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|June 26, 2000|
If you want to live long and prosper, stop thinking about your age. It's only a number and it shouldn't stop you from doing anything.
At least that's what Shyamala Chitaley, 82, believes. And she has practised what she preaches -- at 60, she accepted a job offer and a brand new career as curator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's palaeobotany (study of plant fossils) department, where she studies and identifies hundred year old fossils.
"I am tired of people asking me about my age and how I keep on working. It depends on the person and how much devotion they have to what they are doing. If you love what you do, you won't feel old and tired," Chitaley said.
Besides, Chitaley has faith in destiny.
"It's God's wish. Whatever he directs, whatever he sends to you, you must thank him and use it. If he gives you good health, use it," said Chitaley, who pronounces herself healthy and energetic, but adds that she is on medication for cholesterol, arthritis, thyroid and blood pressure. But she never lets those "minor problems" stop her.
At 58, she retired as head of the botany department at the University of Nagpur. Along with her husband Dinkar, she came to the US to visit their son Aniruddha, a mechanical engineer, now 58, in Cleveland. Her other son Avinash, 65, was in the Indian Navy.
"Whatever I achieved, I did with my husband's support, encouragement and co-operation. He was a very nice man," said Chitaley of Dinkar, who died in January aged 88.
Shyamala Chitaley tried unsuccessfully to find a teaching position and keep herself busy. She worked for Avon and a clothing company. One day, she met a friend who offered her an introduction to the director of the museum. When she went there the next day, she was offered a job.
"I had no resume, no application, no formal request and here the director of a prestigious museum offered me a position of responsibility and honour. I was very happy because I know God sent it for me," said Chitaley, who started working in 1978.
Among the honours Chitaley has received is a citation by Cleveland magazine, stating she was one of the "Most Interesting People" of 1999. In 1996, she received the Jared Kirkland Potter award for her efforts in setting up the palaeobotany department.
She has affiliations to a dozen scientific associations and often travels to conference. Next month, she will be presenting a paper in Beijing.
Most of the plants she studies are more than 200 years old and are preserved in rocks that look pretty much the same to the untrained eye.
But Chitaley is fascinated by her current project on the 360 million-year-old forests of the Late Devonian in Ohio.
When she came to the museum, she inherited 500 fossils. She negotiated with the University of Cincinnati and got them to part with their collection of 30,000 fossils, lying in dusty, rusted cabinets.
Impressed with her dedication to the fossils, the University of Cincinnati donated it to the museum. Today, they are valued at $ 15 million. She also discovered a new fossil that she named Clevelandodendron ohionesis, because she made the discovery around the time of the city's bicentennial and the museum's 75th anniversary.
She also invented a new technique of preserving fragile and sensitive fossils called the "Chitaley technique". Her method uses wax as a preservative because wax does not get oxidized and remains unaffected by chemicals or moisture.
Chitaley was born in Pune, Maharashtra. Her mother died when she was nine years old and she was raised mostly by her father, who also home-schooled her. It was a well-rounded education in English, Marathi, mathematics and the sciences and she learnt her lessons well enough for her to get a first division in her higher secondary examination.
In the 1920s girls married early, and Chitaley followed tradition faithfully, but for the fact that she continued studying. She earned a BSc and then an MSc in botany from the University of Nagpur. She also received an International Federation of University Women scholarship and spent a year there before completing her PhD.
She doesn't believe in giving advice to others, but shares some of the secrets of her longevity. "I do yoga. I eat vegetarian food. I enjoy drinking red wine. I love it. I do not smoke or drink alcohol," said Chitaley, who only wears Western clothes and goes to the Shiva temple every week.
She also believes in a simple philosophy: live in peace, be spiritual and live a quiet life. "I love listening to bhajans, reading romance and mystery novels, and red, yellow and pink roses," said Chitaley who used to have a garden where she grew okra, coriander, hot peppers and tomatoes, but now finds it difficult to tend the plants now.
And she has some final advice for those who wish to know it: "When you pray to God, don't ask for anything, just say thank you for everything, everyday."
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