“Look at us now”: Local toppers show a path out of poverty

A Mariyam Alavi
Burhaan Kinu

As the students at Sangam Vihar's Government Boys Senior Secondary School begin studying for board exams in March, many wonder with trepidation and some despondency what will become of them after school.

Kshetrapal Singh, 17, wonders whether "the whole schooling thing" will be of any use at all. His own teacher, RS Yadav, once referred to Sangam Vihar as "Sankat" Vihar — a place plagued with problems.

Interviews with last year's toppers, however, showed that students in the pahadi school, as the Government Boys school is known locally, would be wrong to feel hopeless. Now students at Delhi University (DU) and other prestigious schools of higher education, the former toppers are looking forward to successful careers after they graduate.

Raju Sarkar, 19, a pahadi school topper in humanities currently studying at Jamia Millia Islamia, attributes his success largely to self-motivation while he was in school. Now an aspiring actor, Raju found his academic calling in a surprising place.

"I have always liked the show Roadies," he said, referring to the programme on MTV. "So I went on the internet and researched what previous years' winners had done. I saw that Ayushmann Khurrana, the winner from season two who went on to become an actor later, had a degree in mass media. So that is how I decided I would do mass media as well."

According to Jamia's list of past alumni, Raju may have a bright future ahead of him. Graduates have gone on to jobs at Nav Bharat Times, Aaj Tak, and even Al Jazeera in Doha. One, Govind Pandey, is an actor who's done supporting roles in Hindi movies like Lootera and Do Dooni Char. This is a film career worthy of Raju's dreams.

After working hard in school, including setting meticulous time tables for themselves and studying regularly, other pahadi school toppers from last year are also heading for success.

Durgesh Nandani, 19, the humanities topper from the girls' section, is pursuing a Bachelor of Elementary Education at the Lady Shri Ram College. Though many graduates from LSR pursue higher studies or get jobs in above-average Delhi schools, Durgesh hopes to fulfil her father's wish that she teach at the Sangam Vihar school.

Komal Tamta, 18, who scored 86% to top the commerce stream at her school, is studying at District Institute of Education and Training in Ghumenhera and is all set to become a teacher too.

Vikash, 18, the commerce topper from the boys' section with 85.4%, is currently a Commerce honours student at Delhi University's Dyal Singh College. One of the science toppers, Devender Kumar Soni, 17, is doing a Bachelor of Science in electronics at another DU college, Acharya Narendra Dev College. Vikash hopes to do Company Secretary course after his BCom, and Devender plans to pursue robotics in the future.

"People used to say that if you studied at Sangam Vihar, you would not get into a good college," said Soni. "So yes, we were worried. But look at us now."

Toppers inspire

Lakhan Singh, vice principal of the pahadi school, estimated that roughly 75% of his students go on to pursue a college degree. However, according to four of last year's toppers, many class 12 students at the pahadi think that a correspondence course at Delhi University's School of Open Learning is the best option they have, either because they don't know the alternatives or because they feel it's the only way to do a part-time job while also studying for a degree.

Raju and Kshetrapal were classmates from class 7 through class 9, when Kshetrapal got held back. It was startling and instructive for Kshetrapal to see Raju's name on the display board with the other toppers at his school.

"The fact that Raju was my friend, in my class, and went on to top humanities in our school and I think he even scored a 95 in English in his board exams — that is inspiring," said Kshetrapal, who also studies humanities. "It also gives me hope, since he was not an extraordinary student when we were in class together. He just worked really hard in his 11th and 12th grade to do well."

Next stop, Roadies

Raju does not come from a privileged background — his father earns Rs 10 to Rs 15 thousand a month as a carpenter, and his mother is not working — but support from his family was still crucial to his ability to work toward realizing his dreams. Raju has not succeeded all on his own.

His parents never pressured him to study medicine or engineering, for example, and they have embraced his desire to be an actor. Raju is now actively participating in his college's theatre clubs and hoping to go to the National Drama School after obtaining his undergraduate degree.

"It is a matter of pride for us that our son is so motivated and focused, and wants to accomplish something," said Jawaharlal Sarkar, Raju's father. Jawaharlal is so supportive that he's even suggested his son audition for the show that started it all: Roadies.