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Meenakshi Ayyadurai – An Amazing Woman Who Bridged Multiple Worlds

This site is dedicated to the amazing women without whom life in all its immense brilliance would not exist. On the launch of the new VASHIVA.COM website, we begin our Amazing Women blog series by honoring Meenakshi Ayyadurai, whose one-year funeral anniversary just passed on January 7, 2013. Meenakshi Ayyadurai bridged the worlds of East and West, ancient and modern, and science and tradition at a time when very few women in India were even allowed to be educated beyond grade school. It was this core ability of hers to bridge disparate systems that she passed on to her two children: Uma Dhanabalan, M.D., a Harvard-educated medical doctor, and VA Shiva Ayyadurai, Ph.D., an MIT-trained systems scientist.

Meenakshi grew up in the 1940s in the small village of Paramkurchi, in the Tirunvelli District of Tamil Nadu, India. She was one of nine children. Her father was an eminent civil engineer who designed and built some of the key infrastructure in British-ruled India. When Meenakshi was eight years old, her father had an affair and ran off with the maid. Overnight, the family was abandoned and found themselves homeless. Meenakshi and a few of her brothers were sent off to the home of a relative. This event greatly affected her future development. Meenakshi wanted to stand on her own two feet, without the need for any man. She decided she must become independent and educated. One must remember that divorce was unheard of in India during the 1940s, and a woman attending college was extraordinary at a time when only 1 out of 20 women could even read. Within this cultural milieu, Meenakshi found a powerful supporter in her elder brother Kumarasundaram, who also believed in the liberation of women. He ensured Meenakshi’s education, the key to liberation in India.

Meenakshi went on to graduate with honors from Annamali University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in statistics. To this day, very few women have earned a master’s in statistics from that same university. Meenakshi met Vellayappa Ayyadurai and moved to Bombay, India in the mid-1960s, when it was rare for South Indians to move to the bustling, cosmopolitan world of Bombay. There Meenakshi became the head of the math department of Don Bosco schools, one of the most coveted school systems. In the middle of this, while working and taking care of a family, she also developed an interest in computer science.

In 1970, Meenakshi bridged East and West when she and her family emigrated from India to the United States. They lived in Paterson, New Jersey—one of the poorest cities in the U.S. There was a recession in the U.S. at that time, and there were no jobs for math teachers. Meenakshi took a job in a textile mill, Bentex Mills, testing fibers as a quality assurance manager. In the large mill there were small fiber particles in the air. Four decades later, doctors would determine that those fiber particles were the likely cause of her developing pulmonary fibrosis, a deadly scarring of the lungs which has no cure as of today. Meenakshi, while working at this job, also pursued her interest in computers by taking night courses in computer science at the Educational Computer Processing Institute (ECPI). She passed at the top of her class, and she was offered a job at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), located in Newark, New Jersey.

At UMDNJ, Meenakshi proved her ability to troubleshoot and solve complex problems. She ensured that the university’s complex mainframe systems and the software for running the entire health records and patient management system ran consistently. She programmed in COBOL in the days of key punch cards. Sometimes, she left home in the middle of the night to go to UMDNJ to solve problems, and then returned home early in the morning to make breakfast and lunch for her family. She bridged the worlds of science and tradition—a mother making delicious traditional South Indian meals while working in the modern world of computers.

Meenakshi instilled in her children the love and need for education. She encouraged her daughter Uma to become a medical doctor. A co-worker at UMDNJ encouraged Meenakshi’s precocious 14-year-old son, Shiva, to apply to the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and New York University to study computers. Meenakshi’s support in his computer programming studies was the fuel that resulted in the development of EMAIL, the world’s first email system, by Shiva in 1978. Without Meenakshi, in that sense, email as we know it would not have been created by Shiva.

Meenakshi was a deeply compassionate woman who cared about those whom others had forgotten. It was not uncommon to find around the dinner table people she had met at the shopping market or elsewhere, who were down and out and just needed support. She believed that life was connected and that we all were here to serve God’s great creatures. Once she found two immigrant women who were working to get their medical certifications to practice in the U.S. and had no place to stay. Meenakshi let them stay in her home for many months. It was a friend of one of these women who came by one day and told Shiva about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—a university that the family had never heard about until two weeks before the application for admission was due. Shiva applied and was accepted.

At MIT, VA Shiva fought against injustices he saw, and Meenakshi was right there to support him. Other parents might have been concerned about why their child was spending time protesting and attempting to change the world. Meenakshi once told her husband, V. Ayyadurai (who initially did not approve of Shiva’s protest activities), “What Shiva is doing is right. Don’t we want our son to do what is right, or are we always going to ask someone else to do the right thing?” When VA Shiva fought and exposed the corruption at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in India, some of Shiva’s relatives were embarrassed about Shiva’s activism. Meenakshi, however, at the age of 70, flew to Delhi and told her son to “fight—this corruption has gone on long enough.”

On January 7, 2012, at 8:14 AM, Meenakshi passed on to the great beyond from lung failure due to pulmonary fibrosis. She had lived a life as a mother, a supporter of struggles against injustice, and a woman who broke the mold a long time before the women’s movement of the 1960s. She defined what it meant to be an independent, bold, and honorable woman.

We salute Meenakshi as an Amazing Woman. Honor her.

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