In December 2004, Delhi resident Bharathi Prasad set off with 15 men and women to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, bearing an assortment of antennas, plugs, wires, transformers and other equipment to set up portable amateur radio stations.
For 25 days, while most of the others in her group roamed the islands or later returned home, Prasad sat in her hotel room with her headphones and console, working up to 18 hours each day. The entire group made 35,500 contacts across the world during that period.
Then on December 26, an earthquake in Indonesia triggered a tsunami.
"I could see the sea from my window on the seventh floor," Prasad recalled. “After the waves went, I immediately turned my antenna to the mainland and began relief activities. When I turned on the radio, everyone was looking for me because they thought I had gone."
Prasad and the few hams, or amateur radio operators, who had stayed back with her offered their services to Indian officials there. She remained there for more than a month after the disaster, leaving her husband to care for her young children in Delhi.
Amateur radio operators, known colloquially as hams, are hobbyists who use radio waves to communicate wirelessly through Morse code, voice or even images with people around the world. Even as modern forms of communication such as mobile phones and the internet have edged out the radio, the tightly-knit global community of ham operators continues to thrive.
For the most part, hams enjoy contacting strangers via their radio sets. As with other hobbyists, they like to keep score by the contacts they make – the rarer or more elusive the contact, the better. And when disasters wipe out other communication methods, as the tsunami did in 2004, hams volunteer their services for relief operations.
India, too, has an enthusiastic community of hams. The government tightly controls licences for operating amateur radios, issuing them only after aspiring hams have passed a lengthy examination. The community remains male-dominated, but with the rise of women entering engineering colleges, a small but growing subset of operators are YLs or XYLs – ham codes for female operators, depending on their marital status.
The term YL, or young lady, meaning an unmarried woman of any age, was coined in 1920 as a concession to the growing number of female hams. In time, when women married, they became known as XYLs, or ex-young ladies. After women operators in 1940 took umbrage to the second term, it became convention to call any licensed female ham, regardless of marital status, YL. Unlicensed wives of operators are XYLs. Men, regardless of marital status, are OM or old man.
Prasad is something of a trailblazer in the world of hams in India, with more awards and felicitations than she can list.
She became a ham in 1980, when there were perhaps only 50 YLs in India. She was a science student, but not familiar with electronics. Nor did she know English at the time, having studied in her first language, Telugu, until then. When she expressed interest in joining up, she faced stiff opposition from her community.
"Because my family are Brahmins, the Brahmins said, ‘No, no, you should not talk to gents. When you go on the radio, you will talk to gents only, no ladies'," said Prasad. “But my brother-in-law supported me and said that if I become a ham, as a YL, I would be very popular. So I said okay."
Prasad worked overtime to pick up the skills she needed. Today, she is among the most prominent hams in the country. Her call sign, or unique identifier with which she introduces herself while operating her radio, is VU2RBI.
“I have not checked recently, but I think I am the No 1 ham in India,” Prasad said. “All the top DXs [people who make radio contact with hams in distant locations] in the world know me.”
For Prasad, being a ham opened entire worlds to her. A key part of being a serious ham is going on DXpeditions, the term for trips to locations most operators might find difficult to access. Hams also like to keep score of the number of locations they have made contact with around the world.
Prasad became the first Indian YL to go on a DXpedition in 1983, with a trip to Lakshadweep, a feat remarkable also for the bureaucratic hurdles it involved getting through. She had to travel to Delhi to take the permission of the home and defence ministers to operate amateur radios on the island. She received a clearance to be there for 15 days, and made contacts with around 25,000 people across the world. She was only 22 years old then.Prasad returned to Lakshadweep in 2007, as part of a DXpedition group. The leader of that group, M Bhanumathi [who has the call sign VU2BL], was among the first licensed female amateur radio operators in India and the first in Hyderabad. Her first visit to Lakshadweep was in 1989.
Bhanumathi was working to produce communication equipment at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in 1973 when she heard of ham radios. S Suri, an HAL colleague who would later found the National Institute of Amateur Radio and was already working hard to popularise the medium, had just started an amateur radio club in the state-owned aircraft manufacturer’s office in Hyderabad. She decided to sign up and received her licence that year.
“At that time, particularly in India, there weren't many YLs,” recalled Bhanumathi, now 70. “One or two other ladies joined the club with me, but they did not renew their licences or come with us for expeditions.”
Bhanumathi's first memorable trip was a week-long visit to Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh for relief work after it was hit by the Diviseema cyclone in 1977.
"That was when I felt I was really helping mankind," she said. "With government authorisation, we travelled by train or bus and stayed as long as we were needed."
Bhanumathi did not particularly feel the absence of other female operators, partly because the male-dominated ham community, unlike other technological spaces, despite its archaic jargon, is not aggressive towards women.
“With ham radios, there is no worry about stalking because everyone has a call sign,” explained G Nirmala [call sign VU2MYN], a ham based in Bengaluru and the daughter of Suri.
There is an online directory of call signs that can be used to check the location and identity of the person being spoken with.
“You know who the other person is," Nirmala said. "So, unlike online, you have some safety. And because everyone has a licence, they know the rules and what to say."
It is not always easy to maintain ham radio as a hobby. The same problems that lead to women dropping out of science apply to ham operators.
Nirmala said she had stopped operating regularly, especially after moving eight years ago to the lower floor of a high-rise where it was difficult for her to set up an antenna.
“Ladies have lower access to equipment than men,” she said. “There are people who make time for ham, but otherwise, they tend to be more committed to the family.”
Nirmala stays in touch with the community using a mobile app that can link to radio waves.
For working women, there are other difficulties, according to Bhanumathi.
“It was easy for Bharathi to keep in touch because she was a housewife,” said Bhanumathi, who works at the National Institute of Amateur Radio after retiring from HAL. “For me, I could only do it by taking leave for expeditions, or staying up at night to contact American or German hams.”
That said, far more women apply for licences via the National Institute of Amateur Radio now than earlier, she said. The gender ratio is evenly split.
“I tell younger people to get licences because it looks good on their biodata for college applications, and so they do it," Bhanumathi added. "But they have other interests these days, so they don't often stay connected for a long time.”