Madhu Panchmia Sengupta, ’68 ChE, SN Hall (1946 – 2022)
Madhu’s passing is the end of an era. She, with her direct and practical nature, would never describe it that way. But she was a trailblazer, the first woman chemical engineering student at IIT Kharagpur, and was a part of the 13th batch of entering students in an institution which is now getting ready to celebrate its 75th anniversary. It was an era of aspiration, of national heroes, an era that inspired young students.
Madhu grew up in Kolkata as the youngest of three sisters in a family of six children, part of an orthodox Jain family. It was her own initiative to apply in an IIT, the most unusual career prospect considered during that period of time with almost all-male student body.
Her classmate, Prasad Menon (Bouncy) recalls Madhu as the only girl in a class of 55 boisterous boys.“She could have been overwhelmed. But with a flick of her pigtails, and her mischievous smile, she managed anything we would throw at her. With her smiles and friendliness, she dissolved all the barriers and totally disarmed us. Says a lot for her because she really conducted herself with great dignity”.
Nawzer Parakh, another chemical engineering classmate, recalls a shy young woman who was his lab partner for five years as he describes her, “Madhu was reserved. She was very smart and had a good conduct of self-confidence – needed to be in a class of male students. She was always dressed up in skirt and blouse during her freshmen years, petite and spry. I was surprised to see her again fifty years later, when I met her in Goa at a reunion of class members. She was just the same, my old lab partner. Little did I expect that I would speak at her memorial”.
Siddhartha Roy (Monda) says, “I have so many happy memories of Madhu. A petite wisp of a girl with such a charming personality, surrounded by tall male classmates. She held her own with elan in the class. After every vacation we looked forward to seeing Madhu again, with her sparkling smile. Dear Madhu was the mascot of chemical engineering in 1968, and a pioneering trail blazer”.
Madhu was a serious and disciplined student but also an enthusiastic participant in sports. Her hall mate, Parvati, remembers spending hundreds of hours in the common room with Madhu, playing table tennis. Her classmate, Anil Dewan, describes a mixed doubles TT tournament in which he, partnered with Parvati and reached the finals against Madhu and her partner. “Madhu played brilliantly and the pair won the trophy.” Bina Diwan recalls teaching Madhu to roller skate in the hall veranda.
“Madhu was a trained dancer and performed bhangra and kathak with pleasure in IIT events,” said Nandini while sharing her experiences about playing tennis and going for swimming classes with Madhu. She joined the other girls in adda sessions but always made sure she completed her homework assignments.
Reminiscing the old days, Usha Bhorchi Chopra says, “Madhu was not only sweet, simple, affectionate, playful, but also bold, frank and disciplined. She always had a twinkle in her eyes. She was a very good companion in swimming, cycling, evening walks, and in climbing up trees (smiles). Madhu never forgot her roots and beliefs. I still remember Madhu’s dinner at IIT, a big glass of milk and thats it, her Jain customary of not eating solids after sunset.”
Madhu was mischievous and did not hesitate to participate in pranks. She and other girls used bicycles to reach classes and workshop at the other end of the academic campus. Regularly, they found their bike tires flat when they were ready to return. With Ratula as ring leader, they planned an escapade to return the favor. The boys usually attended the weekly late show at Netaji Auditorium. While they were inside, the pranksters sneaked out where the parked bicycles were and leaked the air out from the bike tyres, from as many tires as they could. Inevitably, they were caught by one of the security staff and were warned with dire outcomes. They quickly asserted that, since he did not know any of them, they could not be charged. The man said grimly that he recognized Prof. B. R. Sen’s daughter (Ratula) and also “the little girl” (Madhu)! Fortunately, the Registrar, who also suffered a flat tyre at that show, was lenient and there were no repercussions.
Madhu’s blunt comments hid a very kind person. Classmate Zaheer Shah (Jimmy) was “trounced”, as he recalls the VP elections for 1967-68. That evening, a pack of chocolate arrived for him with a note, “ To the man we voted for, ” from Madhu. Gyanesh Mathur, a fellow graduate student in Windsor, Canada, recounted her quiet kindness. When both he and his wife had their second child, Madhu took their older child home with her for three days, giving them space and peace of mind.
She was very popular, both in SN Hall and among her classmates. She was never lackadaisical in invitations from the boys for outings during Hall Days, or from SNites for athletic or casual activities. While she was careful not to create any gossip about herself, she did have a special friend, Mahesh Seth (Guggi), with whom she attended many events.
She completed her Masters at the University of Windsor in 1970. In 1971, she married fellow IITian Prabir Sengupta who had also studied in Windsor. They moved to sunny Southern California soon after. Their daughter, Geetika, was born in 1981, and Madhu reoriented her career to be a homemaker to raise her daughter.
Geetika lovingly recounted those Claremont years. Madhu’s time at IIT defined the rest of her life, though she did not talk about those times or confess to all the rules she broke while at IIT! As a mother, she was tough, funny, intelligent, loyal and generous. As a career woman, she took on many challenges and was a maverick in many ways, but she refused to worry about things she could not control. She was the first Indian woman in Chemical Engineering Companies of Los Angeles. To raise her daughter at home, she switched careers and became a leading real estate broker. But she was a homemaker and mother first.
Geetika recalls protesting that she was now middle-aged and grey-haired lady, but Madhu would say, “ I am your mother and you will always be my baby.”
Madhu lost her husband Prabir in 2013, after a prolonged illness. Her local SN Hall friends rallied around, meeting her online and face-to-face. One of them outdid secondshaadi.com and quietly reintroduced Guggi to Madhu. Geetika recalls smilingly that her mother began mentioning a mysterious “friend from New York”. Madhu and Guggi married in 2016 and, as Geetika says, he gave her a whole new adventure of a love chapter in her life. At a 50th reunion of IIT in Goa, many classmates saw her for the first time since the KGP days.
Bouncy shared, “When we met after 50 years, nothing had changed. She was the same smiling charming person. It was wonderful to see how happy she and Guggi were.”
Madhu and Guggi had six very happy, loving years together, traveling extensively, and visiting family around the world. She remained mischievous. As Guggi says, friends remarked that they were like teenagers together, with their clearly visible happiness, and her unhesitating displays of affection.
The end came very suddenly with a diagnosis of advanced metastatic cancer during a routine clinical visit. She fought the disease fiercely for four weeks but took the end calmly.
Sumedha, an SN Hall friend, puts it poignantly, “ She lost her last battle with a deadly foe, but she is a winner in our hearts forever.”
In remembrance of the “Trailblazer of IIT KGP”, her Alma Mater mourns in sadness after hearing the news of her demise. Our sincere condolences to her bereaved family. May almighty give enough strength to her family to bear this irreplaceable loss. We pray for eternal peace of her departed soul. She will always be remembered in our thoughts, prayers and action.
Written by : Parvati Dev, Alumnus, IIT Kharagpur
Edited by : Poulami Mondal, Digital & Creative Media Executive (Creative Writer)
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