classmates or playing Madonna in the warm room while operating the 24” telescope (once accidentally leaving the microphone in the dome on, blasting the music to the entire hill surrounding the observatory).

A lot of my friends and colleagues, men and women with PhDs from prestigious universities, are leaving academia behind. Academia used to be a safe haven for intellectuals. As academia has begun to fall prey to corporatization, the number of papers produced is valued, rather than quality, and the very stressful ambiance and gender biases run rampant, many are finding new homes in the world. For those who are able and choose to remain employed in academia, it consumes their lives as they are generally overworked. However, kudos for those who flourish in academia, who have found niches of inspiration, curiosity, academic freedom, and support.

As the job market in academia for theoretical physics shrinks, workloads increase and permanent positions become scarce, the competition in academia is only likely to become more fierce as physicists vie like gladiators for positions.  This environment has always been adverse for the survival of women in the field, and it isn’t likely to improve without a conscious effort.  As students and colleagues, we should be mindful of our behavior that might be gender biased.  This ranges from looking at male colleagues in a discussion rather than the woman who might have asked the question to discussing, or not respecting, a woman’s choice not to have children in public (would you do this with a male physicist?).  It includes students and faculty not treating women equally as men, not respecting their explanations but accepting the same ones coming from men.  In the extreme cases, it has resulted in deserving women being omitted from prestigious prizes. According to Nobel website, of the approximately 200 Nobel prizes in physics awarded, only two have gone to women, Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer.  Why hasn’t Vera Rubin been awarded one for the discovery of dark matter?  Why didn’t Jocelyn Bell receive the Nobel prize her supervisor won when she discovered radio pulsars?

To solve the problem of gender discrimination, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are treating a woman in the same way we would a man and consciously become gender-blind, as in how orchestral auditions have become.  In my personal experience, I have been fortunate that most of my academic groups led to largely positive interactions.  However, it can take just one destructive individual that can lead to days or even months or years of distress.  A drop of poison will affect an entire well.  We need to be mindful of our words and actions to lead to supportive environments that will encourage ourselves and others to do our best work and to enable the possibility of everyone reaching their full potential to contribute to the field.

My view of academia is narrow, a pinhole including high energy theoretical physics and astrophysics. There is a dearth of women and men in high energy physics from certain ethnic groups, especially of African descent. We can hope that in these fields, or academia at large, now that the discussion has been broached, the conditions, especially for women and minorities, will improve. Academic employment might have become the realm where survival of the fittest applies, but, those who have chosen to leave, as the Gloria Gaynor song expressed at so many Wellesley dorm parties, will survive (and thrive) too.

Confusions: A Life of Comedy

I must confess this blog has evolved from its original intent to document musings on science, math, and music to more reflections of an outsider plunged into Winnipeg.

I actually did attempt to write an essay about a math paper, but in the paper’s co-author’s words, it was fittingly incomplete, as I referenced Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in my philosophical rant about the beauty of mathematics. Let me tell you how it happened.

After writing some about how satisfying string theory is for its intrinsic self-consistencies, and that regardless of whether our universe is governed by these extra dimensional principles, the theory yields a comprehensive self-consistent set of principles with useful advancements in nuclear physics, condensed matter physics, and mathematics, I then rambled about mathematics. In math you start with a theorem which you might be able to prove. The theorem and its proof represent a truth that a new experiment can’t expropriate. Of course, when relating this newly found ideological satisfaction with mathematics compared to most physics I’ve explored with a mathematics professor and friend, she informed me of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. This theorem states that you can write an axiom which is true about the natural numbers but which is unprovable. Perfection, I suppose, is elusive in any field, but, at the end of the day, or rather a proof, in mathematics, you might not have fundamentally changed your view of the universe, but at least you know you have unearthed a truth, something which cannot be expunged.

If perfection in science or mathematics is lacking, it is certainly lacking in humanity in all our glorious flaws. After many tense weeks which manifested in physical pain, Andrew and I decided we needed some comedy and attended a play, Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions performed by the Shoestring Players, in which my friend was acting.

What a comedy of human flaws, errors, dysfunctional relationships, painful lonely isolation, desperation, lack of companionship, and disconnected people. It was an opera of quarreling couples. The spouse confessing infidelity to her husband while the waiter asked if the husband would like potatoes, he in abstract torment about the security of his job, as his wife had bedded his boss. The boss tenderly reading the menu to his suspecting wife who had forgotten her reading glasses. The wife who confronts her husband, the boss, and starts a scene in the restaurant where both couples eat. The mother who won’t answer the phone calls from her husband who is traveling and unsuccessfully attempting to seduce women. There is one scene where the boss’s wife is supposed to deliver an address at a fund raiser, she is disarranged from being misdirected to a plow field by children, she tries to speak into the microphone, a drunken fiance sings camp songs after his beloved’s infidelity was accidentally broadcasted for all to hear by the speakers, tea pours onto the sound system, the boss’s wife is electrocuted, and everything disintegrates into chaos. It was a disaster, a microcosm of human failings.

I didn’t relate to the characters in the first four one act plays, but the fifth one resonated a bit with me. It centered on five people sitting on four park benches. Each of the four people situated on the four benches desired privacy and solitude. The fifth person sat on the first bench and tried to strike up a conversation. When the already seated person became disrupted enough by the unhappy monologue, they would move to the next park bench and confess their story. It was about people desperately trying to share their stories, to connect, to feel heard. It was about ignoring the pain of others, something we all do at times. The last line of the play encapsulated the frustration of the individuals, that “you might as well talk to yourself.” In my case, I like talking to myself, or rather writing to myself.

The acting was clear with objectives, obstacles, and tactics, the British accents believable. Freud would say we succumbed to the pleasure principle, by taking pleasure in the confusing comedic pain of the characters. It was an exaggeration, a hyperbole, of those day-to-day disconnects we might have with people in our lives, perhaps not with our spouses, but with other people in our circles. And even if we can’t relate to the flaws in these characters, we all have our own flaws and imperfections, which, in comparison to the characters, might seem okay. We’re not perfect, life is not perfect, but neither is mathematics nor physics, so maybe it’s all good.