Prabavathy Kawai graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India, in 1966. After a brief career as an electronics engineer, Praba studied archeology, immersed herself in her husband’s Japanese culture, and successfully brought up her bicultural children. While her technical career was short, her life is rich with different cultural experiences and a loving family.
Praba was born on March 1, 1942, in Madurai in a family of nine children. Her father James Gnanamuthu Arthur was an auditor at Southern Indian Railways. Her mother Neelorpalam was actively engaged in social services.
Praba attended the Christ King Convent and Primary School, Tambaram, and later Presidency Girls Higher Secondary School, Egmore, Chennai, from where she completed her SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) exam. She completed her Pre-University Course (PUC) at S.I.E.T (now called The Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed College for Women).
Praba joined Queen Mary’s College, Chennai, and completed her undergraduate science degree in Mathematics, with Physics as ancillary. During this time, she took flying lessons and obtained her pilot license for single engine planes.
After completing her B.Sc. in 1961, Praba worked for two years at Voltas, India’s largest air conditioning company, and one of the world’s premier engineering solutions providers and project specialists.
In 1963, CEG introduced a three-year intensive undergraduate program in engineering for those with a bachelor’s degree. Praba had always had an interest in how things worked. Her brother says when she was six years old, she stuck a pin into an electric socket and got a severe shock. Inspired by one of her older brothers, who was an engineer, she decided to pursue studies in engineering. Telecommunication was a developing field, and Praba joined the three-year program at CEG in Electronics and Communication Engineering (CEG).
In the 40th year reunion souvenir book of the 1966 class, Praba fondly remembers how she met fellow classmate M.R. Ranganathan:
“It was the first day of classes. I, Babai, and Indira were kind of lost in the sea of young men. We were a tiny island in the ocean of men who were gawking at us. Out of the blue, like a beacon walks in Rangish and says “I am Ranganathan, 3rd year Civil Engineering student, and if you ladies need any help or information do not hesitate to call on me”. Thus started a lifelong friendship.”
In the same book, Praba also talks about her experience in the smithy workshop:
“It was a new program, the teachers did not have any syllabus and decided to put us in one week of carpentry and one week of smithy. We were thirteen in the class. The lab assistant said to get a partner and work as a team. I looked around. Everyone had a partner. I felt isolated and alone. What next, this does not look like a good start, I thought. The lecturer in charge came up with a brilliant solution. He assigned a lab attendant as my partner. This worked out great. The attendant was a strong, muscular man, he could lift and bang the huge hammers with great ease, and all I had to do was to hold the iron in place and the result was a perfect model!”
Praba graduated from CEG in 1966 with a degree in ECE.
A Short Technical Career, Continuing Education, and Many Interests
Praba’s first job out of college was as an instructor in the Madras Government Women’s Polytechnic (WPT), Taramani, Chennai. This was short lived since her application for graduate studies at Rutgers University in the USA was accepted and she left her job to pursue higher studies.
After studying at Rutgers, Praba worked at the computer hardware company Burroughs Corporation as an Electronics Engineer for three years until 1970, when she got married.
In 1980, Praba became ill with Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. This had a devastating impact on the quality of her life and her technical career due to the nature of flare-ups.
When her husband’s work required them to relocate to Japan from the USA in 1987, her kids were in primary schools and they had to switch over to Japanese medium and Praba also learned the Japanese language. She taught English and translated information technology and data documents from English to Japanese and vice versa. During her stay in Japan until 1990, Praba immersed herself in the Japanese culture. In the spirit of cultural exchange, she taught Indian cooking classes to the eager Japanese. She also took part and won several prizes in cooking competitions including one in which she won the first place with a ticket to go to Hong Kong.
In 1990, the family moved to the UK and stayed there for eight years until 1998. During her stay in the UK, Praba studied Archaeological Science and obtained her BSc at East London University. She subsequently studied Archaeological History and obtained her MA at the University of Leicester. Her master’s thesis was on Prehistorical life in Japan.
In 1998 the family moved to Japan again, this time staying for three years until 2001, when they moved back to the USA. Praba worked at the local community college in the USA for a while.
Praba took an active interest in the Kelsey Archeology Museum at the University of Michigan when her health permitted.
Praba’s father passed away in 1975 and her mother in 1979. Of her five brothers and three sisters, one brother and two sisters are alive today. Her brother Dr. Arthur Retnakaran is a retired Entomologist, Canadian Forestry Services, and lives in Toronto, Canada. Her sister Dr. Neela Pushparaj is a retired Pathologist and now has a second career as a watercolor artist in the New York Metropolitan area. Praba’s other living sister Prem Radhakrishna lives in Michigan, USA.
At Rutgers, Praba met her husband Takayuki (Yuki) Kawai, at a dinner party given by friends. Yuki studied Law at Tokyo University and worked for NSK Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nippon Seiko, a bearings manufacturing company in Tokyo, in accounting, business planning, sales, marketing, and legal affairs. Their marriage took place on April 4, 1970, in the USA. New York Times carried the wedding news in an article called Prabavathy Arthur, Engineer, Is Bride of Takayuki Kawai. Indira and Babai, Praba’s friends and CEG classmates attended the reception held in Chennai, India. Indira recalled an article that Kumudam magazine published called Americaavil thirumanam Adayaril virundhu (Wedding in America, feast in Adyar).
Praba and Yuki have three children, a son, and twin daughters. The son was born in 1972, and the twin daughters in 1976. Their son Tomoyuki (Tomo) graduated from Keio University in Japan and is a Business Producer at Dentsu at their Japanese headquarters. One of their twin daughters Mayako studied Economics and Japanese at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is a Dealer Relationship Manager at MarketAxess. The other daughter Sumako also went to the University of Michigan and is a Vice President and Design Director at Christie’s Auction House in New York City.
Praba and Yuki have traveled extensively enjoying their interest in photography.
In 2006, Praba attended the reunion of the class of CEG 1966, along with Yuki, and they visited many places in India.
Praba’s friend Indira and others have visited her home in the USA several times. Indira recalls a visit in 2004, when Praba and Yuki took her to the Henry Ford Museum, and to pick raspberries in a farmland.
Praba approaches life with curiosity and tenacity. Her technical career was short due to her illness, but this setback didn’t keep her from continuing to learn and lead a life filled with cultural exchanges and explorations. Her life story teaches all of us how to navigate our lives with courage and enthusiasm even when faced with challenges that threaten our fundamental ability to lead a full life.
Praba and her husband Yuki provided me with details of Praba’s life that allowed me to write this article. My sincere thanks to both of them. Praba’s health is frail, and Yuki spends a lot of time caring for her. In spite of this, they supported my request to write about Praba, and I cannot thank them enough. I don’t think the stories of CEG alumnae can be complete without her story.
Praba’s classmate Indira Premkumar was of immense help in getting a lot of interesting stories when they were together at CEG, and also from the lifelong friendship she and Praba have enjoyed all these years. I am indebted to her for the same.
This is story number twenty-five in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.
My goal is to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our world. Women face a lot of critical moments in their lives that make them want to leave the workforce. I am hoping the stories of the CEG women will inspire them to stay in it.
I will be writing more such posts here and will be collecting them into a book for publishing.
If you have information about CEG alumnae from the 1940s to the 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.