Yes, We Can, And We Did!

It was a lifelong dream to complete her doctorate. When she finally did, it was with her daughter

Mala Dutt; Shukla Lal Updated: Oct 17, 2019 11:50:55 IST
Yes, We Can, And We Did! Photograph by Yasir Iqbal

Sorry ma’am, but you cannot go in. University elections are on, only students are allowed inside,” said the burly police constable at the front gate of Delhi University.

“Yes, I am a student. Please let me in,” I said.

“Uhm, no, you are not a student. Are you faculty? A lecturer?”


“Then I’m afraid you can’t enter.”

“You don’t understand. I am a student! Look, this is my student ID.”

“Duplicate IDs can be easily acquired. Sorry, we cannot let you in.”

“What?! I have a test! I’m getting late. See this is my other ID. I’m a Government of India officer. I would never show you a duplicate.”

“How can I be certain? Aap toh student lagti nahin ho.” (You don’t look like a student at all.)

I sighed in frustration. I knew the road to earn a PhD would be rough, but I certainly did not foresee this! But how could I blame the guard? He was doing his job. After all, how many 50-something students do you meet normally?


A Flying Start

I had always excelled in my studies. By the time I completed my Master’s in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics in 1985, I was sure that I wanted to get a PhD—the highest academic qualification in a field of study. Young, brimming with confidence and assured by the belief and support of my family, I dived right into the challenge. What I didn’t know was just how elusive some goals can be.

I began by joining an MPhil course in Economics right after my postgrad. Within a year, I faced a fork in the road: A job opportunity with the Indian Economic Service came up, and I decided to put my degree on hold. A few years down the line, I got married, and a year after that, I had my first child. My job offered stimulating challenges and my family and children brought me great happiness and contentment. I’ll get back to it soon, I assured myself. 

In 2007, opportunity came knocking again. A government-sponsored advanced professional programme in public administration was on offer, with an option to work towards an MPhil degree in social sciences, and I was quick to grab it. If my dissertation was first-rate, I could take it forward for a PhD. So I began a nine-month training programme and my sabbatical. As it drew to a close, I was thrilled that I’d be one step closer to my dream. Perhaps I celebrated too soon.


Unforeseen Roadblocks

Three months before the end of the course, my batchmates and I went to Shillong for a study tour. One day du-ring an early-morning hike, I suddenly slipped on some loose gravel, twisted my left ankle and fell. The excruciating pain in my foot left no doubt that my ankle was fractured. Everyone jumped in to help—while one colleague flagged down a passer-by who immediately called the local hospital, another made his way to a nearby Indo-Tibetan Border Police post for help. They procured a stretcher and I was taken to the hospital immediately. Luckily, it also happened to be a Wednesday, the only day of the week that the best orthopaedic surgeon in the North East was available at the outpatient department.

Six months later, my shattered ankle started to mend. I was eager to finish my MPhil, so I completed my dissertation during those confined months. Grounded as I was, my colleagues, once again, jumped in to help. The journey was far from over though, and the next steps for PhD—registration, entrance exams, interviews, finding a mentor for my thesis—were all impossible, given that I had just resumed walking with the help of a cane. As far as I had come, it would all have to wait. Again.


Getting Busy

For the next five years, I shifted focus to a new posting at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. My days were filled with work and family. Shreya, my elder daughter, was always mature and independent; just as serious about academics as I was at her age. I felt, in hindsight, that maybe I was not able to give her enough attention and support between my myriad responsibilities. When she moved to London for her Master’s degree in 2010, my younger daughter Shatakshi was in class 10. I was suddenly struck by empty-nest syndrome. Would Shreya settle in the UK? And Shatakshi was only two years away from college. I resolved to take a break from work and spend more time with her.

As a government employee, I could take a two-year leave for higher education. This would allow me to resume my PhD plan and also be present by my daughter. By now, my ankle had also healed completely. So in December 2012, I started my PhD programme, on a topic related to finance, at Delhi University. My professors and fellow students looked predictably surprised when I joined class but soon grew comfortable, friendly and supportive, often seeking my views, given my 25-year experience with the government. By the time I was two years into my course, Shreya returned home to explore PhD options in organizational psychology. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to partner her on the PhD journey, which can feel lonely and confusing. While I navigated her along milestones and processes—which I had encountered already—she helped with new software and presentation skills. In 2018, Shreya and I both received our degrees together—mine after the standard five years, hers in three and a half.


Staying true to your goal is never easy. Like bumper cars, life gets in the way and knocks you off course. But if you are not truly passionate, it gets even harder. And perhaps more than one’s own strength of conviction, is the power that comes from the support of people—your family, teachers and peers—which, I can say with personal experience, is incredible. The simplest words of encouragement—‘Yes, you can do it!’, ‘We believe in you!’, ‘Do what you want to do, we’re with you!’—makes all the difference, especially when you’re on the road less travelled.

By Mala Dutt (as told to Ishani Nandi)


Never Too Late

She started writing books at the age of 80. Where did she find the inspiration?

By Shukla Lal

shukla-lal030519_1_062519061136.jpg“To do anything bold or face a challenge in life, you have to take the first step into the unknown. Each step shows you the way for the next one,” says Shukla Lal. Pictured here in her south-Delhi home


I am still getting used to the attention.

Imagine my disbelief when I was invited as chief guest by Air India for their International Women’s Day celebration in March this year. Their aim was to inspire their female employees aged 50 and above and drive home the point that life need not come to an end once you become a senior citizen. It is possible to make a new beginning at any age.

As I started to address the gathering, with 375 expectant faces looking up at me from the audience, I realized that fate had propelled me here from the humdrum life of a housewife. I was introduced at the function as a poet, novelist and short-story writer, with two published books and a third one in the works. How did I get here?

I had never written poetry or prose before. My children, family and friends had often told me that I had a way with words and that I should start writing. But every time I tried to put pen to paper, I would come up against a block. I had written an article or two that were appreciated and had done some translation work from Hindi to English and vice versa, but nothing beyond that.

That was until my children presented me with an iPad on my 75th birthday. By my 80th, I was a pro on the keypad—and quite addicted to WhatsApp. I was at ease with framing my thoughts cogently and was typing without hesitation. I tend to type with one finger on my iPad, and I work lying down.

My 80th birthday coincided with India’s 70th Independence Day. All the media excitement and discussions around the celebrations triggered within me memories of the post-Partition era and brought alive my growing-up years. I felt a strong urge to hold on to those memories somehow and stop them from slipping away. What better way than to freeze them in writing?

Early one morning in May 2017, I got the inspiration for an Urdu poem, a nazm, in my meditation. I quickly jotted it down on my phone in English as I found that easy to do. After that, there was no stopping me. Now, whenever I sit down to write, the words flow effortlessly.

In my youth, I loved historical romances: Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Daphne du Maurier, Lloyd C. Douglas, Alexandre Dumas, to name a few. I decided to use their genre to bring alive the India I remembered for the next generations, while also engaging those who had lived through those times. Of course, I am not a historian—I delve into my own memories and experiences to evoke the past century and its ethos. Neither am I a scholarly person—I use simple everyday English, as that is what I am most comfortable with.

But I have a simple advice for you all: Respect the great work done by others, no matter which field you are in. To do something yourself, be yourself. Listen to your inner voice. Do not wait for the right time. Take the first step; the path will show the way. When I did that, my 40-year writer’s block vanished. You can never be too old to try something new. Eighty, to me, is the new 50. 

Do You Like This Story?
Other Stories