Amisha Paswan, an otherwise quiet and shy girl, is pretty articulate when she spells out her career plans. “I want to become a doctor and cure poor people,” she says in fluent English. Amisha loves to read fairy tales but her own life is the tale of a girl trying to succeed despite the many disadvantages that comes with being born into extreme poverty.
As we speak to her on a hot afternoon at a government school in Gurgaon, the 10-year-old’s biggest worry is getting back home soon so that she could cook lunch for her two younger siblings. “My mother has been in the hospital for the past three days, so I have to ensure that they eat on time,” says Amisha, whose father works as a driver.
Recently, Amisha’s life took a happy turn. She achieved a distinction that many privileged children and adults aspire for — an IQ score of above 145 in Mensa India’s standardised intelligence test. For the uninitiated, Mensa is the world’s oldest, largest and the most prestigious high IQ society with members in over 100 countries. It has about 1,450 members across India and over 200 members in Delhi.
In the past couple of months, Mensa India, Delhi, administered its internationally recognized IQ test to over 4,000 underprivileged children in Delhi and NCR as part of a unique project aimed at identifying and mentoring poor children with high IQ. Of the 102 extremely bright children it selected, over a dozen, including Amisha, achieved an IQ score of 145-plus, which puts her in the genius category.
The others achieved IQ scores of 130-145, which puts them in the category of ‘very gifted’ children. The average score in Mensa India’s IQ test is between 85 and 115. Interestingly, all of these children are sons and daughters of labourers, rickshaw pullers, security guards, street vendors, etc.
Kishore Asthana, president, Mensa India, estimates that there are about six million poor gifted children in India. “Their genius is likely to remain unrecognised and underutilised in the normal course. This will be a major waste of the nation’s intellectual resources,” says Asthana.
“We have assigned a mentor to all the gifted children we have identified. We will conduct an aptitude test in Class X to determine their strengths and weakness and the kind of vocations they are likely to excel in and do all we can to help them realise their dreams,” said Asthana.
While many of these children, now called Mensa scholars, stand first or second in their class, not all are top performers at school. The IQ test, Asthana says, measures the potential of the child, what he or she can become, rather than their present academic performance or their general knowledge.
“Being intelligent and being clever or worldly-wise are two different things. A middle-class child may be quicker in using an elevator in a mall than an underprivileged child. It does not mean that he or she is more intelligent. It is just a question of opportunity and exposure. In our test, the children have to score independently of their environment and upbringing,” says Asthana.
A lot of these children, Asthana says, are not aware that they have extremely high IQ and may not perform very well in academics because of their family circumstances. “Nobody ever told them that they are very intelligent. We intend to keep telling such children that they possess a unique gift that can help overcome the many disadvantages they are born with,” says Asthana.
But the difficulties these children face are daunting. Take for example Varsha Kumari, 13, whose IQ score is above 145, which like Amisha, puts her in the category of a genius. Varsha, who like most of these children goes to a government school, often stands first in her class and wants to become a scientist.
Recently, her dream was almost shattered. She decided to give up her studies after her mother, a daily labourer, sustained injuries at a construction site. Her father had quit his job. So out of sheer desperation, the 13-year-old decided to work as a baby sitter. “We were going hungry, there was no money to ensure two meals a day. I thought I should work and help my family,” says Varsha, her eyes welling up.
Thankfully, the mentor assigned to her as part of Mensa’s Dhruva programme informed Mensa India Delhi. “We helped her mother find a job and she changed her mind,” says Asthana, who maintains a comprehensive file on every selected child. “We gave her an ex-gratia payment so that she could help her family tide over the hard times and counselled her father to rejoin work.”
During the Mensa tests, Asthana encountered some touching moments. “One child, while filling his form, asked, ‘what address should I write, sir. I live on the street’. “We had to often ask some children to move to the front as their eyesight was too weak to see the board from the back and no one had tested them for glasses,” says Asthana. “We will arrange eye test for all children now. We are arranging group health insurance for these scholars who are eligible to join Mensa as members.”
While these selected children come from various caste and communities, poverty is their common identity. What they also share is their determination to change the course of their destiny. “I want to become a scientist,” says a shy Divakar Shukla, who always tops the class in mathematics and loves reading what he calls ‘scary stories’.
“But I am not scared of disadvantages I am facing, I shall invent a solution for them,” say Shukla, his eyes brimming with confidence.