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From Calcutta to Barrows Hall
Drawn to the academic life, sisters Isha and Raka Ray traveled halfway 'round the world to end up working under one roof at Berkeley

| 25 January 2007

Isha Ray and Raka Ray think it a bizarre coincidence that they both teach at Berkeley. Other people have suspected that the two sisters from Calcutta arrived here as part of well-orchestrated plan. Not true. "It was a total accident," explains Isha, as her sister breaks into laughter. "It definitely wasn't designed."

Raka and Isha Ray
While Raka Ray (left) and her sister Isha Ray labor in different disciplines, they share an interest in and frequently work on issues of social inequality and social justice. (Wendy Edelstein photo)

"Of course I wanted to come to Berkeley - anyone would want to teach here - but there was also the fact that I would be near family again," says Raka, an associate professor in sociology and South and Southeast Asian Studies, the Sarah Kailath Chair in India Studies, and the current chair of the Center for South Asia Studies.

"We were praying 'please, make it happen,' and she got the job in the face of some really stiff competition," says Isha, who was already living in Berkeley in 1993 when her sister was hired here. Nine years later, Isha joined the Energy and Resources Group.

The story of how two sisters from India both came to teach at Berkeley began much earlier, when Raka, the junior of the pair (by two years) left India to attend Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After completing her master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she moved to Berkeley when offered the sociology position.

It was here that Raka met her husband, Ashok Bardhan, a researcher in the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics in the Haas School of Business. By remarkable coincidence, Isha's husband, Jitendra Malik, is also on the campus payroll; he is a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. The couple lives just five minutes from Raka and her husband, who enjoy spoiling their nephew, Isha's 20-month-old son.

The route to Berkeley was also circuitous for the older Ray sister. Isha studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford, then worked for years in non-governmental organizations before earning a Ph.D. in applied economics from the Food Research Institute at Stanford. She has worked at Berkeley as an assistant professor in the Energy and Resources Group since 2002.

Women or water?

While the Ray sisters work just one floor apart in Barrows Hall, they try to maintain a little separation, drawing the line at serving on the same dissertation committee, says Raka, whose interests include gender, social movements, and inequality.

Isha, who concentrates on water and sustainable development in rural areas, explains that each Ph.D. dissertation committee includes a faculty member who resides outside the candidate's department. "If a student wants to do a dissertation on women's access to irrigation water in Sri Lanka, it would be very normal for them to speak to Raka as well as me," she says.

"We try not to do too much together professionally," Isha adds. "We're sisters. We're very close, but we're not the same people."

While the Rays are clear on this fact, not everyone else is. They regularly encounter confusion among students who want to work with the other "Professor Ray," as well as copy-shop employees who deliver class readers to the wrong floor.

Isha says that when she started receiving calls that began, "Professor Ray, I'm very interested in domestic violence," she was initially disconcerted. "It's a very important topic, but -"

"Why are you talking to me?" interjects Raka, pretending to be her sister fielding the call.

Realizing the source of confusion, Isha hit upon a solution: When someone calls for Professor Ray, she first asks, "Are you interested in women or water?"

Family affair

Growing up in Calcutta, the Ray sisters were very close, but never competitive, reports Raka. "I sort of adored her," she says of her older sister.

While Calcutta's poverty is well-known, the Rays were upper-middle-class. Their mother, now a retired historian, taught at the University of Calcutta for many years, and then became that institution's provost. For many generations the women in the family have worked in academia, says Isha, viewing education as a path to upward mobility. Aunts and female cousins have completed Ph.D.s or are working on them, or have found berths in research. Their father, 84, retired from a successful corporate career, in which he was widely respected, reports his elder daughter.

We were "very privileged by any standard - not just that of Calcutta," notes Isha. Along with their younger brother, the sisters attended the best schools, including a Catholic high school run by Irish nuns where social justice was emphasized and students were urged not to take their privilege for granted. That lesson stuck with the young women, both of whom have focused on less fortunate people and countries in their work.

"I didn't think for a second when I was growing up that I would be an academic," says Raka, who, according to her sister, was "a bloody troublemaker from the start. She was constantly getting thrown out of class and punished for not doing her homework. When I look back, I strongly resent that she is now a tenured professor," teases Isha.

In contrast, "nobody would have been surprised" had Isha become an academic right out of college, Raka answers.

Via two different trajectories, the sisters ended up here at Berkeley.

"How did it happen?" Raka asks. "When we actually think about it, it's amazing."