They rose above their grim financial circumstances, overcame all sorts of odds and defied stereotypes to top exams, get into IIMs and even pursue a PhD at 15! Here are their incredible stories: of unrelenting struggle and hard work. Are you ready to be inspired?
Shiva Kumar Nagendra
'For years I slept at midnight and woke up at 4am'
Shiva Kumar Nagendra spots a man waiting outside the beautiful, white house. The sky is a brilliant shade of purple and a lone star dots the velvety morning sky.
“Should I or should I not?” There's a battle going on between his heart and his mind.
“But you HAVE to do it!”
His heart wins. And off walks 12-year-old Shiva towards the man in the white night suit, towards the moment that is going to change his life forever.
Shiva Kumar Nagendra’s parents had migrated to Bengaluru 25 years ago from Mysore. But his father, a truck driver, met with an accident that left him bed-ridden for almost three years. The family started facing financial problems. His mother took to making garlands so Shiva and his sister could sell them. But it wasn’t enough. “I started delivering newspapers. It was a morning job, so I could continue my studies,” says Shiva.
However, with time, expenses went up further. “I could’ve worked at a restaurant or as a mechanic. But I didn’t give in.”
One morning, he spotted a gentleman waiting for his newspaper. “I handed him his paper and asked if I could wash his car in the evening for some more money.” He agreed. So that evening, after washing his car, Shiva mustered up the courage to ask, “Sir, I need Rs 15,000 to pay my school fees.” The man was taken aback. Shiva suggested the man visit his school, and deposit the money directly if he found any truth in Shiva’s case.
The next day, Krishna Veda Vysa visited Shiva’s school and discovered that he had always been a class topper. Convinced, he told Shiva, ‘I’ll take care of all your education expenses. Just focus on your studies and don’t quit!’
So Shiva carried on his daily grind along with his studies. But he was ambitious even at that age. He started a newspaper distribution agency, appeared for his class 10 exams and topped. He went on to get a seat at the Bangalore Institute of Technology (BIT) and was soon offered a job by Wipro.
“Vyas uncle, an entrepreneur, thought that taking up the job would get me a fixed salary, but it wouldn’t change my life.” He insisted Shiva pursue higher studies.
Shiva was in a fix. He didn’t know how to break the news to his parents. “When I told them that I planned to decline the offer, they pleaded with me to work at least for a few years.” Shiva tried to explain to them, how an IIM/IAS student has far better career prospects. Eventually, his parents relented.
Shiva decided to take the Common Admission Test (CAT). Mr Vyasa got Shiva admitted to a tutorial centre. At this point, Shiva was balancing his engineering classes, his MBA preparation, and his fast-expanding newspaper agency.
The day the CAT results were due, Shiva was a nervous wreck. Though he had the Wipro job in hand, he wanted to walk through the gates of an IIM. And then, IIM Calcutta happened!
Initially he felt out of place. “It was competitive and difficult to match the students — many from the best colleges of the country.” His background, however, had never been a matter of shame to Shiva. People at IIM respected where he came from and all that he had done to get where he had reached. He attributes his achievements not only to intelligence, but also hard work. “For years, I woke up at 4am and slept at midnight. I wasn't born with a silver spoon. I’ve worked hard for what I wanted.”
Shiva graduated from IIM this year and is working with a Bengaluru-based startup. Life, he says, will always try to knock you down. “It depends on how strong you are to get up and fight back.”
'I didn't want anyone's pity'
"Forgive me, my English is very poor,” says 17-year-old Shalini Arnugam. But for someone who has gone from a Tamil-medium to a Kannada-medium school, and is in an English-medium engineering college – Bengaluru-based Shalini has caught up pretty well.
She was the school topper in class 10 and scored 84.8 per cent in class 12. But while students took breaks from their exam routine, Shalini shuttled between houses, doing household chores to keep her family afloat.
Shalini’s father, who used to paint hoardings, has been bed-ridden for over a decade after he fell off a building. Her mother began working as a domestic help. But they were hit by another tragedy: Shalini’s brother was diagnosed with blood cancer earlier this year, just before her class 12 exams.
Immediately after the exams ended, Shalini took over her mother’s part-time jobs, while her mother stayed with her brother at the hospital.
Shalini wakes up at 4:30am – finishes chores at home, draws rangolis at five different houses, scrubs floors, washes utensils and clothes – her day passes by in a haze, with college classes in between. She studies late into the night, sitting at the entrance of her house and reading in the orange of the streetlamps. “Tuitions cost no less than Rs 60,000 a year. We don’t have that kind of money. But there's no point brooding over that.”
Despite the setbacks, Shalini never thought of giving up her studies. “Everyone around me was from ICSE, CBSE schools. They would talk in perfect English. I was from a Tamil-medium government school. But gradually I realised, now that I have joined college, I have to study.”
Shalini’s mother never asked her to give up studying despite their financial problems. “Maybe because I was juggling work and my studies. But she's been a huge moral support,” says Shalini.
Eventually Shalini made friends in college. But she didn’t let anyone know about her struggles: “I didn’t want their pity.”
Shalini did well in the Common Entrance Test (for admissions in medical, dental and engineering courses) and got herself a seat in REVA University, Bangalore, where she's studying BTech.
But right now she has another pressing matter to think about. “My brother is at the end of his third course of chemotherapy. They'll soon start with the fourth. Let’s see how we manage in the times to come.”
She still hopes to do a Masters abroad, though she’s also considering the civil services. “I’ve made it this far with others’ help, so I too want to help those who’ve been struggling in life.”
'I want to work and relieve my family of their financial burden'
Bernita Mondal can hear her parents snore in the next room. A single bead of sweat trickles down her temple and lands on her book. It's 2.30am. She's been sitting in the kitchen without a fan for two hours. Just then the bulb in the kitchen goes out. “Not again!" Bernita sighs. She lights a candle and goes back to her book. "Where was I? Yes, the workings of the motor.”
Bernita prefers studying at night even if it means having to sit in the sweltering heat in the kitchen (which adjoins the only room in the house). “I fan myself while studying. And try and not think about anything. Doing well in the exams is my top priority,” says the 18-year-old student.
Bernita's father is an auto-rickshaw driver and her mother a homemaker. They moved out of a small town in West Bengal to settle in Bengaluru when she was a little girl. “Both my parents are illiterate. Perhaps that's why they've always encouraged me to study,” says Bernita.
Her maternal grandparents never had the wherewithal to pay for her mother's education. “My mother doesn't want me to suffer the same fate. I think she is living her dreams through me.”
Her father's income was just enough to see the family through till Bernita's high school. He used to do odd jobs at a restaurant - cooking, cleaning dishes, scrubbing floors till he rented an auto. “To make more money, he would help carry people's luggage on the railway platform,” says Bernita's mother in broken Hindi. But as Bernita entered high school, her fees and the cost of books also increased. “It was getting very difficult to manage the cost of education along with the household expenses,” she says.
That's when one of the nuns from her Christian school suggested they approach an NGO called Vidya that funds children from underprivileged backgrounds. “Someone from the NGO met my parents and after they were convinced, Vidya agreed to pay half of my fee. They have been funding me since then,” says Bernita.
Her hard work has paid off – Bernita scored 95 per cent in her class 12 exams.
Bernita is in her first year of BTech. Her immediate aim is to get the gold medal that is given to rank-holders in her college every semester. After her engineering course, Bernita hopes to go abroad for an MTech. “A scholarship would be great. But if I don't get one, I hope to get a job and relieve my father of the family's financial burden.”
Bernita prepares in advance for her lessons next day. “I might not have money to take tuitions but what I have is the ability to work hard,” she says.
'My father was a rickshaw-puller'
"Why would you want to feature me in your magazine?” asks Yogendra Singh incredulously. The 28-year-old IIM Lucknow student has a dilemma: should he continue with his studies or resume working?
“Your story is about people who have succeeded in life, isn't it? But if I quit IIM and go back to my village, that would make me a failure, right? Koi successful person ka story chaapiyega to woh theek rahega,” says the young man from a village near Daltonganj in Jharkhand.
But Yogendra is already a success.
He remembers the time he went off with his neighbour to get admitted to the nearest government school in his village. He studied there till class 8 and then moved to a school in a town eight kilometres away. “My father was a rickshaw-puller and my mother a homemaker. But they never had to pay for my education.” The pride in his voice is unmissable.
Being the eldest of seven siblings – four sisters, and three brothers – Yogendra's struggles started early. He would graze cattle and soon after his class 10 Board exams, he started giving tuition to younger students. “I began making enough money to take care of the household expenses.”
That was when he met his future wife. She was one of his students before his prospective father-in-law, a primary school teacher, decided to make him the offer that would change his life forever.
Yogendra was juggling his life as a student and a teacher. But someone suggested that he should take the Polytechnic Diploma exam. He did and was selected too. “Suddenly I was famous in my gaon. That's when my to-be father-in-law proposed to fund my education on the condition that I marry his daughter,” he says. He did.
Yogendra discontinued his coaching classes, but worked for a few years while finishing BTech from BIT Sindri in Dhanbad, to be able to support his family. While his job took care of the household expenses, he took coaching for a few months to crack the CAT exam. “My happiness knew no bounds when I got a call from IIM Lucknow,” remembers Yogendra.
Walking through the gates of one of India's most reputed and toughest B-Schools is a dream come true for any student. But accepting the offer from IIM Lucknow has given Yogendra sleepless nights. He can't stop wondering if he made the right choice. “There is no one to support my family right now. I spent all my savings on my sisters' weddings. My younger brothers are in school. I am contemplating quitting and going back to my village,” says Yogendra.
'I didn't even know what the Boards meant'Sushma Verma has always been filled with a deep sense of wonder at how life exists beyond what the naked eye recognises. This prompted her to take up microbiology for her post-graduation from the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University (BBAU) in Lucknow.
Her scorecard shows a first rank in her first, second and fourth semesters. She has now enrolled in a PhD course. And Sushma is all of 15 years!
When she was just two-and-a-half years old, Sushma recited Ramayana 'chaupayis' at a local function. She considers that the first proud moment of her life.
Born in the outskirts of Lucknow, Sushma's father was a daily-wage labourer, and mother, a homemaker. "Our home comprised of a single room with a leaking ceiling. The main thought in my mind then was that all I have are my brother's books. So I have to study with his support." She was not even three years old then!
When she was five years old, looking at her prodigious memory and skills, Sushma's family suggested she take the Board exam. Finally, she enrolled at St Meera's Inter College in Lucknow, in class 9. "When we submitted my application form, the principal thought there had been some mistake, that my application was for nursery," laughs Sushma. She had to take a test which covered the entire syllabus from class 1 to 8 to check if she was eligible for class 9. She was.
The first few days in school left her tired. It was a task explaining to her classmates that she had not entered the class by mistake or that she didn't study 20 hours a day.
In June 2007, Sushma created history. Limca Book of Records recognised her as the youngest student, aged 7 years, 3 months and 28 days, to pass the class 10 Board exam in the country. "At the time, I didn't even understand the significance of Board exams. This was only the second time in my entire life that I was taking an exam!"
She was also the subject of a documentary film by a Japanese television channel. "It was a matter of great pride. We thought, why would they want to film us of all the people in the city," she says.
Sushma went on to graduate in Botany from Lucknow University at the age of 13, and finished her MSc at 15. However, she doesn't think of this as a feat. "Most people think that only after the child turns 5-6 should s/he be taught to read and write. But it's important to pay attention to what he or she learns even before that."
What makes her achievements special is that her father was appointed as a sanitation assistant at the same university she graduated from. Besides, just by being around the Verma siblings while they study, her mother today can read basic Hindi and English.
What does the future hold for Sushma? "It's impossible to know ki hum life mein kya banenge. Maybe my life will take a new turn."
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From HT Brunch, September 13
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