Ganesha idols, bottles of milk, plastic sheets, charts on planets, needles, matchboxes and a slew of stories are part of the weaponry in Mohana Somasundaram’s battle against superstition. Her battlefield is primarily the villages in Tamil Nadu, where she meets schoolchildren and demonstrates the scientific principles behind seemingly miraculous events.
This 67-year-old retired zoology teacher, who is also a Tamil Nadu Science Forum activist, is at present camping in Palani. Her list of experiments for school students there includes the principle of capillary action which explains the feat of statues drinking water.
“I tell them that when Ganesha drinks water, Gandhi would too. For that matter, any stone would. It becomes very easy to earn their trust when you show them this,” says Ms. Somasundaram, who hails from Solampettai in Mayilathudurai.
The former college teacher mainly addresses students aged between 8 and 12 because she thinks they are the most impressionable. “Once, I asked a crowd of adults in a village, ‘Who created man?’ and they answered ‘God.’ When I ask children the same question, they say ‘parents.’ This shows that children are closer to reality. I don’t tell them their elders are wrong, but just encourage them to question these beliefs,” says Ms. Somasundaram, who is an atheist.
She believes people’s dependence on astrologers only makes her work more difficult. “Many villagers don’t even have toilets in their houses because astrologers tell them not to dig pits,” she says.
Ms. Somasundaram’s students say she is at her best while describing stars and planets and explaining how impossible it is for them to affect human lives. She particularly enjoys debunking the popular myth about cooking during eclipses.
“I cook sakkarai pongal in villages and serve it to the people there. This way, they will remember they ate tasty food on a ‘forbidden day’ and nothing happened to them.”
Among Mohana’s many victories is the one against cancer. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but has now recovered after several sessions of chemotherapy.